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`THE DEADLIEST ART' HAS ALL YOU COULD WANT TO KNOW ABOUT `CHOP-SOCKY' KUNG FU FILMS

Video is the perfect way to see a movie you'd be too embarrassed to pay $7 to catch in a theater. Take kung fu, for example.

Let's say you've been curious about this peculiar genre but you prefer not to rub elbows with the Bruce Lee fan club when it convenes for the latest kickfest.CBS/Fox Video has the answer in a compilation tape called "The Deadliest Art: The Best of the Martial Arts Films" (90 minutes, $89.98). It's all you could want to know about chop-socky without having to sit through a whole feature.

Actually, it's unfair to be too flip. What I learned from this tape is that filmmaking talent can be appreciated even in the service of mostly trivial entertainment.

The sheer athleticism of the actors is astounding, even when falsified by camera tricks or cheapened by ridiculous sound effects. Certainly a martial arts movie can lay claim to being at least as legitimate as any "Rocky" movie with a roman numeral in the title.

Lee is credited with founding the genre in 1968 with "Fists of Fury" and taking it to its culmination with 1973's "Enter the Dragon," which Warner Bros. helped to produce and which marked Hollywood's entry into this particular form of mayhem. But the clips (narrated by John Saxon, Lee's co-star from "Dragon") don't concern the Hollywood variety of martial arts movies, such as "The Karate Kid," or the efforts of Steven Seagal or Jean Claude Van Damme.

Rather, the tape focuses on the Hong Kong product that rolls off the assembly line from companies such as Golden Harvest (the maker of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," by the way).

The Hong Kong producers have a stable of talent that has little name recognition among mainstream filmgoers but constitutes a pantheon for action addicts: Yuen Biao, Samo Hung, Jackie Chan, Sho Kosugi and Westerners such as Cynthia Rothrock and Benny "the Jet" Urquidez.

Several of the actors are interviewed behind the scenes and offer comments on how the action is staged or what they try to achieve in their movies.

Samo Hung, whose plump figure and broad smile lend themselves to comedy, contrasts real fighting with film fighting by observing that in a real martial arts battle, it's all over in 10 seconds, not the 10 minutes seen on screen.

On the set of "China O'Brien," we see star Rothrock and director Robert Clouse choreographing a fight, which apparently is done in many, many short snippets and then edited together. Clouse tells us that Lee's technique was to illustrate the fight entirely with stick figures.

But the behind-the-scenes stuff is minimal. "The Deadliest Art" is essentially one fight after another, to the point of risking dullness. When Saxon introduces a clip of "Enter the Dragon" by proclaiming that it's the greatest martial arts movie ever made, it can only mean one thing - that the hundreds of movies made since 1973 containing "dragon," "fist" or "ninja" in the title are sterile, ritualistic imitations.

The form, it seems, was exhausted almost from its beginnings, and what remains is a moviemaking ghetto that survives to serve a limited but dedicated audience.

Yet "The Deadliest Art," in familiarizing the non-devotee with these movies, is providing a service in identifying movies that exceed the norm. The work of Jackie Chan, who directs as well as acts, is especially delightful for its physical humor, inspired by his idols from the silent era.

You can see shades of Chaplin and Keaton, for instance, in a chase by bicycle through narrow Hong Kong alleys as doors swing open to unseat his pursuers or as Chan flips his cycle onto one wheel and executes a U-turn.

It also seems (at least to judge from this admittedly limited footage) that blood and gore don't dominate kung-fu moviemaking. Of course, the fights are accompanied by all manner of savage cries and explosive impacts, but the toll on the flesh is decidedly underplayed.

Like the mutant ninja turtles, the combatants kick and chop themselves silly only to bounce back with cartoonish indifference. "The Deadliest Art" may persuade parents who are looking for a balm for their consciences that no lasting harm is being inflicted on their own little ninjas at home.

VIDEO QUESTION

Question: The double-deck VCR I've seen made by Go-Video is advertised as being able to copy tapes even if they contain a copy-guard signal. Is the machine legal.Answer: Go-Video's VCR-2 is widely available in electronics stores. Although the Macrovision Corp. (inventor of the video industry's primary anti-copy system) for months has been scrutinizing the device for patent violations, it has taken no steps to prevent its sale. - Andy Wickstrom (Knight-Ridder)

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