Shonky martial arts movies – round 1

Source: Gisoku no Jutsu
Original post date: 13 April, 2007

Dodgy martial arts movies are a part of the movie scene. What of course contributes to their inherent dodginess will often depend on their country of origin. Hong Kong and Japan have a knack of producing some of te best in the world, whether they be littered with relatively unnecessary dialogue and little plot (Hong Kong) or melodramatic and long winded (Japan). This broad generalisation of course eliminates the movies emerging from, say, Thailand, China, Korea or other regions in East Asia; I only offer my tongue-in-cheek generalisation on Japan and China because I’ve seen more movies from there than anywhere else. While I’m certainly not taking a swipe at either country’s respective martial arts films (as I love them dearly), even the most ardent fan must see the cliches that riddle the genre. I personally wouldn’t have them any other way, as I believe that these idiosyncracies are what makes them special. I’m also a firm believer in keeping them in their original language – there’s nothing like gung-ho Johnny America voicing Jackie Chan to ruin a movie. Thank you DVD – dual languages and English subtitles, gotta love ’em. Though as a footnote, I have to say that some of the R3 discs I’ve watched have left me a little worried – I preferred the HK and Japanese martial arts films without the cheap digital effects. I’m not talking about the gorgeously lavish film were the effects are actually meaningful (like, say, Hero or something), but the cheap stuff with particle effects, 3D rendering… I dunno, kinda like Volcano High (which was awesome, but the CG was a little superflous) or Anna in Kung Fu Land (though the title should have been fair warning on that one).

But I digress. For the purpose of today’s short blog on wrongness, I’m going to touch on US martial arts films. I don’t know what it is, but until very recently, whenever Hollywood or anyone in the US pulled out a martial arts film, it was plagued by crap choreography, stupid one-liners, crap direction and was edited by someone afraid of letting the camera linger on a single shot for more than a few seconds. I mean, as much as its fun to pay out Van Damme, Steven Segal or what-not, they’re skills as a martial artist may not be too shabby (they’d be able to beat the stuffing out of me and run away with my leg, for example), but everything else… argh, the horror! And before anyone brings up The Matrix flicks, let’s get something straight – Keanu Reeve’s kung fu was shit. Check out the second Matrix film – Jet Li must have giggled when he had to fight a living Wooden Dummy. What The Matrix (and its craptacular but visually spiffing sequels) did right was to bring in the right guys to choreograph and film the fighting so it actually looked really good. Then, to the amazement of anyone who has ever seen an awesome piece of East Asian martial art movie goodness, Hollywood got hooked and kept on implementing the faux-HK choreography style that proved popular with The Matrix’s audience. Note I say faux-HK, because as much as the fighting action love has improved, it still has nothing on what the talent from HK or Japan has produced, and I would argue that HK style has definitely become more popular than Japanese martial arts choreography in Hollywood movies.

With all that pretext out the way, let me take you on a journey, back to 1995, and the year the world was graced with the latest in a series of poorly made movies based on video games. Despite a legacy of The Wizard (90 minute Nintendo commercial made awesomeness by starring Fred Savage, Christian Slater and one of the Bridges… and they play Nintendo), Super Mario Bros (Bob Hoskin’s musta needed the money. Or was drunk), Double Dragon (Scott Wolf! hahahaha! Didn’t catch it yet, might have to track it down for a laugh), Street Fighter (oh dear god no! A travesty that will necessitate a future blog methinks), and other acts of random stupidity (kinda like the movie based on DoA, starring the slutty girl from Neighbours, but of course is more recent, and not relevant to this rant), then somewhat-less-rich New Line Cinema (y’know, Lord of the Rings, anyone?) brought us… Mortal Kombat: The Movie!

Now, I’ll avoid video game history and trivia, as I’m a geeky boy and could wax lyrical about the state of gaming circa 1994/1995 for the purpose of background info; the only thing needed to be said is that Mortal Kombat was the more indie-answer to Street Fighter 2 (or, in movie land, Street Fighter: The Movie). The games were more brutal, there was blood and stuff, people could get chopped in half. In short – awesomeness in a can for prubescent young men. So it was with high hopes that Mortal Kombat was expected, especially following the piece of shit that was Street Fighter the Movie.

To its credit, it was far better as a fighting-action movie than Street Fighter – people actually fought. Y’know, a bit of biff and all that. And they did their signature cheesey special moves. With new-fangled CG effects (CG effects, being very new in 1995, were very much considered awesome even if they really weren’t necessary or looked a bit arse). And there was mid-90s doof-doof dance music that, when listened to now, either sounds like it should be played in a night club where men wear arseless chaps, or gritty underground like a dirty club in Manchester, both circa 90s.

The casting was better, and amusingly, much cheaper than Street Fighter. It also didn’t feature Van Damme being a silly army man, or Kylie Minogue under the pretense she was part of an elite group of British agents (if it was an elite group of attractive, arse-wiggling pop stars, then yes, she’s would have made a good choice. But she wasn’t, so she loses). There were a cast of nobodies, but at least they looked comfortable executing choice biff against the faceless bad guys. Except for Bridgette Wilson (aka Sonya Blade). She was crap. Amusingly crap even – watching her execute some biff proved a highlight when I watched the movie with Wifey last weekend. To the film’s credit, Christopher Lambert played Raiden, and he’s always awesome even if a movie’s crap (Highlander 2) or uber (the orginal Highlander). Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa plays Shang Tsung and pulls funny faces and spends most of the movie over-acting, but that’s okay, because that’s how he plays everyone, which is in turn golden. Robin Shou is awesome by default; he can’t really act, but his technique is good, and by all that’s uber, his boofy hair was a true highlight of the film. The dude who played Johnny Cage didn’t have too bad form when they filmed him during the Scorpion fight, so kudos to him. And then there was this guy in a crazy suit with four arms, Goro. It looks like the reason he beat everyone up was because they were afraid to lay into the costume, probably in fear of breaking something. Nowadays he’d probably be CG and still look arse, but in a CG-fake kinda way; unlike Kelsey Grammar in X-Men 3, who excuded Frasier-gone-animal, and pulled it off. Nice fighting there.

Now, where Mortal Kombat fall down is that the plot is wafer thin, the acting is pretty bad, the one-liners get old fast, the sets are pretty funny because a lot of the time they look cheap, and the music’s kinda funny. It’s full of cliches, and again, Bridgette Wilson looks so bad when she tries to fight. Not as bad as Keanu Reeves – at least a wooden dummy has form 😛 But to be honest, that’s why its awesome – its so cheesy, but at least the cheese is budget and cheap. It’s not trying to be awesome, it knows its place, and for a videogame licence, it wasn’t too bad. The fighting (bar Bridgette Wilson… though maybe her craptacularness could be a highlight ’cause its funny) wasn’t too shabby, but it still suffered from average choreography (above average for Hollywood at the time, though), pretty crap editing, and looked slow. Again, some of these guys were trained and had more in there, and the way it was filmed let it down.

But, let’s not get too critical here – it’s trashy cinema. It’s cheap. It’s dodgy. And hence it’s awesome. Kinda like Rapid Fire. The only thing it needed was Dustin Nguyen from 21 Jump Street, That would have been awesome. He could have played Robin Shou’s character’s brother. And they could have shown him sparring with him and being awesome. But then you’d have to round it out and have Holly Robinson and Peter DeLuise. Maybe the Captain from the latter-half of Season 1 could have been in there as well. Maybe Family Guy should come up with an excuse to parody or reference 21 Jump Street. That would be uber golden.

Okay, I’ve gotten sidetracked. I do that. So, thus ends my first rant on martial arts movies. I hope you enjoyed watching the funny trailer as I did looking it up on YouTube whilst at work trying to look terribly productive. I’ll bring more goodies over the weekend – I’m going to try to dig up some cool stuff on YouTube and Google Video 🙂


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February 2009