The story of how Hollywood now dominates 'Martial Arts Cinema'
Jackie Chan had been introduced to the west with 1995’s Rumble in The Bronx, even though it was largely an Asian production, it was aimed at an international audience, due to its setting and mix of Asian and Caucasian actors. Chan used his knowledge of stunts and choreography to dazzle audiences, fending off attackers with a ski and jumping from a car park roof to a neighbouring balcony. This was a turning point, as it catapulted him from a niche star outside of Asia, to an international one. Rush Hour (1998), was an all US production, teaming him up with the fast talking Chris Tucker. It was a smart move, as Chan did his talking with his fists, due to his English being so-so. Jackie brought his stuntmen with him to create the action scenes, something he wasn’t allowed to do, way back in the early 80’s, when he had first tried to crack America. But The Matrix was unique at this point, being an American Sci-Fi spectacular that specifically hired a Hong Kong team, just to handle the action. The Wachowskis were admitting that there was a gap in the knowledge of film fighting, that Yuen and his team could educate them on. The film caused an explosion in Hong Kong/Hollywood collaboration, with mixed results, from Charlie’s Angels (2000) to Bullet Proof Monk (2003), to Jet Li’s path into the mainstream with Romeo Must Die (2000) and The One (2001). The Hong Kong style was in demand, precipitated by the decline of the industry. Golden Harvest, the largest studio in Hong Kong, which had made Jackie Chan a star, and had forayed into American territory, with the production of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) shut its studios, just keeping afloat by producing, with mainland China’s pedigree on the rise. This caused a lot of Hong Kong directors to start making movies in the west, with an emphasis on hand-to-hand combat. Cory Yuen directing Jason Statham in The Transporter (2002) for example. This would involve multiple techniques within one take, wider angles to see the action better, cutting to emphasise a blow, rather than fast cutting that covered up the actors inability to fight, which would make the action appear fast and erratic. Jason Statham taking on a garage full of bad guys, while trying not to stick to an oil flooded floor, could have only been orchestrated by a director, schooled in the Hong Kong tradition. This encapsulated the cooperation between east and west, sparking a revolution in Martial Arts Cinema.
After the initial excitement in the early 2000’s, China was again the master of martial arts choreography - Donnie Yen, a protégé of Yuen Woo Ping, would become the biggest star in the new Hong Kong/China studio system, choreographing his own fight scenes in crime thriller SPL (2005), showcasing his kicking ability, but also increasingly using MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), incorporating ground fighting, which had rarely been seen on film but was proving effective in competitive fighting. He would then collaborate again with director Wilson Yip, in his most famous role, playing Bruce Lee’s real life Wing Chun teacher: Ip Man (2008). Sammo Hung provided the action directing, having been responsible for bringing Wing Chun to the big screen, way back in 1978, with Warrior’s Two. Martial arts fans still looked to Asia, as they were still producing a range of martial art movies, whether that was thrillers, martial art biographies, or Wuxia epics, like John Woo’s Red Cliff (2008). It wasn’t long before other Asian nations were getting involved, Thailand’s Tony Jaa flying kneed his way onto the screen with Ong Bak in 2003, showcasing an aggressive form of Muay Thai, relishing in realism and acrobatics, and shying away from wire work. Then Welshmen Gareth Edwards, opened the door for Indonesia with The Raid (2011), which made a star out of Iko Uwais and his martial art of choice; Penjak Silat (a striking art that uses all of the body, and includes throws and locks), the action used wide angles like traditional Hong Kong film-making, but was bloodier, relishing in the injury sustained by an opponent, and the damage to the protagonist, the fights would also be longer than audiences had seen before. A group of American stuntmen were watching all of this unfold, taking notes.
Chad Stahelski, who was the founder of stunt team 87eleven with David Leitch, was Keanu Reeve’s stunt double on The Matrix, and it's his career he would reinvigorate with his directorial debut: John Wick (2014). You can look at John Wick, as a true US martial arts film, made by American stuntmen, influenced by Asia. The simple plot of animal lover and badass assassin; Mr. Wick, getting his revenge on the gangsters who killed his dog, was a sleeper hit, as it announced its own style of action, which audiences loved. It relied heavily on guns, dispatching opponents quickly and with precision, appealing to American’s love for the firearm, it used Jiu-Jitsu and Judo techniques made popular by the UFC (The Ultimate Fighting Championship, arguably the 21st centuries fastest growing sport), it was brutal like the Indonesian style, and most importantly it used superior stuntmen (cultivated by Chad and David, whose USP was training their actors for months and pre-visualising all the key scenes in their dojo) and longer cuts, influenced by Hong Kong. This was a statement of intent and has influenced other stuntmen to try their hand at directing, with Jesse V. Johnson orchestrating a mash up of action stars in Triple Threat (2019) and Sam Hargrave, learning his trade as a stunt performer on the Marvel films, directing Chris Hemsworth in Extraction (2020), which contains a continuous shot of a car chase, the camera flying in-and-out of the vehicle, with erratic freedom - evolving into a hand-to-hand combat scene, with a fluidity we haven’t seen before. It also comes with an 18 rating, unheard of, in days of yore. With the John Wick franchise showing no sign of slowing down, and martial arts finally cracking television, with Gareth Evan’s crime drama Gangs of London, delivering action scenes only previously reserved for feature films, the students of action cinema have become the masters.
As one stock goes up, the other inevitably declines. China now dominates the Asian market, increasingly making its own blockbusters or collaborating with Hollywood on Chinese friendly films such as The Meg (2018) or SkyScraper (2018), that feature Chinese characters, or are partly set in Asia. The fantasy epic, soaked in CGI, has become China’s go-to medium, to feature any kind of martial arts. In 2019, the only significant Kung Fu movie produced, was Ip Man 4, a passable but slightly desperate attempt to continue a franchise, which had reached a satisfying conclusion, and we had to wait until Christmas for it. The main issue is the lack of new stars, the legends of the golden era are still soldiering on, with Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung appearing in new projects, in 2020. With both well into retirement age, new blood is desperately needed. There has been an increasing reliance on pop-stars turned actors, to fill the gap, with only Max Zhang, who appeared alongside Donnie Yen in Ip Man 3 (2015), looking like a worthy talent, even he is well into his 40’s though. Apart from a couple of Donnie Yen films, Asia has very little slated for release this year, in terms of the martial arts genre. This must be its lowest point since the emergence of Golden Harvest in the late 70’s. Hollywood, is now the leader of the pack, it took its time to catch up, but it is now at the forefront of action cinema. Yuen Woo Ping, still going strong at 75, has done what every great teacher must do, impart his knowledge on his students. Even though we are witnessing the sad end to an epic chapter, the new one being written is as exciting as ever, and fans of the genre are the ultimate victors.