MAINSTREAMING MARTIAL ARTS – How Asian Cinema Took Over the World
From Bruce Lee to Crouching Tiger to the upcoming Man with the Iron Fists, a look at the history, and future, of martial arts in film.
by Kim Sorensen
Ever since Alexander the Great conquered much of central Asia, Westerners have had an obsession with the East; flash forward several millennia, and the obsession continues. Film is without a doubt the biggest form of entertainment worldwide, and for several decades there have been filmmakers, producers, writers, and actors who have tried to bring the success of Martial Arts Cinema to Hollywood.
Throughout Asia, martial arts have long been a main staple of film; the first documented example of the genre being the 1928 silent movie The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple, from China, which also has the distinction of being one of the longest movies ever made, at a running time of 27 hours. (No copies survive.) In the West, however, there was a lack of the art, although some characters began to utilize some of the more underrepresented styles, notably in early James Bond films-still Asian cinema had yet to find its American audience. But then in 1960, The Magnificent Seven topped box offices, and as a result Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai, on which The Magnificent Seven was based, also became popular among Western audiences.
Even with the success of The Magnificent Seven, though, martial arts as a genre was severely lacking in Western cinema. That all changed with the emergence of a man named Bruce Lee. Born in San Francisco but raised in Hong Kong, Lee – an exponent of Wing Chun, among other styles he developed himself – first gained major American exposure in 1966 with his portrayal of kung fu expert/chauffer Kato in the television adaptation of popular radio serial The Green Hornet. But when he later found himself given only supporting roles in Hollywood films (and particularly, if the biopic Dragon is to be believed, upset that the lead role in TV series Kung Fu was given to David Carradine), Lee returned to Hong Kong at the behest of his friend, producer Fred Weintraub, to make a feature film in which he would showcase his skills to executives in Hollywood. Lee played his first leading role in The Big Boss (1971), which catapulted him to stardom. He soon followed this up with Fist of Fury (1972), which broke the box office records set previously by The Big Boss. For his third film, Way of the Dragon (1972), he was given complete control of the film’s production as the writer, director, star, and choreographer of the fight scenes. In 1964, at a demonstration in Long Beach, California, Lee had met Karate champion Chuck Norris; in Way of the Dragon, Lee introduced Norris to movie-goers as his opponent in the final death fight at the Colosseum in Rome, today considered one of Lee’s most legendary fight scenes and one of the most memorable fight scenes in martial arts film history.
Western audiences and studios began to take notice of Lee, and in 1972 executives from Warner Bros. approached Lee on the set of his film Game of Death. He was offered the lead role in the film Enter the Dragon, the first film jointly produced by Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest and Warner Bros. A few months after completing film and three weeks before the premiere of Enter the Dragon, Lee died. Enter the Dragon became one of the highest grossing films of the year, taking in over $200 million.
If you are reading this and you have somehow never seen Enter the Dragon, or any other of Bruce Lee’s films a) slap yourself and b) quickly watch every single one of them. Bruce Lee is amazing. He is the best, always has been and always will be. There have been many amazing actors and martial artists since his death, including Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Tony Jaa and Donnie Yen, yet every single one of them, as well as all future martial artist film stars, will always have to face the question of whether they are “the next Bruce Lee?”
With the success of Enter the Dragon – and the new prevalence of dubbed “Chopsocky” movies on weekend and late night television – Asian martial arts became well known and were used in Hollywood films throughout the 1970s, most notably in blaxploitation films like The Black Dragon, Cleopatra Jones and Black Samurai. Pam Grier also used martial arts in her film Foxy Brown. One of the most well-known (and many a personal favorite) blaxploitation kung fu films was Barry Gordy’s The Last Dragon. The film stars the single-named Taimak as hero Bruce Leroy and Julius J. Carrry III as the villainous Sho’nuff the Shogun of Harlem. (One of the greatest movie quotes ever is to be found in this film, when Sho’nuff cockily tells Bruce Leroy to “Kiss my converse.”)
Though many of these films could be considered successful, the martial arts genre really blew up in America in the 1980s, when almost every action star used some form of martial art in their films, and several of the biggest films of the decade were centered around martial arts. In 1984, The Karate Kid premiered and grossed over $90 million, making a star out of Ralph Macchio and earning Pat Morita an Academy Award nomination. It also had millions of people trying to do a Crane kick. Its success also led to a sequel where Mr. Miyagi and Daniel traveled to Japan and learned even more karate. (It was then followed by two less than great sequels, and a blaspheme of a remake, but let’s not dwell on those.)
Jean Claude Van Damme, who trained in Savate (a form of French kickboxing and karate), also starred in many martial arts-themed films in the 1980s. In one of his first starring roles he portrayed Frank Dux, the first Westerner to win an exclusive martial arts tournament called the Kumite, in Bloodsport (1988). Van Damme’s character is a master of ninjitsu and uses his quickness to defeat the movie’s villain, Chong Li (played amazingly by Bolo Yeung, a friend and student of Bruce Lee).
Van Damme continued the trend of martial arts films in 1989 with the film Kickboxer. The plot is similar to Bloodsport (and to most 80s martial arts films for that matter). When his brother is paralyzed in a boxing match against the evil Tong Po (Michael Quissi), Kurt Sloane (Van Damme) vows revenge and heads to an isolated part of Thailand to find a master to train him in Muay Thai… and because it’s a movie, Van Damme is able to defeat Tong Po. Kickboxer was one of the first western films to include Muay Thai, a refreshingly different form to the by-now usual Hollywood standbys of karate and kung fu.
Steven Seagal, of course, was also one of the biggest action stars of the 80s. Seagal, a master of aikido, was the first foreigner to operate an aikido dojo in Japan. He then moved back to America and began acting (if that’s not too kind a word for it), giving audiences movies like Above the Law (1981), Hard to Kill (1990) and Under Siege (1992), in all of which he utilized some form of the martial art.
One of the best films of the 80s – if not of all time – came out in 1986: John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China. Carpenter, a fan of kung fu cinema, paid homage to more than one classic of the genre as he beautifully wove together kung fu, comedy, and 80s action, like in no other film before or since.
Indeed, by the early 1990s, martial arts films had changed. 70s films of the genre had centered around overcoming oppression, and even through the 80s, the format was mostly about Revenge (“You killed my father/sister/brother/second-cousin-twice-removed, prepare to die”) with a side order of Winning the Championship, but by the early 1990s, martial arts had been completely absorbed into Western pop culture almost to the point of parody. Comic book characters were masters of martial arts, the Ninja Turtles had taken over America (because they are awesome!), and the American remake of the Japanese series *Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger became the mega-successful Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (beginning in 1993, and now in its sixteenth incarnation, with Power Rangers: Super Samurai). Then there were video games that centered round martial arts: Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Tekken, Final Fantasy, etc. Classic 80s martial arts films gave way to horrible, horrible sequels in the late 1980s and 1990s, along with such cinematic “masterpieces” as 3 Ninjas (1992), the American Ninja series (1985), and Showdown (1993).
Thankfully, the genre continued to flourish in Asian cinema. The energetic Jackie Chan – much celebrated for performing all of his own, often quite spectacular, stunts – became a huge star with films like Drunken Master (1978) and Police Story (1985), a trend which continued into the 90s, and the incomparable Jet Li also rose to stardom with Once Upon a Time in China (1991). Plus of course there were many other stars, the likes of Donnie Yen and Michelle Yeoh, just to name a few.
Then came the late 90s, and amazing things happened. First there was an American release of Jackie Chan’s film Rumble in the Bronx (1995), the success of which introduced many of Chan’s Asian films to US audiences. As a result, he was cast alongside Chris Tucker in the buddy cop film Rush Hour (1998), which was huge and spawned two sequels, solidifying Chan’s status as a star in the West. In 1998, Jet Li made his American debut as the villain in Lethal Weapon 4; ironically, the first film in which he portrayed a villain. It was a hit and led to Li’s first American starring role in Romeo Must Die (2000), which also did well. Chan and Li continued to star in several American films in which they used their various kung fu skills.
In 1999 and 2000, martial arts reached a higher level in the West. In 1999, The Matrix was released. It made a ridiculous amount of money and is widely regarded as one of the best science fiction films of all time. (Though its sequels, far less so.) It featured amazing action sequences, choreographed by the equally amazing Woo Ping, who also choreographed Tai Chi Master (1993), Kill Bill, Part 1 (2003) and Part 2 (2004) and Fearless (2006).
But most significantly, in 2000, another film choreographed by Woo Ping was released: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It was with this film that Oriental Cinema can truly be said to have reached the Occidental mainstream. It became the highest grossing foreign language film of all time, won several awards including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and was the first martial arts film ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Because of Crouching Tiger, several other martial arts films were given American releases, such as Jet Li’s Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004), and Steven Chow’s hilarious comedy Kung Fu Hustle (2004). Crouching Tiger became a pop culture phenomenon and made international stars of Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, and Ziyi Zhang.
Asian cinema’s renaissance continued, and DVD became a bastion of martial art releases (and rereleases, allowing actors like Donnie Yen to gain worldwide popularity, despite not having any starring roles in Hollywood. Which, by the way, if you have not yet seen it, go watch Fist of Legend (1994) and Ip Man (2008) and Ip Man 2 (2010). In Ip Man and its sequel, Yen plays Yip Man, the Wing Chun master that trained Bruce Lee.
The early 2000s also saw a rise of popularity of Thai martial art, Muay Thai – a surge perhaps coming out of the craze for UFC, where it has long been a staple. Regardless, in 2003 Muay Thai fighter Tony Jaa was cast in a film called Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003). Tony Jaa is amazing, he is ridiculously fast, and do not mess with his elephant. (If you do not understand the last part of that sentence then go watch Jaa’s 2005 film, The Protector.) Ong-Bak was so successful that Jaa starred in two sequels. Though he has yet to star in a Western film, Jaa remains one of the most popular martial arts actors in the world.
Martial arts films have fluctuated in popularity. Several films have had major theatrical releases, and some have been so terrible that even devotees of the genre don’t hear of them until they show up on Netflix. The same could be said for all movies. For every Enter the Dragon or Crouching Tiger there will be a Knucklehead or Ninja Cheerleaders. Bad movies will always happen, but at least martial arts cinema is on a steady, if occasionally roller-coaster-like, rise. With films like the Jet Li-starring, Hong Kong-Chinese production Flying Swords of Dragon Gate out last month in the US in 3D (and in IMAX!), and with the much-anticipated American studio film Man with the Iron Fists (starring Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu, plus written and directed by hip hop impresario The RZA) being released in November, martial arts films don’t seem to be going anywhere. They are staying in the mainstream – exactly where they belong.
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