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Kung Fu: It's no laughing matter

  • Story Highlights
  • Kung fu has never regained its 1970s popularity in the West
  • The genre has been mocked in movies like "Austin Powers," "Starsky and Hutch"
  • But fans know the genre is alive and flourishing in Asia
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By Pete Sorel-Cameron
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Western cinema's relationship with martial arts has been a rocky one. Like many genres, kung fu has drifted in and out of fashion, but it has never regained the same popularity as its glorious heyday in the early 1970s.

There's nothing funny about either Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris. And they've got the fists to prove it.

After breaking into the United States and Britain with TV hardmen like The Saint and The Green Hornet duffing up the occasional bad guy, the revolution really kicked in at the cinema.

When Bruce Lee -- who had already made waves in America as the Green Hornet's karate chopping sidekick, Kato -- appeared in the Chinese-made "Jing wu men," or "Fist of Fury," he established himself as the genre's poster boy.

Lee found initial success in his native China, but with his next movies, "Meng long guo jiang" ("The Way of the Dragon"), which pitted him against U.S. karate champion Chuck Norris, and the classic "Enter the Dragon," he became an international star.

The plots of his films all followed a set structure: our gifted hero pursues a path of revenge or tough justice, accompanied by a stiff dose of morality. In this way his characters became representatives and protectors of the less powerful who have been unjustly treated.

At the same time, the U.S. TV show "Kung Fu," which started in 1972, raised the profile of martial arts, and, through the lead character Caine, built an image of the patient, wise man, who uses his skills in combat as a last resort when reasoning fails, and again, is motivated entirely by his unshakeable morals.

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The reluctant hero isn't a new concept: he's shared by the Far East and Wild West. The lone gunman in a western, too, tends to be loath to kill, and acts as the moral enforcer in a lawless place.

But while the gunman in an isolated western town still commands the same respect from movie audiences as he lays down the law, our wise eastern mystic has almost entirely disappeared from Hollywood.

The biggest martial arts stars today -- with the notable exception of Jet Li, who continues to take on a mix of serious art movies in China and gang-war films set on the streets of urban America -- are either laughed at or laughed with by western audiences.

Kung fu superstar Jackie Chan has the impressive reputation of being almost indestructible. He does his own stunts and puts himself in some incredibly dangerous situations. But Chan is essentially a comedian.

His stunts are used, in a very similar way to Chan's cinematic hero Harold Lloyd, to amaze and amuse an audience. We are shocked that someone could do the things he does, hanging off moving buses with a walking stick, leaping across buildings. He is almost superhuman, but it's done mainly for laughs.

The other major kung fu stars have become figures of mockery.

The Internet was awash with Chuck Norris gags pointing out just how strong he is ("Chuck Norris does not sleep. He waits.") while Steven Seagal has done himself no favors by appearing in some of the worst films ever made. Hollywood doesn't take them seriously -- and nor do we.

Directors have also mocked the 70s obsession with kung fu that gripped the western world, with heroes from films such as "Boogie Nights," "Austin Powers" and "Starsky and Hutch" fighting with cod seriousness while displaying laughable skills.

So what has changed?

Kung fu is not inherently funny. No matter how many times you watch "Enter the Dragon," it never ceases to be awe-inspiring.

Perhaps the answer is simple: we Hollywood film junkies have grown cynical. There is no room in our modern world for an unexplained, almost supernatural power against pointlessly evil adversaries. Have we have lost our ability to suspend our disbelief?

So what can a real fan do? Are we condemned to trawling the movies of the 1970s in order to get our kung fu hit, harking back to a time when Chuck Norris really was feared and respected everywhere he went?

The answer is no. While Hollywood seems to have dumped its one-time darling, kung fu is alive and flourishing in Asia, where it all started.

Jet Li puts out some great offerings in China, and there is a rising star in the form of Tony Jaa, a Thai actor with amazing technical skill, whose films like "Ong Bak" have wowed audiences across the world.

While Hollywood misses a trick and spends all its time laughing at its most skillful martial artists, the industry in Asia is doing what it has always done: bringing us all the high kicks, karate chops and spinning nunchucks we could ever want. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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