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Tiger Style! RZA Lists His 10 Favorite Kung Fu Flicks

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Ever since he was a teenager, RZA has been fascinated by martial arts films. His weekend pilgrimages to the grimy theaters in Manhattan's Times Square molded a young Prince Rakeem's vision, which led to the birth of his musical brainchild, the Wu-Tang Clan. After leading a group of nine lyrically gifted brothers from Staten Island to the world stage—producing movie-like LPs that were both critically and commercially loved—he discovered a new way of flexing his artistry. The Man with the Iron Fists (hitting theaters on November 2nd) is a continuation of RZA sharing his creativity constructed by martial arts epics. But on this directorial debut, the RZA assures he isn't trying to make the best martial arts movie. He's simply trying to make "the best movie with kung fu in it." So when XXL asked the Abbot to give us his top-10 kung fu flicks, he humbly shared a batch of films he considers the most important. Not because they all relate to The Man with the Iron Fists—after all, it's a collage of these 10 films and much more—but because they each have a meaning. "So watch them," RZA ordered. "There's a reason why I'm suggesting them." Bong! —Jaeki Cho (@JaekiCho)

Mystery of Chessboxing (1979)

Mystery of Chessboxing

RZA: "I’ma start off with Mystery of Chessboxing. The name Ghostface Killah comes from that movie. I’m a chess player, and it’s one of those films when I first saw it—I like when the old man in the movies fight. It’s my favorite thing when the old man fights. This is one of the first films that had almost—every fight was between grand masters. That had me fascinated throughout the whole movie. A character like Ghost Faced Killer, he would walk up, throw his cards first, right? Then when you see it? You don't have to say his name, he’ll throw his fucking cards and [the opponent] goes, 'Ghost Faced Killer!' Ya’mean? And [Ghost Faced Killer] goes, 'Hahahaha [evil laugh].' And he’ll just go kill your ass.

"And he killed one dude right in front of his son. But he doesn’t kill the kid. He just came to get who he came to get. It’s cold, kid. It’s one scene with the motherfucker, got a whole school of students, and one of his students is a dick head, he goes out there and gets into a fight and does the style from the school. Ghost Faced Killer just happens to walk by and goes, 'What? The Cheng Sin style?' And then [Ghost Faced Killer] goes, 'What school is you from?' The little guy’s bragging about it, and Ghost Faced Killer says, 'Tell your master I’m coming to see him!' The guy comes home with the Ghost Faced tag, and the master goes, 'Huh! Ghost Faced Killer! After 10 years he still finds me.' And then Ghost Faced takes the whole school out. There’s nothing there to help him. After he sent the whole school out, they all left, a minute later, Ghost Faced shows up and kills that motherfucker."

Writing Kung Fu (1979)

Writing Kung Fu

RZA: "It had a few titles over the years, but this is the title you can find it right now. This movie, I sampled it in the 8 Diagrams on the intro. This movie is about a teacher, who throughout his whole life learned ethics and the proper way to live. And he was a teacher of this small town and taught the students. Yet, the bandits took over the town and they were killing people. And the students were like, 'Why the fuck are we learning how to read, write, and live righteous, how to work hard and practice honesty when these men are killing people? We need to learn kung fu!' But the [teacher] doesn’t want nobody to learn kung fu, he just wants them to learn how to read and write. Until tragedy strikes him, and everything he loves are killed. And it drives him crazy. He goes crazy and then he meets these two other crazy motherfuckers who happen to be old kung fu masters. And they teach him kung fu, but he knows he’s a teacher, he’s always writing calligraphy, and his calligraphy becomes a style of his kung fu. The villain’s actually Bolo, who’s in Enter the Dragon. It’s also one of Bolo’s best performances because people know Bolo as a strong man throwing punches, right? In this film he’s doing flexible, real, wushu-type moves. And the reason why is because of the morals of it."

7 Grandmasters (1978)

7 Grandmasters

RZA: "Yo, yo, there’s another one called 7 Grandmasters. First of all, why I’m suggesting this film is because it stars the same cast as Mystery of Chessboxing. And in this particular film, a man is about to be awarded as the King of Kung Fu. The greatest fighter in the country. He’s been winning for years, he’s about 50 or 60 years old now, he’s proven himself to be the greatest fighter. But at the ceremony before he puts the sign up, a flying dart goes through the school and hits the [plaque]. He takes the dart out and reads it, and there’s a letter attached to it, the letter says, 'You’re not the best. You were the best, but you’re old now, so you’re not the best.' He reads it and goes, 'Wait a minute, don’t put the sign up.' He can’t put the sign up because if it ain’t true he doesn’t want to represent it. So he goes, 'Huh! People are questioning my power. So what I’ll do, I’ll go and fight them all again, the tiger, the eagle, the snake, all of them. And after that I can retire and prove that I deserve the plaque the emperor sent me.' You na'mean? It’s like a rap battle kid. Nigga saying, 'Your shit ain’t like that, son.' You got to go out there and battle these niggas. He goes back out and proves that he is the master. So that’s a great one. It has a great twist at the end. What I got from that film as far as The Man with the Iron Fists...these films I named to you Mystery of Chessboxing, Writing Kung Fu, the 7 Grandmasters, there’s always an old man with white hair. That’s like the main villain and shit. And in Iron Fist, that type of character exists in my movie just because it exists in so many of these movies."

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

RZA: "Let’s take it from there and go to the Shaw Brothers for a minute. Of course I’m going to say 36th Chamber. That movie’s a direct influence on me, my music, and Iron Fists. When you see the movie, you’ll know. The star of 36th Chamber, Gordon Liu is in my movie. And he’s playing that character years later. He plays a character [similar] to the role he had in 36th Chamber I should say. It was ridiculous, yo, linking up with someone I aspired to as a kid. This movie’s a passionate dream come true. Ya'mean? I was happy to get him, and I was happy to give back to him. I hired him, na’mean? He got a job, kid! He’s going to be seen in the big screen in America once again, not just on DVD. So it’s a blessing. That movie is self explanatory 'cause of the title."

Five Deadly Venoms (1978)

Five Deadly Venoms

RZA: "I’ll suggest another film, Five Deadly Venoms, you got to put that in there. Five multiple styles of all the animals. This is one of the best movies, ever. And one of the characters in Iron Fists, Brass Body is inspired by the Toad. Dave Batista, when he came to be apart of the movie, he said his favorite martial arts movie character was the Toad. So I told him, 'I got a role for you. It’s very similar to the energy of that character. And I’d love for you to come on board.' And he came on board.

"I remember how I first saw this film as clear as day. Actually I was in a movie theater a week earlier watching Fearless Fighters and this other triple feature—a bunch of good kung fu movies. What happened was, they had a trailer for the Five Deadly Venoms. When I seen that trailer? My mind went to a book I read when I was a kid called the Five Chinese Brothers. It’s an old folktale book, I was able to get that when I was a kid. Not sure if you could find it these days. It was similar to early books you read like Dr. Seuss and things like that, but it was the Five Chinese Brothers. Each one of the Chinese brothers had a special power. One could swallow the ocean, another can survive through fire, another had an iron neck, one can stretch his legs, and one can hold his breath for long. You know that story? So, I thought this movie was a version of that shit, yo! [Laughs.] You nah’m saying? So I was fiending to see it. We usually couldn’t go every weekend, ‘cause it costs money, and we’re poor. But the next week, I sold newspapers and did what we did to get to the theaters and we saw the Five Deadly Venoms, yo. And that became the epitome of kung fu movies. It also marked the level, which I measured the rest of them with. And it became the best film ever. I saw it in the movie theaters right on 42nd street."

Executioners from Shaolin (1977)

Executioners from Shaolin

RZA: "This movie came out before the 36th Chamber. This was when Cheng Kuan-tai was the main leading man in Shaw Brothers. Actually, Executioners from Shaolin was one of Gordon Liu’s first appearances. He maybe only had three movies before this. But he really didn’t have a big lead role yet. But in this film, Liu does the crane style. It was the first time they showed crane style in the movies by the Shaw Brothers studios. What’s so special to me though it’s Cheng Kuan-tai. When you listen to my song 'Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing ta Fuck Wit' it starts off with 'Tiger style!' It’s from that movie. This is the movie. The actor who’s a star in this movie is in The Man with the Iron Fists. Cheng Kuan-tai is the Golden Lion. That’s crazy, right?"

Enter the Dragon (1973)

Enter the Dragon

RZA: "By Bruce Lee. This film definitely inspired me. You see me paying homage to it. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but there’s a scene in The Man with the Iron Fists that pays direct homage to the film. This is the film that was Bruce Lee’s last film in the physical way. And this so far is the biggest martial arts film ever made in Hollywood to date. And really it’s a masterpiece of work. What makes this film something I’d like to suggest for people to watch though is not only for the martial arts aspect of it. It’s also the casting. You have a cast that’s similar to what we have. You have a John Saxon, who’s like a Russell Crowe. You have a Jim Kelly, that’s like a RZA. You have Bruce Lee and you have a sister. You have Bolo Yeung, who could be like the Dave Batista. Look at the casting of the film. And I didn’t even do it intentionally. I wasn’t thinking about Enter the Dragon while doing this film, as far as casting wise. But when I look back at the editing process I was like, 'Wow, we’re actually on the same wavelength as Bruce Lee on this because he had an international cast years ago in the ‘70s.' And here I am right now bringing an international casting. So [Bruce Lee’s] a forefather of it in reality. But there’s one scene in [The Man with the Iron Fists] that we pay direct homage to this film. You’ll notice it when you see it."

Return of the Dragon (1972)

Return of the Dragon

RZA: "I’ma go double dutch with Bruce Lee with Return of the Dragon. Now, Return of the Dragon came out before Enter the Dragon. But it wasn’t released in America until after. The reason why I suggest this film is because this is Bruce Lee showing you physical power at his best in his one-on-one fight with Chuck Norris. That fight alone is one of the greatest fights filmed. It shows the physical power of Bruce Lee. It shows the physical power of an Asian man that people tried to look down upon. And he’s showing you that he’ll break your shit, even if you’re a six-time world karate champion, which Chuck Norris was. Chuck Norris became a student after that. You know what I mean? Return of the Dragon is a great, great, martial arts film. The funny thing about the movie is this, in Return of the Dragon they’re trying to take over the Chinese restaurant, right? And there’s a white man that’s leading the bunch, right? That same white man is in my movie. [Laughs.] Isn’t that crazy or what? I got him doing a scene with Pam Grier. So I keep the two ‘70s people together, na’mean? So this is how I think, kid. Just giving you an example of that, aight?"

Once Upon a Time in China (1991)

Once Upon a Time in China

RZA: "Let’s move on a little further now, let’s try to move up on a little bit. Let’s go a little modern, aight? Let’s go with Once Upon a Time in China with Jet Li. Let’s bring him into the building. The reason why I choose this particular title is because this was the film that revolutionized the way martial arts action sequences were done. Tsui Hark came crazy, and it just completely evolved, far past the ‘70s and ‘80s. So Once Upon a Time in China is a great film historically. Based on the hero Wong Fei-hung, based on how the western world tried to dominate the Asian world with their influence, and their opium, and their weapons. And the funny thing is the Iron Fists is based around this time. It’s based around the opium wars and all that. The only difference is, Once Upon a Time in China is based somewhat in reality and Iron Fists is pure fiction. But we took the setting of reality."

Ip Man (2008)

Ip Man

RZA: "It’s hard to give you one more, but let me give you something that makes sense to me. I want to give the audience a Donnie Yen movie. How about I give you Ip Man? That should be it, right? ‘Cause we already went to the ‘90s with Once Upon a Time in China. I guess we kind of hit it. The second one was kind of ill, right? The second one was ill, but let’s give them the first one so they could find the second one.

"I give it to Ip Man because it’s modern. It’s where martial arts movies are at nowadays. With the wire works, cinematography, action, everything. For me though, why I chose this movie is, this is the movie that kept Donnie Yen out of my movie. I had talked to Donnie about The Iron Fists years ago. And I always wanted him to be involved. There’s a movie he did called New Dragon Gate Inn, where he played a powerful villain that's a eunuch. That particular character in New Dragon Gate Inn is one of my villains in Iron Fists, and I wanted Donnie to play that character. But it couldn’t happen. So what you say is, 'Ip Man one of the modern martial arts classics, and because of its success, RZA was unable to get Donnie in his film.' Na'mean? ‘Cause Donnie was getting too big, and he was doing too many movies, he didn’t have time to help me. You na’mean? So I’m going to try to have him help me out in part two."