Released three years after the death of Bruce Lee, whose exciting films and charismatic TV appearances helped popularize Asian martial arts worldwide, this solid documentary articulates philosophical concepts of mind-body balance while also showcasing several ’70s martial-arts masters, including Lee’s friend and American counterpart Chuck Norris. Presented with a fair measure of elegance and style by director Burt Rashby and writer Karen Lase Golightly, the film mixes archival footage, clips from competitions, interviews, and stylized visual effects such as slow motion and solarization, all to the purpose of demonstrating that karate, kung fu, tai chi and other disciplines are more than combat techniques. Speaker after speaker explains that hardening the body and sharpening the reflexes is a means of improving the mind and spirit, even though the narration track and the bulk of the film’s final section accentuate the utility of martial arts for self-defense.
As for that final section, it’s probably the weakest part of the picture even though it reflects the anxious era during which this doc was made. Watching the climactic scenes of The Warrior Within, one might take the impression that every resident of an American city in the mid-’70s was doomed to experience violent crime. From this same fearful well sprang a zillion vigilante movies.
In any event, the picture begins by discussing Lee, then moves into explorations of various systems and weapons from countries throughout Asia. Dubious but impressive facts, such as the idea that a nunchaku strike carries 1,600 pounds of pressure, adorn compelling shots of masters demonstrating the use of sais, spears, swords, and, of course, bare hands and feet to deliver deadly blows. After establishing the toughness of the martial arts, the filmmakers shift into a discussion of belief systems, talking about the inner forces from which martial artists draw their strength, while also noting historical ironies. Regarding the four animal-inspired styles of kung fu, the narrator says, “They all began in the Shaolin Temple of China—the deadly product of pacifists.” Whereas many speakers swear allegiance to strict modalities, Norris shares his idea, extrapolated from Bruce Lee’s philosophy, of building a personal system with a little bit of everything, rules be damned.
Some of the most impressive people in The Warrior Within are likely unfamiliar to laypersons, such as Moses Powell, a huge man so in control of his tai chi technique that he deflects attackers with deceptively simple rolling movements and, in one scene, balances his entire frame on his index finger. The picture’s argument for using martial arts to realize physical potential is persuasive, so if the filmmakers get carried away periodically—as with scenes portraying America’s cities as war zones—those excesses can be attributed to the enthusiasm of people with a message they’re burning to convey. Seen critically, The Warrior Within is an ad encouraging every viewer to visit a local dojo. Seem generously, it’s a slick and worthwhile exploration of a subject that captured the public imagination in the ’70s.
The Warrior Within: GROOVY