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GEEK VS. GEEK: MARTIAL ARTS MOVIES – WHATEVER

October 22 2012

Many months – in fact, I would go so far as to say most months – our “Geek vs. Geek” has been privileged to offer you, the reader, some of the most passionate and thoughtful arguments to be found for or against a book series, a movie, a trend, a legal issue, or even a specific season of a cult television show. These remarkable documents often represent the culmination of years of feverish devotion to the cause and hours of deep meditation on the subject, as well as the distillation of fierce debate with the writer’s family, friends, and on-line communities. The writers, in other words, are Experts, and they would like you to know that they have something important to say.

This month… not so much.

Well, I take that back. I don’t doubt my opponent’s commitment and expertise for one hot minute (and neither should you). But unlike his, my attitude toward this month’s topic – martial arts films – can be summed up in a single word: Whatever.

I’m not sure how to justify my complete and utter indifference toward this entire wildly popular genre. I mean, I don’t hate these movies. I admire Ang Lee’s masterpiece Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as much as the next person. I consider Jean-Claude Van Damme’s magnum opus The Quest one of the best Bad Movies ever produced. Music from Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story holds pride of place on my iPod, and the sight of Christian Bale clad in a pristine white afternoon suit and swinging his arms with dogged determination as he shoots out all the monitors in the Tetragrammaton building at the end of Equilibrium never fails to lighten my heart. I don’t necessarily take these films (Crouching Tiger excepted) particularly seriously, but I don’t loathe them.

But I don’t love them, either. In fact, I usually don’t think about them. Why? Maybe it’s because, as a general rule:

Even JCVD's high kicks get old...

1. Martial arts movies tend to privilege fighting over plot.

And dialogue. And realistic characterization. And – sorry, Jean-Claude – acting. And after a while, all that fighting, no matter how amazing and balletic, becomes kind of a snooze. (At least in The Quest, Van Damme changes it up by fighting a series of opponents utilizing completely different styles.) Now, admittedly, this is an issue in all action movies. Even in The Avengers, which I otherwise loved, there came a point near the end where I was like “Can we stop blowing shit up now and force Loki to the negotiating table? Maybe bring Odin in as facilitator?” But it is definitely an issue in martial arts films.

2. It’s a man’s world.

Women are under-represented in these movies and that’s a plain fact. I know, I know: Here’s the part where my opponent invokes the sacred names of Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang, Lucy Liu, and Uma Thurman. And points out that I just said I liked The Avengers, which only had one female character of real note. And reminds the readership that I’ve never expressed an objection to an overabundance of hard-living male characters in a fictional context before. All true. And yet, your typical martial arts movie consists of a sketchy and frequently preposterous plot moved forward via sequential scenes of dudes beating the shit out of one another in increasingly lurid and inventive ways. Which reminds me:

Christian Bale is MASTER OF THE GUN KATA!

3. Violence is boring.

This sort of goes back to #1, but I think it’s really at the root of my ennui. Aside from the rather questionable message that these films put forth – Want to win the heart of the haughty princess? Better go kick some ass! A drug dealer has set up shop on your street corner? Call in the ninjas! – it’s just tedious to watch all these fights, unless they’re really unusually beautifully choreographed (Crouching Tiger), audaciously over-the-top (Equilibrium’s Gun Kata, which never get old), or move the plot forward in a material way, as opposed to, you know, being the plot.

So at the end of the day, it comes down to a question of taste: While on an intellectual level I can appreciate Jet Li’s intensity and Jackie Chan’s work ethic, I usually find these movies repetitive, silly, and dull. And with all the other movies out there – genre and non- – that I want to see, these rarely if ever burble up even to the middle of my “to-see” list, let alone the top.

Unless Gun Katas are involved. Then – I have to confess – I’ll be first in line.

– Kate Nagy 

READ THE OPPOSING ARGUMENT
WHAT’S NOT TO LOVE?
by Jason Murdoch

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