The story of how Hollywood now dominates 'Martial Arts Cinema'
It has finally happened, Hollywood has learned all it can from Hong Kong’s action aficionados and now leads the world, when it comes to on-screen combat. This has been developing for a while, with the decline of the once flourishing, and innovative Hong Kong film industry that taught the world how to display action on-screen, its dominance starting in the late 70’s, enjoying its golden period, roughly between the mid 80’s and mid 90’s. As we enter into the Corona-disrupted schedule of 2020, it has finally become clear of a shift in expertise. The release of Extraction, the Sky Atlantic series: Gangs of London and the continuing John Wick franchise, have all produced innovative and brutal action sequences, the likes of which we haven’t seen before. Whereas 2019/20 is looking like the sparsest years, in terms of Chinese action cinema, in living memory. Audiences will ultimately benefit from this surge in talent, but should remember who the masters of this art were, and how they decided to teach all they knew, at a risk of the knowledge dying out.
The majesty of Hong Kong action choreography, reached mainstream audiences with The Matrix in 1999. The Wachowski Brothers (now sisters), were big fans of Hong Kong cinema, and decided to ask the best man in the business to take care of the action, rather than trying to replicate it themselves. So they turned to Yuen Woo Ping. Yuen had been working in the industry since the 70’s, his father Siu Tin Yuen (Simon Yuen) had a small opera school and taught Yuen and his many brothers, the same art form that Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao would come to learn at the Peking Drama Academy. After entering the Hong Kong Film industry, as Peking opera was in decline, Yuen shot to fame as a director, colliding with Jackie Chan, at just the right time in 1978- with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master (Yuen’s father starring as the drunken master himself, Beggar So), cementing both of their careers. He continued to direct and choreograph throughout the 90’s, working with the likes Donnie Yen and Jet Li. Yuen’s skill, has always been to adapt his action with the times, his early films using classical Kung Fu styles, which developed into more of a modern street style, using more violent and unconventional moves where needed. This is best encapsulated in Fist of Legend (1994), starring Jet Li- it is a remake of Bruce Lee’s Fist Of Fury (1972) and features traditional Kung Fu, incorporated with western kickboxing, with liberal use of wire work. The film became a cult classic, with the style of fighting closely resembling what he would use on The Matrix. The use of wire work, is often signalled as the difference between western and eastern action at this time, although it is an integral part, it started to become overused on films post Matrix. The key difference is the ability of the stunt performers, the camera work and the editing. So what was happening in Hollywood before The Matrix shifted everyone’s consciousness?
Bruce Lee had made Kung Fu and Karate popular in the US, and introduced Chuck Norris to the world, by fighting him in a Roman colosseum in Way of The Dragon (1972). Chuck was the first bonafide martial art star in Hollywood, following Bruce’s death in 1973. Hollywood had been adept at different kinds of action scenes- from car chases, first introduced in the original Scarface (1932), and shoot outs, popularised in a thousand westerns. Chuck Norris, used these and added a martial art element to films such as Missing in Action (1984) and Delta Force (1986). But these action sequences would often consist of a Karate kick, captured in one shot, whereas Hong Kong cinema had already perfected multiple techniques in one take. The American style, would be encapsulated by Jean Claude-Van Damme, dubbed the muscles from Brussels, he trained in full contact Karate, but would ironically shoot to fame in Kickboxer (1989) .His fights would focus on a single kick, usually a jumping spinning kick, followed by the splits, played in slow motion and lacking the fluidity of movement, cinephiles had come to expect from watching Jackie Chan destroy a shopping mall in Police Story (1985). Steven Seagal offered something a little different, when he burst onto the scene in 1988’s Above The Law (a.k.a Nico), using Aikido to twist arms and throw opponents through tables, however he didn’t have the ability to adapt this style, so it quickly became one-note. Hollywood had money and the ability to use special effects in a superior way, but couldn’t match a group of dedicated stuntman, with a wire rig and a bunch of apple boxes. The distinction was time, Hong Kong cinema dedicated months to a fight scene that Hollywood would only schedule for a matter of days or weeks, prioritising dialogue over action. However once studios realised that audiences wanted to see improved action, this was all about to change.