trend From Enter the Dragon to The Karate Kid, martial arts flicks have audiences hooked. But all of them have largely stuck to a formula, says parvathi nayar
“I t's like a finger pointing at the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of the heavenly glory.” Thus spoke Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, thereby instructing not just his onscreen student, but also a whole generation of moviegoers in the ways of kung fu. Needless to say, whole generations became hooked on martial arts movies.
Enter the Dragon (1973) was the first Chinese martial arts film produced by a major Hollywood studio, and the influence of Lee is far-reaching. For example, one of the stuntmen in the film was Jackie Chan, and though Lee summarily snapped his neck, the movie helped launch a career that sees him star in this year's The Karate Kid.
Or take Dev Patel, who is quoted as saying “As a kid, I would sneak downstairs while my dad watched Enter The Dragon and I'd watch Bruce Lee…” He stars in M Night Shyamalan's latest The Last Airbender that deals with martial arts and is also playing in town.
Martial arts movie servings tend to be variations of a recipe whose ingredients can include stylised dishum-dishum (more technical terms would be wirework, time lapse photography, CGI effects), a little flavour of magic (flying from rooftop to rooftop is a good one), and some mysterious sounding hokum-speak.
The results have provided bang for your buck, from the original Karate Kid (1984) to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the new Karate Kid, which doesn't vary too much from the formula. It largely retains the old theme of Western kid finding outer physical expertise and inner calm, thanks to the esoteric ways of Oriental martial arts.
Among the specialised sub-classes of martial arts films, a perennial favourite revolves around the mysterious ninja. “Historically” speaking, ninjas were trained martial arts mercenaries in 14th-Century Japan, who could be hired for shadowy assignments such as assassinations. But ninjas, Hollywood style, are near-magic beings whose skills can embrace — but aren't limited to — moving without sound or casting shadows. Last year's Ninja Assassin, however, met with indifferent success despite starring South Korean pop sensation Rain.
Best of the Best (1989), meanwhile, made use of the Korean martial art Taekwondo, and spawned no fewer than three sequels. Something about martial arts flicks seems to demand sequels: whether the Rush Hour franchise, which gained the charming Jackie Chan an international audience, or Kickboxer, which ran to five parts. Many an actor's fan base has been cemented by these movies; the original Kickboxer and Bloodsport established the fighting appeal of Jean-Claude Van Damme.
The genuine movies
Of course, the Hollywood versions aren't the real McCoy. For the golden age of the “genuine” martial arts movies, you would have to look, both east to Hong Kong and to the past (70s to the mid 90s). More recently though, Thailand has staked its claim on the martial arts arena, with Tony Jaa and his Ong Bak series of films.
With their fancy moves, sense of style and visual appeal, it was inevitable that martial arts movies would leach into the world of video games — and then leach right out again to the world of movies, as with Mortal Kombat (1995), based on the Mortal Kombat series of games.
On a lighter note, martial arts somersaulted into kiddie zone with the improbably titled but immensely popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), the live-action film adaptation of the comic book and animated television show. More recently, we had the surprisingly entertaining Kung Fu Panda, which presented martial arts, animated style, performed by an enterprising cast of animals.
While the featured martial arts are well researched in some films, in others, consistency and accuracy are sacrificed at the altar of “what — we think — audiences want”. Martial art forms such as karate or kung fu can become interchangeable terms. No surprise then that the eponymous kid in the new Karate Kid doesn't actually study karate; he learns kung fu. But as his mum questions, “Kung fu, karate, what's the difference?”