Okay, let me chuck a bit of a disclaimer on this: I LOVE martial arts in movies, TV, and videogames; from the early Shaw Bros. Films, through Monkey Magic, through the Bruce Lee era, right up to the modern stuff. That being said, as a student of the martial arts for the last ten years, the perception of martial arts that the general public seems to have gleaned from being exposed to this type of media is, at best, misinformed.
After obtaining my black belt in Karate, one of my friends asked me whether I had to register myself as a lethal weapon. But more than this, a martial arts student involved in an assault is expected to disarm and/or subdue their attacker without hurting them; there is an expectation that these people are superhuman. Whilst I agree that those with (decent) martial arts training are more likely to be able to handle themselves in a violent situation, I suggest that movies have maybe taken this a little too far, and for all that we understand that it’s all just make believe, this idea of the superhuman ninja master persists.
Let’s look at a few of the major culprits:
To begin at the beginning, Bruce Lee brought Kung Fu to the western world. Martial arts schools grew exponentially as people were swept up in the craze. Yet how much of what we saw on the screen was actually credible? In short, very little.
Time and time again we saw our hero fight off an army, yet how is it he was never overwhelmed? Because he only had to deal with them one at a time! Watch the fight choreography and you’ll see a bunch of people in the background, jumping around posing — whilst one attacker launches themselves at Lee. Generally he kicks them in the chest, and then the next person comes at him.
This choreography is typical for movies of the era, and even many more recent films. If I was one person in a group of a hundred looking on as one guy kicked our collective proverbial ass, wouldn’t I think, even just for a second “Hey, maybe if we all ran at him at once, he can only kick a couple of us in the face at a time.. maybe someone will get a lucky shot”? Then there’s the “videogame” style effect, where each bad guy only needs to be hit once to be rendered unconscious for the rest of the day, yet the hero takes blow after blow, still fighting on.
Bruce Lee originally trained in Wing Chun, a style of Kung Fu known for close quarter fighting, involving a lot of hand trapping, short, direct strikes, and very little in the way of flash. Kicks are limited to low level, aiming at targets like the knee. Now admittedly Bruce branched out from Wing Chun, developing his own style of Jeet Kun Do, but since it was based on the fundamentals learned through Wing Chun, guess what it didn’t look like? Can anyone say, “most of his movies”?
Other famous movie moments:
The Karate Kid (the original, not the remake, which doesn’t actually feature any Karate!) does have some flashes of brilliance: Mr Miyagi shows some classic movements in their practical application — “wax on, wax off” works… to a degree. Watch the fight scenes that involve Mr Miyagi, and there’s very little in the way of flashy kicks and acrobatics, but quite a bit of traditional Karate. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to rub off on Daniel San. Whilst indeed a traditional move, the crane stance he pulls in the final bout of the big tournament does not, in its real world application, have anything to do with the lame ass jumping front kick he pulls out. What a load. And as for the drum scene in The Karate Kid II, the one with the crowd all holding hand drums, where he basically wins his fight by hitting the guy over and over again… seriously, would you not just take a step back? Seriously!
Let’s keep moving. Jean Claude Van Damme and Bloodsport. Why is it that Plan A involves taking your foot, the lowest part of your body and swinging it at the highest part of your opponents body, their head? Look — it’s a fun movie, but let’s compare Bloodsport (a movie that portrays a no holds barred inter-discipline tournament) with the first Ultimate Fighting Championship events (an actual no holds barred inter-discipline tournament), back in the early 90’s. In the real thing, practitioners of the grappling arts — wrestling, Judo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Aikido, Sambo and the like — take out their matches in a series of massive upsets. But why was this the first time that most people had even heard of Jiu-Jitsu? Because it’s not flashy, it’s complicated, there’s no blood, and it takes a level of understanding to appreciate as a spectator sport. Bottom line, it doesn’t make the grade in a movie context.
Enter Jet Li and Jackie Chan, two of Kung Fu’s most successful exports. At the very least they upped the ante a little. Instead of the one-on-one action that we became used to, suddenly they started looking at ways to have the hero fighting multiple opponents at once. Not only this, but the surroundings started becoming part of the choreography, allowing the hero to use the furniture and whatever else was on hand as a weapon. But this was a double-edged sword. Yes, the fights were made more realistic — the bad guys are attacking at once, there’s environmental factors to take into account, and the wire work has even been toned down (no more flying technique, or leaping tall buildings in a single bound, something that reached its zenith in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). But, also, the fights were made more realistic, which in turn made people more inclined to believe that these choreographed and well-rehearsed feats are possible in real life — which they are not.
Quick heads up: there’s no effective defense for a plank of wood to the back of the head, if you don’t see it coming. (Bad guys know this.)
We’ve all seen those fight scenes where two guys (or gals) punch, kick, block, evade, and seemingly never actually land a strike on each other. They fight for long scenes, neither one gaining the upper hand, maybe occasionally landing a strike, but never enough to put the other person down. Most actual fights last for 20-30 seconds on the street… even ones involving students of the martial arts. The longer you are involved in a fight, the more likely you will get hurt, so any decent martial art will train to subdue an attacker as quickly as possible, allowing you to escape. You add weaponry to this (a knife for example) and in 90% of cases, the defender will end up cut, somehow, somewhere. (Actual statistic not based on research)
Fortunately, movies have, in some ways at least, started to become a little more true to life. Movies worth watching for their attempts at authenticity include Unleashed (starring the aforementioned Jet Li), A History of Violence, and if you haven’t had a chance to catch Ong Bak and its sequels, do it!! Fight scenes are becoming faster, more brutal, less about flash, and more about showing how much the hero is serious about kicking ass. The movie industry has turned away from the showy styles of Wushu and Tae Kwon Do, and started looking towards the likes of Krav Maga, the ruthlessly efficient Israeli hand-to-hand, memorably used to lethal effect by Matt Damon in the Jason Bourne series. This is all good, in my modest opinion.
Movies are pretend. We all know this. But if people can complain that the plots of The Terminator and Revenge of the Fallen aren’t credible, then I can complain that the fight scenes in movies are in no way reflective of actual martial arts. So next time someone tells you they do Karate, don’t say “wax on, wax off” with one leg in the air and your hands above your head. You look like an idiot. I love a Kung Fu action film as much as the next guy (and so will most students of the martial arts), but understand that what you see there (like Superman’s ability to fly) is 60% Hollywood special effects, 20% gymnastics, 10% wire work, maybe 10% actual martial arts.
There ends the lesson, grasshopper.
In addition to his black belt in Karate, Jason Murdoch’s martial arts background includes Kobudo, Brazilian Ju-Jitsu, Escrima, Muay Thai and Krav Maga. You probably do not want to mess with him. – Ed.