'r. Craig '. Reid digs into Paradox, which features director Wilson Yip, choreographer Sammo Hung, and action stars Tony -aa and Louis Koo; Gong Shou Dao, which boasts Alibaba founder -ack Ma, as well as -et Li, 'onnie Yen, Tony -aa and Wu -ing; and Kickboxer: Retaliation, with Alain Moussi, Mike Tyson and -eanClaude Van 'amme.
Something dawned on me this morning. In 2017 Hollywood churned out a dozen blockbusters featuring martial arts– using characters in films like John Wick: Chapter 2, Wonder Woman and The Last Jedi. What’s unique about these movies compared to offerings in other years is that they’re devoid of Asian martial arts characters. Hollywood has copied Asian fight scenes and camera choreography to create its own talent and fisticuffs — and sometimes the result is OK.
However, after you’ve seen Hong Kong’s Paradox, China’s Gong Shou Dao and South Korea’s The Villainess, you realize that Hollywood still lacks artistic physical creativity, novel choreography and those ultracool moments that remind you why Asia remains the master of martial arts action.
In the vein of male-bonding martial arts films from the 1970s by director Chang Cheh (Shaolin Temple epics) and John Woo’s male-driven melodramas, director Wilson Yip’s Paradox mixes Tony Jaa’s ferocious elbows of fury and Louis Koo’s angstridden performance with Sammo Hung’s superlative fight choreography to reinvent the rapid-fire melees of the 1980s.
Influenced by Liam Neeson’s Taken, Paradox is about a widower Hong Kong cop (Koo) who travels to Thailand in search of his only daughter and finds out she’s become a victim of an illegal organ trader. Working the case with two Thai cops, a Hong Kong expat (Wu Yue) and a psychic (Jaa), he’s in a race against time to find his daughter before she becomes “dis-organized.”
Although he’s headlined in 106 films, Koo isn’t a kung fu star, so when he does any action, his fights are muted. Yet in Paradox, Hung works pure magic as Koo engages in some admirable action and exhibits remarkable posture. (It’s easy to throw a punch or kick, but the real way to tell whether an actor has had good training or solid coaching is if
he or she fights with a straight back and uses both hands independently — while maintaining correct hand and arm positioning. It’s the same when weapons are used.)
Thus, we’re treated to high-octane duels like the one that pits Koo and Wu against the head henchman and his hostile hooligans using forearm-length, meat-cleaver-like knives — not butterfly knives — that are akin to the weapons made famous by acclaimed fight director Liu Chia-liang in Lady Is the Boss (1983).
GONG SHOU DAO
For many folks, Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves invokes images of scimitars and the mythical “open sesame” cave. Today, there’s a different story, and it involves Alibaba and the 11 kung fu legends. It’s an enchanting tai chi– influenced short film called Gong Shou Dao. In 15 minutes of fights, Alibaba founder and tai chi specialist Jack Ma battles eight martial arts stars, including Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa and Wu Jing. The choreography comes from Yuen Woo-ping, Ching Siu- tung and Sammo Hung.
Gong Shou Dao is also the name of a new individual and team martial arts sport created by Li and Ma, who hope to get it in the Olympics. For that reason, the film also serves as a promotional tool, which is why Li broke his six-year hiatus from doing martial arts movies so he could participate.
In the film, Ma strolls up a rural road amid wind-blown leaves and comes across an arched entrance, then pensively stares at three Chinese characters written on the arch: Hua Shan Pai, meaning Mount Hua Sect. Swallowed by a dream, Ma becomes the legendary Feng Ching-yang, aka the Smiling Proud Wanderer, a character from the wuxia novel Xiao Ao Jiang Hu. For those who don’t know, Hua Shan Sect is a fictional group in the kung fu underworld known as Wulin and a member of the Five Mountain Sword Sects Alliance. The novel’s initial plot revolves around the coveted kung fu scroll Bi Xie Swordplay Manual. Yet to Feng (Ma), Hua Shan is real.
As Feng/Ma moves through the various Wulin worlds and faces eight increasingly proficient martial artists, fables about virtue, morality and philosophy dot the landscape. The longest duels are against the calm Yen, with his hybrid brand of wing chun, and the placid custodial monk Li, with his flashing wushu, tai chi and pole skills.
In a web video released by Li, he said the actors were so enthusiastic about the project, created to promote Chinese culture and martial arts, that they agreed to work for free. He also noted that rules had been formulated to help gong shou dao rise to the status of Olympic sport. Those rules will reportedly have the martial artists vying in a ring that’s 3 meters across until one manages to make his opponent step outside the circle.
In a way, it reminds me of what happened during China’s Song dynasty (960-1279), when officials created a sport called da lei tai in which winners would become the emperor’s bodyguards or imperial martial arts instructors. The difference is that now the winners will — it is hoped — be vying for Olympic gold.
When the visual-effects supervisor for Thor: Ragnarok asserted that because of the size disparity between Hulk and Thor, it would be impossible to stage their battle as a real fight, Kickboxer: Retaliation director Dimitri Logothetis wasn’t listening. He had the audacity to do what couldn’t be done in his film: create a crazy-ass physical fight in which a seven-time World’s Strongest Man veteran named Hafpór Björnsson — who stands 6 feet 10 and weighs 400 pounds — mashes and bashes a puny human named Alain Moussi — who depends on Brazilian jiu-jitsu, kickboxing and MMA to defend himself — for 20 grueling minutes. Just watching the bout hurts, as Moussi is dragged and tossed around like a rag doll, as he flies through the air and then bounces on the floor. Watching this wacky fracas alone is worth the ticket price.
As with many American-made kickboxing-competition film franchises — and even the debut chapter of Kickboxer (1989), with Jean-Claude Van Damme as Kurt Sloan — avenging a death or fighting in a rematch
plays a pivotal role in the plot. In this case, a year after avenging his brother’s death at the hands of Tong Po in Kickboxer: Vengeance (2016), Sloan (Moussi) is coerced into returning to Thailand for an underworld death match that includes swords, knives and chains. That’s where he’s forced to fight a missing link named Mongkut (Björnsson). It’s also where JCVD becomes Sloan’s teacher.
Apart from the required training scenes, it seems that with each successive sequel, increasing numbers of real MMA fighters are added to the mix, perhaps in a bid to give the cinematic bouts an air of authenticity. Yet Logothetis was determined to not just feature testosterone-oozing hooliganism and mean-spirited arrogance; instead, he used these fighter-actors to launch Moussi’s melees into uncharted kickboxing-film territory.
For example, there’s the Moussi-vs.Mike Tyson brawl in which the boxer accidentally bare-knuckles Moussi’s face and knocks him down. Logothetis revealed that after he asked Moussi if he was OK, the actor laughed and said, “Mike Tyson just punched me in the face.” A badge of honor.
In another interesting battle, Moussi takes on Asian hit women atop a speeding train. But there is a three-and-a-half-minute one-take fight in an abandoned Thai prison that breaks new ground for American-made kickboxing movies.
“It took them a week and half to choreograph,” Logothetis said. “What we did was replace every single piece of wood with rubber wood. A lot of the guys said to me, ‘Oh gee, it’s rubber wood so they can go flying.’ I said, ‘OK, how would you feel about flying 14 feet through the air and landing on rubber?’ ( laughs) And you’ll notice during the fight, these guys are getting kicked in the face. I did seven takes, and around take five, I had to replace the first guy Moussi kicked in the head because he was getting dizzy.”
Logothetis added that when most Black Belt readers were kids, they watched fight flicks with combat that was staccato and stagy. “I wanted to upgrade and bring us into the 21st century, and I wanted to do it with authenticity,” he said.
Dr. Craig D. Reid’s book The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s: 500+ Films Loaded With Action, Weapons and Warriors is available from Amazon.com.
Gong Shou Dao