MAKING THE CASE FOR STAYING WHERE THEY ARE
by Michael S Moore
Bruce Lee. Jackie Chan. Jet Li. Michelle Yeoh. Sammo Hung. Donnie Yen. Colin Chou. Ringo Lam. Tsui Hark. John Woo. All of them greats of martial arts films, almost all of them legendary in shaping martial arts cinema in one way or another. Many of them are entering the twilight of their respective careers due to age, and already a new crop of martial artists have come up, smashing their way into film: Tony Jaa, Jacky Wu Jing, Jeeja Yanin, Johnny Nguyen, and Iko Uwais, just to name a few. All of them incredibly talented with positive outlooks on the future for them all, entertaining us with fantastic acrobatics and amazing martial arts skills. Which is why it is so important that, despite what they may think and even what they might feel, they never come to these shores.
What all of the first group I mentioned have in common is that they all came to the USA to make films, and with but one exception, have failed here. First let’s understand why they came here. Bruce had already been in America before, doing the Green Hornet before forging his career in Hong Kong, and then returning to us to do Enter The Dragon, so that’s more or less understood. In the case of the others, Jackie Chan had come here once before but returned on his own terms with Rumble in the Bronx, which was a box office success. This opened the gates for everyone to try their hand, as that was shortly before China took control of Hong Kong, and no one knew what would happen to the freedoms they had enjoyed for so long, fearing the censorship that could occur under China’s control. I think the allure of Hollywood beckoned them, not necessarily because of the money, which was far more than they ever made here, but because they would enjoy less stressful productions, since they only needed to work on one film at a time (in Hong Kong many of them would be working on 2-3 films at the same time!), and due to their advanced ages, at least for the actors, less stress and strain on the body, since they would have some stunt doubles for some of the more crazier stunts. For the directors, it was a chance to work with bigger budgets and a different crop of movie stars. All of these wishes came true. They also resulted in failure and a complete waste of time.
To start with, one of the problems is that Hollywood wooed them here with promises of increased fame and fortune, and then proceeded to strip away all of the things that made them special to begin with.
One of the biggest issues are the fight scenes themselves. In the words of director Brett Ratner, on the first Rush Hour commentary, he stated that “Americans don’t like long fight scenes. A fight needs to be no more than 2 minutes long at most”. Let me go on record for citing just how foolish and wrong that is, and that relegating Jackie Chan to 2 minutes is heresy. I would almost agree with his assessment-if you are talking about horrible fight scenes. These are people who have built careers on 5 to 10 to 30 minute fight scenes, and that’s what everyone wants to see, American or not. Unfortunately most USA directors agree with Ratner. Since this is so, they are having to not only shorten their fight scenes, but spend nearly zero time choreographing them, and they all wind up looking like shadows of their HK films. There’s not one fight in any of Jackie or Jet’s American films that resemble even their weakest HK efforts. Since they also can’t do any crazy falls or jumps or take hits due to the insurance companies, it further sanitized them.
Then we have the issue that, since they don’t speak much English, the need is felt to team them up with the likes of Chris Tucker, James Bond, Owen Wilson, Mark Walhberg, and DMX. Now we have someone who has equal, if not more screen time than they do either being overly dramatic or funny, which takes away from seeing one more fight scene, and the comedy has more misses than hits. The martial artist is pushed aside and relegated to being the sidekick who comes in and does a few moves before the up and coming actor takes over to be funny or dramatic. Then we come to the issue of CGI effects. You don’t need them if you have men and women who are their own greatest special effect. Seeing Jet defying gravity in Romeo Must Die or The One doesn’t come close to thrilling audiences as much as watching him fight Billy Chow at the end of Fist of Legend, or watching him and the Shaolin monks defend their temple at the end of Shaolin Temple.
Put simply, the Hollywood machine takes them all and makes them something we don’t want to see. It makes them tame. Less dangerous. Jackie Chan is a prime example of this. While in the USA he is forced to play buffoon after silly buffoon, and yes, in his HK films he is funny, but there was still danger there.You might laugh at or with him, but you still wouldn’t want to face him in a dark alley. The tigers have had their teeth pulled.
The good news is that most of them have gone back to Hong Kong, and have started making good films again. Donnie Yen may be the best Hong Kong martial artist working today, Sammo Hung has had a career renaissance with Killzone and Fatal Move, and the upcoming Ip Man 2, Michelle Yeoh is making waves in True Legend, Jet Li had the Warlords, but has mostly retired except for a few parts here and there, and Jackie Chan has been going back and forth between the USA and China, and has Shaolin and Chinese Zodiac in production, with Little Big Soldier and Shinjuku Incident recently released, while in the USA he had The Spy Next Door, which should tell you what Mr. Chan truly thinks of Hollywood, and his place in it.
I decided to write this after hearing calls on different blogsites and even among friends that they can’t wait “until Tony Jaa comes to the U.S.!” I would challenge that by asking “why would you want that?”
If Tony Jaa is what you want, you’ll never see that person here. If you believe he can make a film like The Protector here, with its jaw dropping 10 minute continous fight scene, you are kidding yourself. He would be a shadow of what you want him to be. Tony and the rest should stay at home and make their films there, under their own watchful eye and sensibilities, and the let them take flight in a way they never will be able to here.
I implore them, as a true fan of martial arts films, to stay in the comforts of home. Let fans in the United States love them from here, with our imports and subtitled films. Let our love reach across the ocean, and if Hollywood invites you here, please thank them for the offer, and then politely refuse. We won’t take it personally.