Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat, Jet Li. These are names most Western audiences will know from films like Enter the Dragon, the Rush Hour franchise; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Expendables films respectively. They are also the names that put Hong Kong action cinema on the map. They are incredible performers in terms of acting and stunt work with Chan having broken almost every bone in his body at various points in his career. However they are also the old guard. Newer names from all around Asia such as Tony Jaa, Donnie Yen, Iko Uwais and Wu Jing are expanding the avenues for action cinema out of Asia as well as for Asian performers from actors to stunt people to choreographers.
In 2017 the seventh highest grossing film of the year at $874 million was Wolf Warrior 2. $500 million of that was made in China. That’s insane. There are a billion people in China meaning that a massive amount of the Chinese population packed cinemas to see a film that opens with an underwater kung-fu fight against Somali pirates and ends with a tank battle. Wolf Warrior 3 will follow but what’s important here is that Wolf Warrior 2 highlights a future where the most successful movies are no longer coming out of America but out of China, Indonesia and Japan.
Back in the 1970s Bruce Lee’s intensity and physicality captivated a generation. Thanks to VHS, opening global markets and the likes of subbing and dubbing martial arts and Asian films in general were no longer considered extremely niche. Instead they were just niche. But their impact – despite Lee’s early death in 1973 – was felt. Quentin Tarantino packed the Kill Bill films full of homages to Lee and the more recent gore-fests concocted by the Japanese provocateur Takashi Miike. The Wachowski siblings went hell for leather (literally) on The Matrix trilogy having star Keanu Reeves train with wire stuntman Tiger Chen. Reeves would return the favour years later by having Chen star in his directorial debut Man of Tai Chi. But it wasn’t just martial arts that would thrill Western audiences.
If there’s one thing that gets cinema audiences to whoop like Howler Monkeys more than two people hitting each other it’s a room full of people shooting at each other. Until the 1980s Hong Kong was known for the former but then John Woo came along. Woo saw his films as genuine art lightyears before anyone would put art and action cinema in the same sentence together. But look, I just did it there. Woo stuffed the likes of A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and Hardboiled with tough moral choices, Christian imagery and more doves than you could shake an olive branch at. This all lead to the likes of his Hollywood films like Face/Off, Mission Impossible 2 and Hard Target. These were all received with varying degrees of success before he returned to Hong Kong to make historical epics like Red Cliff. He recently returned to action with the Chinese/Japanese dumb fun movie Manhunt in which his daughter, Angeles Woo, drives a motorbike out of a second storey window guns blazing.
By the 2000s the popularity of Asian cinema maintained a steady rhythm while its stars found steady, if not always good, work. Jet Li was enough of a legend off the back of Lethal Weapon 4, his work with Luc Besson and those two movies with DMX that Sylvester Stallone hired him for The Expendables Trilogy. Jackie Chan continued to direct, choreograph and act in his own Hong Kong and Chinese movies while finding the time to tolerate both Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour trilogy and Owen Wilson in Shanghai Noon. It was in Shanghai Knights – the sequel to Shanghai Noon – that Chan came up against one of the future rising stars of Hong Kong action cinema. Donnie Yen is known primarily for the likes of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and XXX: The Return of Xander Cage in the West but his status in China is legendary.
The Ip Man trilogy singlehandedly revitalised the martial art of Wing Chun. This basically makes Yen the modern day Bruce Lee who first popularised the style in China and the West. The Ip Man trilogy focuses on the early years of Ip Man, the Wing Chun master who taught Bruce Lee. Historical accuracy gradually slips away but it’s worth it to see Yen break a man’s leg upwards at the knee. Yen is a very in demand choreographer having directed the fights in Blade II and nearly all his own films. But still Yen is (unbelievably) 55 and we need to go younger if we’re to understand the impact that Asian stars are having in their own countries and in Hollywood.
The Raid was the tipping point. A small Indonesian film that put well-choreographed and cleanly shot action front and centre and made its star, Iko Uwais, into one of the most admired action performers with perhaps the smallest body of work since Bruce Lee. The Raid is a uniformly grey film with a straight-to-DVD feel that belies the bone-crunching power of its velocity. Uwais puts men through walls, floors and ceilings. We feel every blow and every drop of sweat because Uwais sells the idea that Rama, his character, is a righteous engine of destruction that’s running on fumes.
The Raid has, to my mind, not yet been equalled. Not even by The Raid 2. It’s influence was felt around the world. The Raid was the explosive shake-up action cinema needed. In 2015 there came Wolf Warrior which was a movie about a Chinese soldier hunting mercenaries on a training exercise gone wrong. Yes there are wolves in it. I don’t know why but they’re there. Wu Jing directed and starred in it but more importantly he directed and starred in its sequel. They are Chinese propaganda movies full of speeches about the glory of the Revolution and they feature Westerners as villains. It’s Xi Jinping Thought put onto film reel but more importantly it’s kick ass.
Wu Jing came up alongside Donnie Yen and is equally as famous for putting himself in harm’s way in order to perfect his vision. He drives a tank that’s been elevated to nearly 90 degrees in Wolf Warrior 2. At the end warring factions part like the Red Sea as his character, Leng Feng, wraps a Chinese flag around his arm to guarantee safe passage through the warzone. Before the Wolf Warrior series Jing was best known for the Kill Zone films. Kill Zone and Kill Zone 2 have little in common besides their titles but Wu Jing was in both and beside him in Kill Zone 2 was Tony Jaa.
Jaa is a Thai actor known in the west for small roles in The Fast and the Furious 7 and XXX: The Return of Xander Cage. In the films he’s made in Thailand and Hong Kong he may as well be superhuman. His chosen style of Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) is all elbows and knees and is best displayed in his 2005 movie The Protector. A single shot fight up a staircase is a stand out. If there’s one thing all of these films and actors have in common it’s their influence on the action movies in the western hemisphere. Action movies with little CGI and dedicated casts and crews can be easily turned around and sent out via straight-to-DVD or on demand markets. The West has woken up to this but slowly and we are approaching a point where Asian action cinema will eventually supersede the box office successes of John Wick and Mad Max: Fury Road.
People love to hate on Jason Statham but he’s one of the few people keeping action cinema versatile and alive in America and Europe. His straight-to-DVD counterpart and The Expendables 2 co-star Scott Adkins might just be the hardest working man on the action B-movie circuit. But it’s in the likes of the cleanly shot, kinetic dynamism of John Wick, Atomic Blonde and The Equalizer where the influence is clearly felt. Watching someone get punched in the face, shot in the chest or kicked through a plate glass window should look like it hurts and yet there are so many action movies that fail to do that. That’s probably grounds for firing in Hong Kong.
Action cinema – especially in Asia – is full of hard working people that put their bodies on the line for the entertainment of millions. People respect that but only when it looks good and there’s a half-decent story attached. Why is it so popular? Maybe it’s because martial arts began and evolved in China, Korea, Japan and Indonesia that the majority of good action movies come out of Asian countries. Maybe it’s because the lone warrior fighting off hordes of henchmen storyline was always more popular in the east. Maybe it’s just the love for a good punch up. Whatever the case Hollywood had better watch its back for the inevitable box office roundhouse that’s coming it’s way.