Sure, I watched a few Arnie movies as a kid, but those were the blatantly child-friendly movies. I’m talking Kindergarten Cop and Jingle All The Way, fun romps to be sure, but nothing to prepare me for the awakening I had last year.
It all began when John convinced me to watch his favourite films from the 90’s (and a few from the 80’s). I decided to indulge my husband’s nostalgia. How was I to know it would end in an movie obsession that would leave me with a classic-action-movie-sized hole, never to be filled? I’ve had a hard time identifying what it is about these action movies that is still so appealing, so I thought I’d write a post trying to figure it out.
They’re Intensely Optimistic
I recently watched Sicario. It was an intense action (/crime/thriller) flick that follows the story of Kate Macer “an idealistic FBI agent [who] is enlisted by a government task force to aid in the escalating war against drugs at the border area between the U.S. and Mexico”. While it was certainly a thought-provoking and well-executed film, it was also reeeaaaalllllllllyyy depressing.
Have you ever noticed that? Some of the “best” films out there also happen to be the ones that leave you feeling like you’ve been punched in the gut. Perhaps it’s the gritty realism of contemporary films that sets them apart from previous action films, but that realism also prevents them from being a true escape from real-world troubles.
If you go back and watch almost any 90’s action movie you can go into it knowing your protagonist won’t come out of his adventure emotionally scarred. Instead, you know he’ll just rampage across your screen, kicking butt and taking names.
EVAN: Last week you all voted for us to talk about the popularity of kung fu movies, so that is what we’re doing. The question that’s been on my mind being, why aren’t they popular anymore?
GORDON: See, I’m gonna have to butt heads with you right out of the gate. I just don’t think that kung fu movies are unpopular- at least, not anymore than at the supposed height of their glory…
EVAN: But there’s definite evidence of a time when they were all the rage. There were the dubbed martial arts films in the 70s and 80s, as well as the immense popularity of actors like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and now Jet Li.
GORDON: No argument there.
EVAN: Recently, all that really comes to mind is Li’s role in The Expendables 2. Which is by no means a large one, considering the immensity of its cast.
GORDON: Well, that’s part of the problem- movies have developed since the 70s and 80s- none perhaps more dramatically than the action flick. Take The Matrix, for example.
EVAN: Definitely a revolutionary flick.
GORDON: Amazing stunts, choreography, and so on- and all hugely influenced by kung fu movies. In fact, Wikipedia goes right ahead and lists it as a “King Fu” movie.
Now look at an action film from the 60s or 70s. At the very best, you get Dirty Harry pistol-whipping some thug, and more often than not, you get Captain Kirk doing some weird slap-fight with a man in green spandex.
EVAN: Hey, that man in green spandex had it coming.
GORDON: This is true. What I’m driving at here, I guess, is that kung fu movies haven’t gone away- they’ve been incorporated into every major action flick made since the 80s.
Just look at fight scenes in a modern action movie- that’s Judo, or Jui Jitsu, or Karate, or Muay Thai, and so on and so forth.
EVAN: Okay, let me come at this from a different angle. Would you say that at this point in time, Jet Li is the go-to guy as an Asian actor who specializes in martial arts?
GORDON: More or less, sure.
EVAN: How many [Western] movies has the guy been in compared to Jason Statham?
GORDON: Couldn’t say. I’m guessing Statham’s got him beat, though.
EVAN: Why is it that more often than not, whenever martial arts are depicted in a movie they’re performed by a white guy?
GORDON: Oof- where to begin? Tacit racism, hiring ease, translation, and so on.
EVAN: I’m just saying that there was a time, mid to late 90s and early 00s where Asian actors could still headline these films. You’ve got the Rush Hour films and Shanghai Noon and its sequel, to name some Jackie Chan vehicles. And you had stuff like Romeo Must Die with Jet Li.
As far as Wikipedia can tell me, all the martial arts films starring Asians in the last few years were made in Asia.
GORDON: And are nevertheless seen by Western audiences. Take The Raid, an Indonesian film, or The Man With the Iron Fists, which people are pretty psyched for, or Tony Jaa’s work.
EVAN: Yes. Tony Jaa.
GORDON: As there did before. I mean, barring certain movies, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Rush Hour, how much appeal did kung fu movies have anyways? I’m not knocking them or anything, but it seems that with certain exceptions for major pieces, kung fu movies (in the West) have always been mostly popular as a sugenre with fans of said subgenre. Much like the monster movie, or the sci-fi horror.
EVAN: At some point they epitomized the action genre, so I’d say they had a lot of appeal. I mean, it rode the trend of dojos and whatnot opening up all over North America.
GORDON: Wasn’t that with the 80s stupid action flick, though? I mean, c’mon. It was the 80s. Get some Aryan guy to face-kick a bunch of minorities, slap on an over-the-top title and you’ve got a hit.
EVAN: I was mostly referring to the fact that Asian martial arts films became so popular that they started creating them in Hollywood, using Asian actors.
GORDON: So the issue here isn’t kung fu- it’s Asians in media…
EVAN: We can concentrate on the genre and its popularity before we follow that train of thought. Why do you think it’s lessened so much? And if it has, what has replaced it?
GORDON: I think that the rise in awareness of martial arts in the West is responsible for that. Suddenly, you can get all the amazing choreographed fights without them being (necessarily) rooted in Asian culture.
The equivalent would probably be the Western/Cop flick and it’s influence on Hong Kong action movies.
EVAN: So what you’re saying is that Western culture has realized that this isn’t a genre that solely the East can lay claim to.
GORDON: Not entirely, anyways. Depends on how you define a “Kung Fu Movie.” I was just going with a movie that’s heavily rooted in martial arts.
EVAN: I mean, I’d say that it’s because the Asian actors that we [Westerners] can relate to are getting old. Jackie Chan is 58. Jet Li is 49. No one has really stepped up [or has been able to] and taken their places.
GORDON: Well- no argument there. Barring perhaps Tony Jaa. Who will **** you up if you so much as look at his elephant the wrong way.
EVAN: ช้าง อยู่ ไหน [chang yuu nai]?! If you saw the movie, you’d get it.
GORDON: Go see the movie. Now.
EVAN: Watch it please. Tom Yum Goong as it was released in Thailand, but retitled The Protector for an American release.
GORDON: Also, eat tom yum goong. It is the best thing ever.
EVAN: Anyway. I just think it’s interesting, the fact that there’s clearly still an interest in Asian martial arts.
Using two panda-related examples, Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda movies, and Blizzard’s upcoming expansion for World of WarCraft, Mists of Pandaria.
GORDON: This is true.
EVAN: Pandarens had existed in WarCraft for years before those movies, by the way. Just for everyone who’s saying that Blizzard ripped the concept of anthropomorphic martial arts fighting pandas from a Jack Black movie.
GORDON: And with that, we’re out of time.
EVAN: Don’t we have ten more minutes? We started at ten past.
GORDON: Oh. I thought we started on the hour.
EVAN: Nay. And we’re keeping all of this dialogue.
GORDON: To assure our readers that we too are flawed mortals?
EVAN: Well, that one of us is.
Back on the subject- let’s not forget that thanks to Netflix and piracy, it’s easier and easier to get movies from out of the country anyways. Just look at Red Cliff.
EVAN: Red Cliff?
GORDON: Epic action movie. Based on ancient Chinese history, and a text called “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” if I recall correctly. Some sort of an Eastern equivalent to “swords and sandals” flicks. Which are awesome, by the way.
EVAN: Yes. We do love our “swords and sandals” movies.
GORDON: Go watch Ironclad. Watch it now.
EVAN: If only to watch Paul Giamatti’s veins pop out on his neck as an angry King John.
GORDON: Words cannot describe how irritated he is in that movie. It defies logic. Also, a man gets beaten to death with his own arm.
EVAN: Actually, I am fairly sure the severed arm belonged to a different guy.
Back on topic one last, time, before we run out of it- It seems that Asian cinema continues to chug on, producing martial arts movies even if Western Cinema has since moved past that. In a way, what was popular for a period of time in Hollywood never stopped in Asia. Though those movies still changed the action genre in a huge way.
GORDON: Absolutely. From The Bourne Identity to Batman Begins, the blood of Kung Fu movies still pumps strong. And with that, we’re out of time. Be sure to swing in next week for our discussion on the upcoming season of Community.
EVAN: Nooooooooo. That’s next-next week. The day before the new season starts.
GORDON: Why must you make a fool of me?
EVAN: Why must you make a fool of yourself.
GORDON: Anyways. Be sure to vote for our discussion topic next week.