Many of us begin our journey in martial arts as children, and yet, kicking butt on the big and small screens is seemingly dominated largely by grown-ups. Some might even go as far as to say that kids are almost completely quarantined to the, um, kiddie pool of action movies. If they ever do get the chance to venture into the deep end, it’s almost assuredly as hostages to be rescued, or as annoying little brats in need of a time out who just end up getting in the way of more mature and capable heroes.
Of course, anyone well versed enough in the subject matter knows that’s hardly the case. Kids who know the ropes of martial arts and high adventure are not only a staple of the genre, but have even proven to be some of the most enduring and beloved heroes the world has ever seen. Indeed, some have even proven themselves so capable as to completely leave the adults surrounding them in the dust when it comes to wowing the audience with fighting abilities well beyond their years.
And, of course, that can only mean its time for another countdown. So make sure you’ve got a wee child by your side, readers, as viewers over 18 must be accompanied by a child or adolescent guardian – as here, in descending order, are KFK’s Top 5 Kung Fu Kids (which can itself be shortened to K-F-K)!
- Short Round — Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
- Daniel-San — The Karate Kid (1984)
- Kung Ku — My Father is a Hero (1995)
- Wong Fei-hung — Iron Monkey (1993)
Indy’s had some great sidekicks throughout his many adventures, but ‘Short Round’ is by far the best of the bunch. Rarely has an adventure movie been such a specimen of pure childhood wish fulfilment as Shorty’s role in “Temple of Doom”. He’s a ten year-old kid, and he’s literally driving a car when we first meet him, before heading off on an adventure with the world’s most famous archaeologist.
Shorty also proves instrumental in helping Indy and the completely useless Willie escape the Temple. He snaps Indy out of the evil trance he’s been placed under by Mola Ram, does the same for the captive Maharaja, and kicks the butts of a dozen or so temple guards twice his size. Shorty was portrayed in the film by a young Jonathan Ke Quan, who studied Taekwondo with the legendary kicking machine, Tan Tao-liang aka “Flash Legs”, and brought the energy and tenacity that only a truly special child star can carry.
Mr. Quan would later appear alongside Jerry Trimble and Bolo Yeung in “Breathing Fire”, where he got to put his martial arts talents to further use.
But the world will never forget their first meeting with Indy’s young sidekick, Short Round, and how outstanding a kicking-kid he truly was.
Well, you certainly can’t talk about young martial arts prodigies without discussing Daniel LaRusso, aka Daniel-San, can you? It goes without saying that 1984’s “The Karate Kid” is a timeless classic, and a lot of that has to do with its universal themes of isolation, overcoming bullies, and adapting to new circumstances.
The film is relatively light on actual action until the climactic tournament, and that leaves the focus on Daniel’s training, under the legendary Mr. Miyagi. Daniel-San couldn’t become one of the greatest adolescent martial arts masters the world has ever seen without one of the greatest mentors out there, and the film does an excellent job not only with Daniel’s training, but his frustration with it.
After being promised by Mr. Miyagi to be trained to fight off the bullies of the Cobra Kai dojo who’ve been making his life a living hell, Daniel instead finds himself waxing cars and painting fences. That is, until he discovers that it’s all part of Miyagi’s unorthodox training methodology. Daniel is further tested in both body and spirit when he faces his bullies at the tournament, which remains an unforgettable coming-of-age climax decades later.
Anyone stepping into a dojo for the first time no doubt has the self-reflected image of Daniel-San in the back of their minds, and his classic story of training to overcome his internal and external conflicts in “The Karate Kid” is the reason why. Be sure to also check out KFK’s in-depth interview with “The Real Miyagi” himself, karate legend, Fumio Demura!
It’s certainly not often that you see a dynamic-duo, father-son relationship like we do in “My Father Is A Hero”, but the one between Kung Wei and his young son Kung Ku is as heartwarming as it is exhilarating.
When Beijing police detective, Kung Wei, goes undercover to infiltrate a Hong Kong-based crime syndicate, his son, Kung Ku becomes his strongest ally after Wei’s cover is blown.
The English-speaking world was introduced to “My Father Is a Hero” under the title of “The Enforcer”, complete with the obligatory horrible dubbing, but that was powerless to stifle the genuine father-son chemistry of Jet Li and Mo Tse.
Even when they’re fighting apart from each other in the film’s opening, with Wei taking down some Beijing criminals while Ku competes in a Wushu tournament, we still feel a genuine bond of father and son when Ku finally sees Wei in the stands watching him compete. Naturally, they’re also that much more of a powerhouse duo in the film’s climactic battle aboard a Hong Kong freighter, and Mo Tse is a such a Wushu prodigy that he never feels the slightest bit out of place battling, and defeating, opponents twenty years his senior, including the Iron Monkey himself, Yu Rongguang. (aka Ringo Yu).
Ku never loses faith in his father’s dedication to the law for a moment, and the father-son bond in “My Father Is a Hero”, along with Mo Tse’s talents well beyond his years, makes Ku another of the great big screen child warriors.
Wong Fei-hung has been a staple of Chinese cinema since its inception. We’ve seen the famed philosopher, healer, medicine man, acupuncturist and Hung Gar folk hero played by Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Sammo Hung, and countless others.
However, 1993’s “Iron Monkey” took a new approach, shifting the focus to the legendary hero’s father Wong Kei-ying, played by Donnie Yen, with Wong himself appearing during his childhood years. The film would further part ways with past representations of Wong by casting a young lady in the role in the form of Wushu exponent Angie Tsang Sze-Man, who proved to be as good an asset as Donnie himself.
While Yu Rongguang may technically lead the film in the title role alongside Donnie Yen as Wong Kei-ying, Fei-hung is the true heart of “Iron Monkey”. While not explicitly canon with any other Fei-hung biopics (to the extent that the term “biopic” has ever been applicable to Chinese folk heroes), the young Fei-hung’s adventures alongside his father and the Iron Monkey form an exhilarating origin story of a warrior destined for greatness.
Angie excels in the action scenes just as much as her co-stars, so much so that it’s a wonder that “Iron Monkey” never led to a young Fei-hung spinoff. Angie Tsang would go on to join the Hong Kong police force while winning multiple world Wushu titles, but millions of martial arts aficionados will forever remember her for effectively pulling a Mulan in “Iron Monkey”. Not a bad legacy to have!
…and in at #1 is…
Laura aka X-23 — Logan (2017)
If ever there was a breakout child actor of the last decade, it has to be Dafne Keen in her unforgettable performance as Laura, aka X-23, in 2017’s “Logan”.
Despite Ms. Keen’s obvious talents, there was frankly no reason to expect that she’d steal the show this thoroughly. The film was heavily marketed as both Hugh Jackman’s swan song in his signature role, along with Wolverine finally going for the hard-R that fans had been waiting years to see. And make no mistake, “Logan” succeeds gloriously on both counts. However, it simply would not have become an instant classic of both the superhero and Western genres without Ms. Keen’s outstanding performance in the role of Laura.
That’s even more impressive when one considers the fact that she doesn’t say a single word for the first three-quarters of the film, but hers is mostly a silent performance that’s an all-time grand slam. She’s also an unhinged beast in the film’s many action scenes, so much so that even Logan, in his first opportunity to go full berserker, looks almost domesticated fighting alongside her.
When she tosses the head of an enemy towards his comrades and slowly approaches them with a look of savage intent on her face as she slowly unsheathes her claws, you don’t even have to see her cut loose to know she means business. When Laura finally fights alongside the man she’s come to know as her father, it’s a simply a blast of bladed, adamantium-slashing action, and the ultimate tearjerker to see her acknowledge Logan as “Daddy”.
In the annals of martial arts films, there have been many amazing child warriors that carved their legacy alongside their more mature counterparts. However, with Dafne Keen’s out-of-this-world performance as the feral child warrior that is Laura, X-23 takes the throne as the world’s greatest Kung Fu Kid!