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GEEK VS. GEEK: MARTIAL ARTS MOVIES – WHAT’S NOT TO LOVE?

October 22 2012
A Shaw Brothers classic, AVENGING EAGLE (1978)

Let it go on the record that I have a deep seated passion for movies from this particular genre. From early Shaw Brothers films, through to modern day blockbusters, nothing quite tickles my pickle like a good (or really bad) martial arts action film. Now, I understand that this particular style of cinema isn’t for everyone, that’s fine. But let’s not let an ignorance of the brilliance behind the scenes shape our distaste.

The thing is, if you look hard enough, there’s something here for everyone. Whether it’s the cinematic wonders of the likes of Hero or The House of Flying Daggers, whether it’s the story of someone overcoming odds (The Karate Kid anyone?), or the hilarity of sooo many Jackie Chan films, what’s not to love?

Okay, I’m not completely brainwashed. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t a significant amount of martial arts movies with the primary goal of showcasing some amazing fights and generally providing eye candy. But they’re not kidding themselves. There’s no hoping for an Oscar for best acting. Is this so bad? But let’s be real here, there is also some amazing cinema that includes martial arts sequences. Let’s not get caught up in the worst of the best.

Take the time to appreciate it and you’ll see some batshit crazy stuff

Here’s the thing. I have little interest in chess, so I put no effort into understanding it, I don’t try and appreciate the subtleties, the discipline required to play at a top level. I don’t care if some Spanish priest had an opening move named after him after extensive study and experimentation that’s still used to this day. So when someone makes a movie about chess and I happen to watch it, I make no effort to grasp the concepts, to appreciate the years of practice it takes to play a game of chess with such skill. All I see is guys moving pieces around a board, I yawn, dig into my bucket of popcorn and think about the scathing review I’m going to write.

This isn’t the fault of the movie, however.

The writers, directors, producers etc. all know they’re releasing a piece of cinema that will have a specific and somewhat limited target audience. They’re okay with that. They don’t expect everyone to want to see it, or to understand what they’re trying to achieve. Enough of chess though, there’s not nearly enough physical violence for my tastes (unless we’re talking Wizard Chess, but I digress).

The moral of the story is always about believing in yourself, choosing the honorable path, or something similar. That’s not a bad thing.

Martial arts movies are as amazing as they are because they allow us to believe one thing. That a person, one tiny person can stand up to anyone. That they can make a difference. That they can overcome what seem to be insurmountable odds. And they can do it whilst kicking some serious portions of ass! What martial arts movie have we seen that isn’t about one character pushing themselves beyond the limits of normal humans, to stand up to something? I’m struggling to think of one.

Let’s go back to one of the “classics”: Bloodsport (1988). Sure, Van Damme’s acting is aneurysm inducing, but the basic premise is that a child was given a chance to learn an ancient art. He showed the discipline and strength of character to earn the respect of his teacher. He then fights adversaries that he shouldn’t be able to defeat (especially after the whole being blinded thing in the final fight scene) and overcomes them because his motives are pure.

We all wish that we had that kind of discipline, the physical and mental fortitude to pick ourselves back up and beat the odds. We want to believe that we could save our loved ones, stand up for the little guy, maybe even exact vengeance. It’s all rather disgustingly noble and idealistic, but really as people, don’t you want that? Wouldn’t that be all sorts of cool?

Visually, martial arts are stunning.

That’s all well and good, but this is a movie; do we really just want to see some guy getting the snot kicked out of him by another guy? The thing with audiences is that they easily become complacent. When was the last visual effect that actually wowed you? Been a while, hasn’t it? (The giant sentient robot changed from a truck too quickly – come on, who has said it? Admit it.) It takes a lot to impress us nowadays. Martial arts movies have been having the same trouble for quite some time, but this is one area of cinema in which they are always trying to up the ante. From Kung Fu to Wing Chun to Karate to Ninjitsu to Krav Maga, the varieties of martial art are as varied as their movie plots are not; the stars of most martial arts movies are incredible specimens, with astounding speed and accuracy and flexibility and strength in real life as well as on film. Watch Police Story (1985), and have a look at exactly what Jackie Chan puts his body through, look at the body control, the skill, think of the hours of practice it would have taken to master those moves. Then think of how long it would have taken to translate those moves into a fight sequence with a chair, and a step ladder, and the comedic timing. The time taken to choreograph, rehearse, refine, and perform in front of a camera with everything that could go wrong. HOW is that boring? How is that anything but absolutely freaking amazeballs?!

Culturally, martial arts in film let different regions show the world something they have to offer.

Tony Jaa in ONG-BAK

Let’s take an Asian import, Ong-Bak (2003). This movie was a cultural phenomenon. It brought the art of Muay Thai to the western world in a digestible form, so that people would stand up and take an interest, and look at visiting Thailand. It was more of a tourism venture than a blockbuster. As an aside, Tony Jaa blows my mind. Forget the fight sequences (as if you could), look at the chases, watch the superhuman skills, the timing, the acrobatics employed. We’re amused for a minute whilst watching people get chased through the streets. These people train for years to get to a position where they would even think to attempt performing these stunts. Surely anyone can appreciate that?

“Martial Arts” isn’t necessarily a genre, but it does make other genres better.

The big thing is, “martial arts” isn’t really a genre, per se. Sure, there are a significant number of movies centered around martial arts (or martial arts tournaments), but realistically we can’t call something like Rush Hour, with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, a “martial arts movie”; it’s a comedy that features martial arts. We can’t call The Bourne Identity or Taken 2 ”martial arts movies”; they’re action movies with some pretty amazing Krav Maga sequences. So where do we draw the line? Where do we stop and say this movie is only about martial arts, and therefore not of interest to someone of my opponent’s tastes? Surely we can’t say that about Kill Bill; yes, it features quite a significant number of fight sequences, but it also has a plot, it has characters, it is more than martial arts. Same goes for Jet Li’s breakout hit, Once Upon a Time in China. Is my esteemed colleague saying she wouldn’t want to watch this acclaimed, objectively awesome experience because it features a large helping of martial arts? (After all, she seems to LOVE Equilibrium, and the fight scenes were the best thing about that movie.)

So really, let’s look at what the inclusion of martial arts has done for modern action films. I’ll return your attention to the Bourne series, to the Taken movies, and then also to the Dark Knight films, and another overlooked one, A History of Violence. There are no wire stunts here, no unbelievable cinematics of people fighting over rivers, or treetops, a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There are some intense martial arts though. I would even go as far as to say that the use of the styles of martial arts included in these movies are somewhat character building. You can see to what extent these characters are willing to go to achieve their goals, whether that be survive, save their family, generally protect Gotham, whatever. The styles are fast, they’re brutal, they aren’t flashy – just like the characters utilizing them.

I could go on, but the long and the short of it is we watch movies to escape reality, to be entertained, to be challenged. What’s more entertaining than someone who can knock you out in the first two seconds of a fight after doing a backflip double kick to the underside of your chin?! (Bloodsport II, if memory serves me correctly.) Sure, action movies might not be your cup of tea. “Asian cinema” might not be your cup of tea. But stop looking at what are amazing feats of human ability, dedication and discipline, and then suggest that they are anything less than admirable and fascinating. But if you’re not prepared to make the effort, then guess what, you probably won’t see why these movies are worth it.

– Jason Murdoch

READ THE OPPOSING ARGUMENT
MARTIAL ARTS MOVIES: WHATEVER
by Kate Nagy

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