Go behind the scenes of a worldwide phenomenon!
It's everywhere in today's modern popular culture. From rap groups that celebrate its bad-ass, kick butt attitude and gangsta lean codes, to the average motion picture that needs to balance out its polish with a little unpredictable show stopping, martial arts are now an integral part and oft-abused symbol of cinematic novelty as culture theft in 2003. But they have not always been. Back when Bruce Lee was fleeing to Hong Kong to find a small amount of respect and non-racist success, Americans were gawking at David Carradine, convinced he was the real Chow Mien and robot dancing to a dumb novelty tune about fighting Kung Fu. What a difference a few decades and cable/satellite dish/video tape/DVD makes. Today, Asian actors are respected, sought after symbols of a growing globalism in show business. Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and directors like John Woo and Ringo Lam are celebrated Western stars and huge box office draws. But while many fans can tell you the intricate details of how a particular fight sequence was created or a stunt performed, many are unaware of the history of this specialized genre of filmmaking. The Art of Action: Martial Arts in the Movies attempts to address this information void with a slick, semi-comprehensive overview of the entire Hong Kong movie industry. While engaging (and occasionally exciting), it still barely digs below the surface. And that is its ultimate downfall.
In the early '90s, Cinemax used to feature a film clip compilation, which included a wide variety of Hong Kong and Asian martial arts and action movies. Entitled The Deadliest Art: The Best of the Martial Arts Movies, it incorporated all aspects of the genre, from horror and comedy to romance and ancient historical epics. Long set piece sequences were showcased and many a movie geek's appetite was whetted for films revolving around acrobatic wire fighting, precision dance-like swordplay, slow motion mayhem, and animated props of death, like evil hair and unholy robes! The Art of Action: Martial Arts in the Movies is unfortunately a weaker version of this style of film. It offers a tame collection of split-second scenes, culled from a scant twenty or so movies (some of them very current) and then pretends to represent an in-depth dissection and eye candy celebration of the complex, multi-player Asian entertainment machine. But overall, it is too generic to be truly enlightening and too simplistic to be profound. It's not that it completely fails to amuse or inform. Anything featuring the silky smooth voice and dapper danger presence of Samuel L. Jackson is worth a watch, and there are a few nuggets of vital information offered. But this made for Encore Cable Channel creation feels half researched and strung together, as if time (or access to material) was a factor. The overwhelming impression one gets is that this is some sort of marketing ploy, a publicity minded puff piece meant to sell something or other, since it champions films (Rush Hour 2?) that have only a passing resemblance to the intricate, choreographed cinematic invention supposedly being discussed.
For the first 45 minutes though, we are treated to a thorough, if somewhat disjointed presentation on the history of martial arts as entertainment. We learn of the Shaolin monks, the keepers of the techniques and philosophy behind traditional kung fu and other forms of combat. When their sect was outlawed and slaughtered en masse by the ruling dynasty, these ingenious masters used the Peking Opera Company as a recruitment tool and archive of martial arts technique and thinking. Through the ages, the performers learned (under strict, punishment oriented regiments) to carry on the traditions. So naturally, when film came along, and the theater was utilized for acting talent, most thespians were exceptionally skilled fighters. But oddly enough, men felt motion pictures too demeaning to warrant participation, and the first great martial arts movie stars were female. Through vintage clips and historical narrative, we are given a glimpse at how these sword wielding women defined and delineated the style of fighting and filmmaking that is still celebrated (and widely imitated) today. But after this initial walk down history lane, we are jarringly thrown all over the map, skipping a straightforward timeline in favor of some hit or miss mentions of the major names and (according to this film) the important figures in modern martial arts movies. Figures like the Shaw Brothers and Siu-Tung Ching (A Chinese Ghost Story) are given relatively short shrift in favor of far too long discussions of American television and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (this whole enterprise almost plays like a backhanded, indirect publicity piece for the film). John Woo gets a grandiose mention with appropriate build up, but then almost all the clips shown are from his populist Western films (Mission Impossible II, Face/Off). And this is symptomatic of the overall quality of The Art of Action. It could have been a wonderful, detailed account of the rise of Eastern philosophy and fighting skill to prominence in the West. Instead, it's a half-baked gloss over of a much mined and misunderstood genre.
Columbia TriStar's presentation is also erratic. While it's not their fault (this was a made for TV project after all), the film relies on a schizophrenic widescreen/full screen dichotomy that results in some odd digital issues. The full screen sequences with Jackson look washed out and soft, as do some of the interview segments. In still others, the interviewee looks crisp and clean. The footage used from the mentioned movies is also a mixed bag. While one expects movies made 80 years ago to look bad, it's surprising to see some of Jackie Chan and Jet Li's most celebrated work looking like horrendous eighth generation VHS dub copies. An early Woo clip is offered in wavy black and white, and even the archival television material (Bruce Lee's discussion of discipline, the aforementioned Kung Fu) looks badly transferred. Finally, the widescreen cropping seems random. You can see in several sequences where the tops of buildings, flags and even actor's heads are missing for the sake of preserving some mythical aspect ratio. This is definitely not a digital feast for eye or ear. The Dolby Digital surround is passable and since many of the movies made did not have access to the technology involved, it is only apparent in the recent Hollywood films. Along with a few trailers for films featuring actors and directors represented, this a decent if uninspired package—just like the documentary. The Art of Action: Martial Arts in the Movies misses a chance at presenting a telling, terrific tale of an ancient lost art reborn in the theater and on film. Instead, it's like an introduction to the basics of the foundation at the beginning of the start of the Hong Kong action film.
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