The Decline and Fall of Martial Arts Films and the Rise of the Action Blockbuster Movie
Comparing martial arts films of the 1970s to the action blockbusters of 2009/10
Red Cliff, Ip Man and True Legend are already iconic of the early 21st century “martial arts films”-although many can argue they are more action spectacle than true “kung fu” films. The 1970s, on the other hand, didn’t rely on eye-candy effects and were defined more by the true grit of its martial arts actors: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, the Five Venoms, Tomisaburo Wakayama, Jimmy Wong, and other real fighters trained in genuine kung fu, karate and other arts.
Martial Arts Becomes Mainstream But Evolves Into Spectacle
Cult classics such as Enter the Dragon helped change Hollywood. Its growing popularity forced filmmakers to adopt martial arts into the formula of the “action flick.” Through the eighties and nineties, spectacle thrillers were expected to deliver “the fight moves”, even if it was only a few basic moves supported by some stuntmen and wires. Action movies became spectacles that required equal blends of story, drama, pace, “kung fu”, special effects and improbable plot twists.
In the 21st century, this became less “equal” with films relying first on special effects, then improbably plot twists (surprise is important, right?), followed by pace, martial arts skills, drama and-last and possibly least today-story. This trend extended even to the hot movies of the last few years, including Kung Fu Panda, Forbidden Kingdom, G.I. Joe and even the Transformers.
Asian Film Industry Threatens to Out-Spectacle Hollywood
With the full support and weight of China’s cultural industries, Asian film has blossomed into mainstream spectacles in high demand, led by CGI treats such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers and other instant classics. Arguably, Asian film long ago surpassed Hollywood for imagination, with the western producers buying rights to several hugely successful Asian films. With the largest population demographic in the world, there can be no doubt that Chinese films are set to dominate the film industry in years to come.
Red Cliff and Ip Man are perhaps the best known of these new hit-classics, but the rumor mills and fansites are buzzing with all the latest “coming soon” gossip. The big buz movies in 2010 is True Legend (Su Qi Er), starring Zhao Wen-Zho as the historical Begger Su, the originator of drunken kung fu. Donnie Yen returns in both part 2 of the Ip Man saga and in the much anticipated 14 Blades. Chow Yun-Fat breaks the mold and surprises everyone in his role as Confucius.
Both Hollywood and Asia Rely on CGI and Special Effects
The growing spectacle and importance of the “action film” is both enjoyable to the escapist and annoying for the aficionado of the true martial arts. While the actors in many of the films-in particular Asian films-are genuine martial artists (for example, Donnie Yen, Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat)-the over-dependence on CGI and elaborate choreography turns the adventure into comic book. With notable exceptions, such as Ip Man and Tony Jaa in Ong Bak (and to a lesser extent Ong Bak 2 and 3), most action films rely on the “wow” factor of dazzling camera angles and computer-aided “enhancements.”
Ninja Assassin and the Cross-Over
There are, to be sure, cross-over films such as Ninja Assassin, where actor Rain trained 14 hours a day for months to perfect real martial arts moves (albeit only a handful of repeated moves), blended together with rather Matrix-like special effects. To some, the beauty of the realistic CGI takes away from the pleasure of watching well-choreographed real martial arts.
Ong Bak, on the other hand, led by genuine martial arts expert Tony Jaa, got by on solid martial arts and good choreography. No stuntmen, thank you. Tony Jaa was hailed as the “next Bruce Lee” for this reason, with much buzz and excitement in the martial arts community, and martial arts film fansites.
There’s No Escaping Escapism
Action films are, by design, escapist entertainment. They have become somewhat comic-book (pardon me, graphic novel), but that’s what most audiences do want. We want to forget reality.
Kill Bill and Kill Bill 2 probably came closest to the ideal mix for both the escapist fan and the martial arts practitioner-fan. While it wasn’t “real” by any means, and contained a brilliant and zesty blend of satire, comic-book, spoof, and choreography, it never-the-less nostalgically hearkened back to the wondrous days of Enter the Dragon and the classic Japanese Samarai films of the 70s.
Japanese Film Stays True to Martial Arts Traditions?
Perhaps the film industry most aligned with the older traditions of martial arts film making is Japan. Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman, was a low-budget film, that became an instant cult classic. Zatoichi took movie audiences back to the classic real-sword skills of the old Samarai films of the earlier decades, and spawned video games and an entire industry.
Less is More? Where is the Real Martial Arts Skill?
Genuine martial arts actors still abound-led by superstars such as Donnie Yen and Jet Li-and most Chinese martial arts actors are proficient. In Hollywood, the film-makers opt for four-move choreography (two kicks, a block and a punch), multiple camera angles (particularly close ups when the skills of the martial artist are not genuine), pounding music, FX, and stuntmen. With the old hopefuls gone from the Hollywood big screen-Chuck Norris, Jean Claude Van Damme and the other promising real martial artists-there’s now a world of difference between Asian film actors-who work in frigid cold, fourteen hours a day in often primitive conditions, hammering out genuinely complex martial arts moves for relatively paltry paychecks-and Hollywood films that now rely on computer and actor stand-ins.
Batman Now Does Kung Fu
Batman now does kung fu, and so does G.I. Joe, and even Hellboy. They’re fun, but the martial artist fan misses the great luminaries of martial arts films who built their careers on the “real thing”: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, David Chiang, Sonny Chiba, Chen Kuan-tai, Tomisaburo Wkayama, Jimmy Wong Yu, Ti Lung and the Liu brothers.