"Cinema of Vengeance" is your basic in-depth documentary of the Hong Kong film industry from a mid-'90s perspective, directed by martial arts aficionado Toby Russell (Death by Misadventure: The Mysterious Life of Bruce Lee). It's mainly a visual timeline, covering broad eras from the early of black & white Chinese adventure pictures to the first real kung fu films, the golden days of the Shaw Bros. and Golden Harvest studios, the heyday of Bruce Lee, the gangster-influenced era, and finishing out on the time of John Woo's growing international appeal. The movie features a fair number of TV and interview clips of some of the more notable names in eastern martial arts films - Sammo Hung, Bruce Lee, Gordon Liu, Lau Kar Leung, Ti Lung, etc. - but also lesser-known support players like Sophia Crawford and Yukari Oshima, and even a handful of western stars including Don Wilson and Gary Daniels.
If you're into this sort of movie purely for the subject matter, you ought to buy it default. The only example I can think of which tops this one in cumulative content is Samuel Jackson's The Art of Action. A lot of the information you get here can these days be gleaned by hanging around internet forums and reading up on the stars individually, but it's still nice hearing these things confirmed personally by the guys. I'm not sure if any of the interviews are exclusive, though, or at least whether or not you can find all of the same stuff on Youtube. A plethora of video clips are also featured, most of them fight scenes from movies of varying popularity: you see some stuff from classics like Drunken Master but also scenes from relatively obscure stuff like Interpol Connection. Overall, though, the clips are from lesser-known movies, which is disappointing if you were expecting a grand package of classics but kinda cool if you're open for searching for hidden gems.
There are a couple things the film does that irk me. The first is the amount of emphasis placed on John Woo and his gunfighting stuff: the film isn't the first to do so and yes, Woo's action is amazing, but it's not kung fu, and just because Woo is one of the most successful Hong Kong directors doesn't mean it has to be included by default. Secondly, the film makes direct references to the American action films - mostly ninja-related stuff - but doesn't complement it with any clips from relevant movies. This is particularly frustrating when Steve James of the American Ninja series discusses his character from the movies, and it's immediately followed by a clip of some low-budget Taiwan film that James wasn't even involved in. It's a weird situation: normally, I'd assume that director Russell simply couldn't get the rights to feature clips from Cannon studios, but he has Menahem Golan (co-owner) in there as an interviewee, so what gives?
Apparently, the movie has received multiple releases, but the only one I've seen is the Fortune 5 DVD, which features a blue-tinted photo of Bruce Lee on the front and claims to be digitally remastered, but I don't buy that - it looks like a basic VHS transfer. It's still watchable, though.
Part of me wants to give this give this film a higher rating, but the fact that it's no longer as singular as it must have been in 1994 makes it easy to take off one star for the faults of its content and another for its flawed DVD quality. You shouldn't be deterred from buying it if you're an all-around Hong Kong fan, but others should know they have a bit more variety to choose from.