Recently, I was asked to comment on the resurgence of martial arts in this country. I find that difficult to answer, as the question makes assumptions that don’t quite hold water for me.
Martial Arts is big time. Has been. Will be more so. It’s not really so much a “renewed interest” as it is, for the first time, a truly mainstream interest. While everything on this planet cycles in and out and up and down, the growth of martial arts and Asian philosophy has been evenly progressive in this country, as well as in Europe and the rest of the world, ever since the movement first began. I was there. At the very beginning, with the help of the folks at Warner Brothers, I was privileged to become an evangelist for the arts.
I think what these folks are seeing are the shifting sands. The beach is eaten away in one spot. Sand dunes disappear with the changing weather, but all you have to do is look around, and you’ll find that new sand dunes and wide beaches have appeared down the coast somewhere.
The truth was, schools sprang up on every block in every town, all over the world: kung fu, Tai Kwan Doh and even dojos advertising “Karate/Kung Fu”. That process has never slowed down. Most young people these days who are not on drugs are studying some martial art, at least casually.
The first rush of martial arts movies played itself out, after the death of Bruce Lee, and years of exploitation with Chuck Norris, Jean Claude Van Damme and Stephen Seagal leading the parade, and numerous Bruce Lee clones bringing up the rear. These films, as glad as we all were to see them, were genre things, appealing mainly to martial arts fans. These movies slipped out of style because of several factors: a glut of them for one thing, poor stories for another, repeating the same themes over and over for yet another. Plus, I think maybe audiences grew tired of the stolid performances and poor production quality.
The Karate Kid series was an exception to this wasteland: high quality production, story, and acting, and a fairly benign philosophical message. Pat Morita was actually recognized by The Motion Picture Academy for his work. This was unique for a martial arts film. But, The Karate Kid had a mystique and philosophy reminiscent of the old Kung Fu series, while all the rest were pretty much fight pictures, focused on crime and revenge, and didn’t have much about them to engage the mind.
Even so, these movies were building awareness of the arts. All this time, the martial arts were becoming integrated into mainstream media, simply because so many people were studying some form of them, and it just doesn’t make sense in a film about modern times for a cop or any other kind of action hero not to be using them.
I remember in Lethal Weapon 4, when Jet Li showed up, the game was newly afoot. That movie came out simultaneously with Godzilla, and Jet Li seemed infinitely harder to kill than the big lizard. All the computer graphics and the destruction of New York City paled next to Jet’s moves. That final fight, with Mel and Danny, with no weapons except a couple of pieces of pipe, was a battle of The Titans. What we needed, it seems, was fresh blood. Real Chinese gung fu. And we got it. Then Jackie Chan finally broke through in the U.S., after 30 years of trying, with Rush Hour; captivating everyone not just with his moves, stupendous though they are, but with his cheerfulness and comedy as well, something that had always been missing from the stuff which preceded him, ever since we lost Bruce Lee, who had the same flair (and of course, Pat Morita, with his “wax on wax off” in The Karate kid). That’s definitely one of the factors that holds our interest. Making it fun.
The generation that grew up on the Kung Fu series and Bruce Lee’s films is still out there, and a great many of them became martial artists themselves. I can’t tell you how often people stop me on the street to tell me that I changed their lives; sometimes it’s saved their lives.
Now, with these new, high-tech movies, video games, even aerobic workouts derived from martial arts, a whole new generation of followers is appearing. And don’t forget the cartoons. Every Saturday morning, my kids are glued to the set watching superheroes battle the forces of evil with martial arts.
And among the Black communities the martial arts are huge. Have always been. Blaxploitation movies are full of it. The boys in the hood have to know it just to stay in one piece.
A great factor in the wide interest in martial arts today has to do with the theme being applied to modern situations and contemporary thought. Another is, paradoxically, its use of fantasy.
With The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, we got martial arts as magic. The balletic quality of Wu Shu helps that effect along. How long audiences will be fascinated by this extreme fantasy applied to martial arts we don’t know. As I’ve said, everything cycles.
Nevertheless, it’s for certain; the martial arts are here to stay, in movies and in popular culture. When kung fu fighting rides a wagon as provocative as the ideas presented in The Matrix, we pay attention. Then there is the ineffable beauty that was Crouching Tiger, the silly, madcap fun of Charlie’s Angels. And I guess DareDevil (one of my favorites) somehow brought it back home. I almost believe that those two can really jump that high.
Kill Bill may put a period to the genre as we know it now, because the film is so exclusive and yet so inclusive, so far beyond anything I’ve seen before, and with only very light use of special effects, and not much stunt doubling. We just fight. And, in Quentin Tarantino’s hands, less is definitely more. It’s an act that will be difficult to follow.
Another vital element is the women. For the first time in American movie history, we’re seeing female characters who not only kick butt, but who are Masters, extreme athletes beyond any male heroes we saw in the old days. Starting out, I think, with Bridget Fonda in Point of No Return, we began to see women who could lick their weight in NFL fullbacks. And what’s more, we saw them, or their stunt-doubles, doing remarkable physical feats. Think of the high-flying rope work by Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. And take a look at Jennifer Garner, one tough lady, both in her Alias series and in Daredevil.
There have never been any great martial arts directors in America, until these new guys came over from China. Ang Lee, John Wu, those guys. And Yuen Wu Ping, with whom I worked on Kill Bill, has made all these directors look better than they are. He’s really responsible, almost single-handedly, for the current explosion.
Even so, old-style Western bare-knuckle fighting will always be with us. Take a look at the punch Sir Sean Connery throws in the trailer for his new movie, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or Mark Wahlberg decking Edward Norton in The Italian Job. But, in modern day street-fighting, the martial arts is here to stay, and a movie that skips over it is going to be irrelevant to what’s really going on out there.
I’ve been supporting and evangelizing the arts with books, instructional tapes, seminars and such for all these intervening years.
I have to love it.