THEY KNOW KUNG FU
Remember the first time you saw “The Matrix”? Maybe you giggled a bit when Neo opened his eyes and said, “I know kung fu,” but when Morpheus replied, “Show me,” you knew it was on. Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne were a little stiff, but the one-on-one duel that followed the “kung fu” exchange between the two men served as a nice little tease, not just for the fight scenes to come, but also for what lay ahead once the one-two punch of “The Matrix” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” landed and Hollywood decided that, yes, it did know kung-fu.
First, let’s back up.
It’s been about ten years since Hollywood started dealing from the Hong Kong deck, and with a few notable exceptions, they’ve screwed it up big time. For many fans, the idea of Hong Kong-style kung fu and gunplay mixed with the higher budgets and prep times allotted to American films was a long time coming. The problem is, that potential hasn’t been fulfilled, at least not to the satisfaction of most fans, and it’s looking doubtful that it ever will.
THE DIRECTORS ARE GETTING BONED
Kirk Wong’s resume in Hong Kong is filled with some slick and intense crime thrillers like “Organized Crime & Triad Bureau”, “Rock and Roll Cop”, Jackie Chan’s “Crime Story”, and “Gunmen”. Wong’s films proved that not all Hong Kong crime dramas were about male bonding and slow motion, that they were also gritty stories about the shades of gray between good and evil. Wong’s first project stateside was “The Big Hit”, an action film that was funny when it wasn’t trying, not funny when it was, and had the dramatic depth of a “Yu-Gi-Oh” collectable card. “The Big Hit” was also proof that American producers are clueless, because they might as well have John Woo direct a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie.
Oh, wait minute.
JOHN WOOED IN HOLLYWOOD
John Woo fans knew his stuff would be a hard sell to American audiences. For the most part, Woo’s tastes in onscreen violence, coupled with pulpy melodrama, can be off-putting to the uninitiated, but did it have to be this hard? “Hard Target” (1993) was essentially stillborn; the longer international cut (released in Japan) is probably Woo’s best non-Hong Kong movie. The international version is fully loaded with Woo’s trademark extreme (and bordering on cartoonish) violence and more screen time is devoted to fleshing out villains Lance Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo. But distributor Universal chafed at the movie’s length, while the MPAA objected to the graphic violence, despite the fact that Woo’s earlier, longer, and bloodier Hong Kong movies can now be found uncut at Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, Wal-Mart, and Best Buy.
Woo’s other American movies, “Broken Arrow” (1996), “Windtalkers” (2002), and “Paycheck” (2003), ranged from okay to good, but not a single great one in the mix. Outside of a few John Woo flourishes, all three films could have been directed by anyone. “Mission: Impossible 2″ (2000) was John Woo trying to direct like John Woo, and it’s ultimately overloaded with goofy self-plagiarism and arguably the shortest leading man Woo’s ever worked with. (Keep in mind, this includes Tony Leung and Jackie Cheung.) The closest Woo came to his old product was “Face/Off” in 1997, when mainstream America finally got a taste of why he’s such a big deal.
Next up for Woo is “Land of Destiny,” which will reunite him with Nicolas Cage (the star of “Windtalkers” and “Face/Off”) and, finally, finally, Chow Yun-fat. It only took ten-plus years. And while Chow and Woo’s reunion is not a guarantee of quality, considering that the duo have “A Better Tomorrow” and its sequel (1986/87), “The Killer” (1989), and “Hard-Boiled” on their resumes, there is hope.
Tsui Hark, probably the most creative Hong Kong director of all time, also got shanghaied into Van Damme vehicles. “Double Team” (1997) may not have been able to make up its mind whether or not it was going to be a lame rip-off of the classic “Prisoner” TV series or an action showcase for Van Damme’s performance double, but it was certainly pretty to look at. Hark returned for more punishment with “Knock-Off” (1998), shot during Van Damme’s coke-fueled meltdown, and it shows. Or at the very least, it certainly explains Rob Schneider as an undercover CIA operative. If nothing else, both movies serve as teasers for Hark’s refined ADD-inducing directorial style, which he featured prominently in the entertaining but muddled “Time and Tide” (2000).
ON THE LAM
Ringo Lam (quite possibly the coolest pseudonymed Hong Kong director of all time) was the man behind “City On Fire” (1987), the semi-inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”, the insane kung fu film “Burning Paradise” (1993), and the Chow Yun-fat revenge thriller “Full-Contact” (1992). In 1996, Lam directed Van Damme in “Maximum Risk”, which has the distinction of being the second movie that featured twin Van Dammes, as well as containing one of the most ludicrous and entertaining Natasha “That Chick From ‘Species’” Henstridge nude/love scenes. Obviously a glutton for punishment, Ringo has gone on to direct two more Van Damme movies.
YU GO, BOY
Ronny Yu has fared a little better with “Bride of Chucky” (1998) and “Formula 51″ (2001), a dumb, but fun, movie with a great cast; and most recently, “Freddy vs. Jason”, the much-anticipated “Nightmare on Elm Street”/”Friday the 13th” crossover that could have been much worst than the end result. Yu’s first non-Hong Kong movie was the odd “Warriors of Virtue” (1997), a standard “kid travels to mythical land” fantasy that threw in wushu fighting kangaroos. With the exception of the first “Bride With White Hair” (1993) and “Legacy of Rage” (1986), the late Brandon Lee’s first movie as lead actor, Yu’s work in Hong Kong have been run-of-the-mill and low-profile, so the quality of his work hasn’t dropped or peaked dramatically following his defection to Hollywood.
Most of the Hong Kong directors who have decided to “go Hollywood” have done so because their movies broke through internationally during the late 80′s and early 90′s era of film festivals and bootleg video distribution. No doubt, the language and subtitles added an exotic quality to many Hong Kong movies, as well as tearing down the notion that all Chinese movies were about kung fu and the Shaolin temple. These films offered material that were completely different from what mainstream America had seen before.
But ironically, Hong Kong directors who have entered the Hollywood system are inevitably put to work on the same, routine junk that domestic directors have grounded out for years. Which begs the question: what’s the point of importing new and different talent only to put them at work on the same old stuff?
THE ACTORS ARE GETTING BONED
There is no question that Hong Kong actors and actresses are going to have a hard time getting over language and cultural barriers once they make the move to Hollywood. The Holy Trinity of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Chow Yun-fat, between the three of them, make up a group where English is probably their fourth language. Ethnic foreigners have always had a hard time in mainstream Hollywood regardless of their origin, and in addition to the Hong Kong imports, talents such as Jean Reno and Penelope Cruz are nowhere near as popular here as they are in their homelands, and as a result their English language roles have been limited. At the same time, Hong Kong stars have found themselves either grossly underused or grossly misused to the point where they are unrecognizable from their Hong Kong incarnations.
The best example is Jet Li and his resume for the last 5 years. Whatever excitement his addition to the cast of “Lethal Weapon 4″ (1998) generated was overshadowed by that movie’s sloppy just-kidding plotting and outright racism (Consider this exchange from the movie: Cop: “Riggs, I heard you were up to your ass in Chinese.” Riggs: “Nah, they only come up to your knees.”). As for the man himself, Jet was a mute stereotype reduced to a pigtail, worry beads, and an extensive collection of “Chinese” costumes. To his credit, he did make one hell of a villain, and seemed to be the only character taking the plot’s shenanigans seriously. If you didn’t know better, you’d think his character stumbled in from a different movie.
Li signed again with “Lethal Weapon 4″ producer Joel Silver for “Romeo Must Die” (2000) and “Cradle 2 The Grave” (2003), two very slick but barely average films that didn’t give Jet a lot of screen time despite the headliner billing. 2001 saw the release of “Kiss of the Dragon” and “The One”. “Kiss of the Dragon” is probably the closest in style to Jet Li’s Hong Kong movies, thanks mostly to its European origin. “The One” had a neat idea and gave Jet a chance to act. The problem was, half of his role was embodying the biggest kung fu fighting — and at the same time, touchy feely — little wuss ever seen in film.
Jet Li had to go back to China and 2002′s “Hero” in order to take on a role that was worthwhile. Thanks to Miramax, “Hero” has finally seen the light of day — only two years after the rest of the world did. But despite the prominence of his name in the credits, Jet is only one player in an ensemble, and is ultimately underused as a performer.
FATTENING THE CHOW
Meanwhile, the hot-handed God of guns himself, Chow Yun-fat, fared better in his debut American movie, “The Replacement Killers” (1998), an almost slavish pastiche of his earlier works with director John Woo. Chow followed up “Killers” with a terrific performance in “The Corruptor” (but then again, anyone would look good next to Marky Mark) and “Anna and the King” (both in 1999). The two roles were as different as could be, but only Chow could be perfect in both. The problem was, neither movie went anywhere. Next up for Chow was “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), but as far as the American audience was concerned, “Dragon’s” success meant Chow was now a martial arts star, leading to his team-up with Seann “Stifler” Scott in “Bulletproof Monk” (2003).
Fortunately the future is looking bright, as Chow will first re-team with Michelle Yeoh in another retelling of the Mulan legend, and then head over to join John Woo in “Land of Destiny.” The bad news is that “Land” has been described as a drama about the building of the transcontinental railroad. Yup, that’s right. We finally get Woo to direct Chow in an American movie, and it’s going to be a straight version of “Blazing Saddles.”
CHAN-NELLING BRUCE LEE
Of the three Hong Kong superstars who have gone to Hollywood, Jackie Chan has had the best track record of all three. Both “Rush Hour” (1998) and “Shanghai Noon” (2000) kicked off successful franchises, with additional follow-ups in the works, and both cast Chan as basically the same character — a good-natured ass-kicker. Most recently, Chan starred in “Around the World in 80 Days”, playing — you guessed it — a good-natured ass-kicker.
At the same time, Chan has been one of the few actors who regularly return to Hong Kong for homegrown movies such as “Gorgeous” (1999) and “The Accidental Spy” (2001). Chan’s next Hong Kong production is “Police Story 4/New Police Story”, a reboot of his classic action comedy series. In addition, his American movies have allowed other Hong Kong talent to try and crack the American market. Gordan Chan, Hong Kong’s answer to Michael Bay, directed the goofy kids movie/”Golden Child” remake “The Medallion” in 2003, which also featured a glorified cameo for Christy Chung (“Bodyguard from Beijing”, “Red Wolf”). Included in the extensive list of “80 Days” cameos by well-known Hong Kong players were Karen Mok (“Fallen Angels”, “So Close”), Maggie Quigley (“Naked Weapon”), Daniel Wu (“Gen X Cops”, “Hit Team”), and none other than Chan’s big brother Sammo Hung.
Now, review the titles of current, past, and future domestic Jackie, Jet and Chow movies, mentioned above and you know what stands out?
Between them, the Holy Trinity, back in their Hong Kong days, starred in:
The “Police Story” series
The “Once Upon A Time In China” series
“A Better Tomorrow I” and “II”
“Drunken Master II”
“The Legend of Fong Sai-yuk”
“Project A, Part II”
“Fist of Legend”
These are some of the best action and martial arts movies of all time. It’s unrealistic to expect the next “Killer” or “Drunken Master II” to magically appear from scratch, but you see, these guys have stretched for the stars and usually reached the Moon, at least. These days, they’re not even breaking orbit. And honestly, not all of their Hong Kong movies were classics. For every “Police Story”, “Hard-Boiled”, and “Fist of Legend”, there was a “First Strike”, “Tragic Heroes” and “High-Risk” (known domestically as “Meltdown”). But these were hiccups in otherwise stellar resumes, and were the exception rather than the rule.
One explanation for the trio’s lackluster showing in American films could be a case of their collective superstardom working against them. Jet Li was offered, but declined, a role in the “Matrix” sequels, as well as the lead in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. Which is for the best, as, with all due respect to Jet, Chow Yun-fat, the man who won the “Dragon” role, is the better actor. As for Jackie, he turned down the role of the villain in 1989′s “Black Rain”, due to his reluctance to play a bad guy, and the fact that he’s not, well, Japanese.
But there’s something else going on here. Take “Charlie’s Angels” or the “Matrix” trilogy, for example. Moviemakers seem to have no problems throwing newbie kung fu fighters into extended fights, or blasting apart entire buildings with gunfire, but for some reason, no one is doing the same on the set of a Jackie Chan, Jet Li or Chow Yun-fat movie. Doesn’t Hollywood know this is precisely what we’ve been dying to see these guys do? Age is certainly a factor in the case of Jet and Jackie, and may also explain why they’re cranking out weaker products, but Hollywood has embraced plenty of action stars that were over forty (Harrison Ford, Schwarzenegger, Stallone come to mind). That’s what camerawork and editing is for.
WHY DIDN’T THEY BRING A GUN?
The smartest thing the Wachowski brother did with “The Matrix” was to find a new and reasonable way to incorporate Hong Kong-style martial arts into the story without raising too many questions, but they were hardly the first. Effects make-up artist/director Steve Wang is responsible for a pair of fun films featuring slick hand-to-hand fights within contemporary settings. “Guyver 2: Dark Hero” (1994) ignored the juvenile “Power Rangers”-esque setting of its prequel and delivered a bloody kung fu movie that was light years ahead of anything else made in the United States.
The gimmick in “Guyver 2″ was an alien device that imparted on its owner superhuman strength and agility (plus there’s the novelty of watching David “voice of Solid Snake”/”I wrote ‘X-Men’” Hayter in a lead role). In 1997, Wang directed “Drive”, which is still the best movie from Mark Dacascos (yes, that includes “Brotherhood of the Wolf”) and Kadeem Hardison (yes, that includes “Vampire in Brooklyn”). In “Drive,” Dacascos’ character was implanted with a bionic turbo engine that gave him superhuman strength and agility. (Seeing a pattern here?) Both movies featured choreography and stunts by Koichi Sakamoto’s Alpha Stunt Team, veterans of the various “Power Rangers” programs. The action in “Guyver 2″ and “Drive” has the bone-crunching vibe last seen in the best of Jackie Chan’s 80′s movies.
And let’s talk about the “Power Rangers” franchise while we’re at it. Whether in the form of the original series that recycled old Japanese footage or the recent episodes with newly shot footage, it’s been running, on and off now, for over a decade. But being that it’s the “Power Rangers”, no one really notices that it’s a martial arts show that’s run longer than both “Kung-Fu” and “Martial Law” combined.
Then there’s the “Blade” series. Wesley Snipes had shown off some brief karate moves in “Rising Sun” and “Money Train”, but in 1998, his role as “Blade’s” human/vampire hybrid gave him a chance to shine with showy, non-wirework fights when “cyberpunk” and “Keanu Reeves” still meant “Johnny Mnemonic.”
As far as American audiences are concerned, you can only play the kung fu card when there’s a gimmick that explains how and why people can do what they do. Audience and studio perceptions dictate that there has to be an explanation if you’re going to take it seriously. The “Charlie’s Angels” movies can drop in kung fu because they’re basically “The Powerpuff Girls” with boobs and booty. Everyone who fights in “Shanghai Noon” is an Imperial bodyguard and everyone who fights in “Kill Bill” is an assassin or thug. On TV, Buffy lived in a world of vampires, demons and hot lesbian witches, and “Dark Angel’s” Max was a genetic freak living in a fantasy “Mad Max”-lite dystopia where resources were slim but everyone still looked like they took time out of their crappy future to visit Bally’s.
Of course, the flipside is that a Caucasian who picks up a Glock for the first time and outshoots Wild Bill Hickock barely gets noticed. Adam Sandler’s “Bulletproof” (1996) was a buddy crime comedy that was dumber than a bag of hair, but no one seemed to wonder when Billy Madison learned to shoot. There’s never been a time in American history where wars were won with swords, spears or bows and arrows. We know who did use those tools, and they lost to the gun. Asian audiences (and filmmakers, producers, studios), coming from a history filled with martial warfare, are more open to serious stories that incorporate hand-to-hand combat, and this is likely also why swashbucklers are inevitably more popular in Europe than in America.
New viewers may have been surprised by the mix of heavy-duty action and intense human drama in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, but a look at the likes of the “Once Upon A Time In China” series, Tsui Hark’s “The Blade”, and the films of Chang Cheh and King Hu from their Shaw Bros days, indicate that martial arts movies are basically Chinese westerns. As such, neither the filmmakers nor the audience feel the need to question how martial arts are incorporated into a story, and pigeonhole them as simple action movies.
Chow Yun Fat makes his point in Ringo Lam’s Full Contact