When you talk about the most bad ass villains in the history of kung fu films, Hwang Jang Lee is tops on my list. The stone-faced actor provided the thorn in the side of many heroes over a ten year span from 1974-1984, the golden era of Hong Kong martial arts cinema. This guy was integral to so many classics of the genre, and his list of films formidable. To anyone who loves these movies, when you see his name on the credits your heart begins to beat. Secret Rivals, Invincible Armour, Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow, Drunken Master, Hell’s Wind Staff, Raging Masters Tiger-Crane…he was featured prominently in so many pivotal films, it’s ridiculous. He’s like the Darth Vader of kung fu, and he brings with him “the dark side.”
There’s just something about a Thunderleg flick. When he steps onto the screen, the whole tone of the film shifts. The fish stop swimming, and you hold your breath because you know…the shit is about to hit the fan. Like many stars of the genre, he has a legit background in martial arts, he’s one of the few actors who can actually call himself a “grand master” offscreen as well as on. He was noted primarily for his unique Tae Kwon Do biased kicking styles, hence the nickname “Thunderleg.” In real life, he is rumoured to have actually killed a man in self defence prior to his film career, by what else–a roundhouse boot to the head. Maybe it’s that credibility he brings to his stripped down sense of villainy. He didn’t need any crazy props, comedic vices or special effects to make him a believable bad guy, he took just a couple lines and a vicious stare to turn whatever movie he was in into the next movie on your top five.
His fights were always crisp , fast and interesting. He really looked like he wanted to kill the actor he was acting with. This is probably the reason many big names in the genre have had their finest moments when acting and fighting with Hwang Jang Lee.
In “Drunken Master” and “Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow” a young Jackie Chan had his breakout performances going up against Hwang. Underground fan favourite John Liu’s most beloved film, Secret Rivals, has him squaring off against him in one of his most noted performances as the infamous Silver Fox. In the sequel, he meets up with a young Yuen Biao (Prodigal Son, Once Upon A Time In China) He also managed to play quite role in the development of independent Korean cinema, starring in most of the best known Korean kung fu films, a sub genre in and of itself. In Addition, he managed a few credits as director, manning the cameras for killer films like Hitman In The Hand Of Buddha.
By the mid eighties, he started to transition into modern action films as the interest in traditional kung fu wained. Eventually, he quit acting altogether and got into manufacturing golf tees and the hotel business. The films and the legacy he leaves behind is as important to the genre as any other, and he remains–probably for good– one of the tallest mountains to climb for any protagonist in kung fu cinema history.