Martial Arts in Media 3/12

Things remain … interesting … for the genre.

While The Grandmasters, Wong Kar-wai’s biopic of Yip Man (the reason the other films are about “Ip” Man, since no one wanted to get in the vaunted filmmaker’s way), and RZA’s The Man with the Iron Fist, have both completed principal photography some time back, and there are multiple movies about tai-chi being mounted (one featuring Keanu Reeves and the other starring Jet Li), the present pickings are slim, as usual.

In fact, as I wait for Flying Swords of Dragon Gate — the Tsui Hark remake of Dragon Inn starring Jet Li — to come out on a legal, non-bootleg, DVD, the only Hong Kong film I considered worth seeking out was Johnnie To’s latest, Life Without Principle. Johnnie, of course, is one of Hong Kong’s greatest filmmakers, who’s reached that rare plateau, alongside Stephen Chow and Zhang Yimou, of only being his own competition.

That is, everything I see of Yimou is judged against his To Live and/or Hero, while everything from Chow I judge on the basis of Shaolin Soccer and/or Kung Fu Hustle. Meanwhile, the filmmakers themselves seem to have reached the Jackie Chan “I’ve done everything three times” plateau, in that they now seem to choose their projects just to try something different – to interest themselves rather than to simply please their audience.

So is the cannily-titled Life Without Interest as good as The Heroic Trio, The Mission, Full Time Killer, Running Out of Time, Running on Karma, Throw Down, Election 1 and 2, or Mad Detective? No. Is it bad? No. Instead I’d use words like “evocative” and “admirable” for this purposely-paced tale of how the recent economic downturn (specifically Greece’s bankruptcy) effects the tenuously connected lives of a starting-level banker (Denise Ho), low-level Triad (Lau Ching-wan), and mid-level cop (Richie Ren).

The banker must deal with her conscience on several fronts. Threatened with termination because of her lack of killer instinct, she convinces an obviously overly optimistic woman to invest in an recognizably risky venture (in an extended sequence of subtly bravura performances from both parties) and must decide what to do with a sack of money left with her by an eventually murdered loan shark.

The mid-level cop deals with the loan shark’s murder, along with several loosely connected crimes, while his poor wife tries to scrape up a down payment for a new apartment. The low-grade Triad messenger-slash-fixer, meanwhile, winds up having to compensate for a mishandled pay-off with some pretty risky speculations of his own.

The ride can be alternately fascinating, jaunty, emotional, or just plain weird – especially when the Triad’s associate spends much of the film’s final quarter with a metal sculpture of a flower stem stuck through his chest. Life Without Principle (get it?) is not as instantaneously rewarding as some of To’s classics, but it does pay off dividends for any patient viewer.

Meanwhile, over in America, Spike TV is getting as much mileage out of the documentary I Am Bruce Lee as it possibly can. First, it showed the “talking-head” biography in three half-hour parts on its cable channel. Then someone used a marketing masterstroke to promote it as a one-day only, special event, nationwide, movie theater release. Finally, they’re just running it over and over again, like a Comedy Central Roast, back on Spike TV. As only the latest in a long line of “life of Bruce Lee” documentaries (several of which, in the spirit of full disclosure, I participated in), it’s pretty good.

Directed by honorable documentarian Pete McCormack (Facing Ali, Hope in the Time of AIDS), its best moments come with its emotional content, as when Dan Inosanto chokes up thinking about Bruce’s death even after all these years. Given widow Linda Lee Cadwell and daughter Shannon Lee’s participation on and off screen, the film also benefits mightily from rarely, if ever, seen home movie footage, as well as great hunks of Bruce’s now famous interview on The Pierre Berton Show – a long-running Canadian talk show also famous for interviews with Malcolm X and Lenny Bruce.

Less successful are the production’s efforts to crown Bruce the king of mixed martial arts, leading to the usual self-aggrandizing pronouncements of UFC big boss Dana White, as well as several of his octagon brawlers (one of whom refers to Bruce as “the Asian karate guy,” which, of course, is like referring to Babe Ruth as the “American football guy”). Do I think it coincidental that the documentary was released at the time of Spike’s most recent UFC telecasting? Mmmmmm…could be!

Even so, McCormack endeavors to be even-handed and interesting throughout, despite the over-reliance on a wide variety of unpredictable on-screen commenters — including Kobe Bryant, Ed O’Neill (Modern Family), and even Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas – the most memorable of which was Diana Lee Inosanto’s contention that Bruce “put balls on Chinese men.” Ooookay…!

In any case, I Am Bruce Lee is fun, fair, fascinating (from a variety of standpoints), and free, so if you find it on Spike during one of its innumerable repeats, give it a look.

Meanwhile, much in the Bruce spirit comes The Raid Redemption, the new film from the people who brought us Merantau – the Indonesian showcase for star/choreographer Iko Uwais. But that is not to say that Iko is just another “Asian karate guy.” His area of expertise is silat, the Indonesian fighting art that will look familiar to any fans of Tony Jaa’s Ong Bak and, to a lesser extent, Donnie Yen’s Ip Man. Although cinematic muy thai relies far more on knees that Iko’s silat, the striking speed, fist, elbow, and leg use will ring some bells (as well as clean some clocks).

Both Thai and Indonesian action cinema have long been hampered with the filmmakers’ inability to align their plots with the action in such a way that the result is satisfying to a majority of audiences. Most of the previous movies were like seeing musicals with great songs but lousy dialog.

In fact, any fan of Bangkok Knockout will recognize The Raid Redemption. Their plots are virtually the same: a bunch of heroes are trapped in a building with a bunch of villains and have to fight their way out. But The Raid’s ace in the hole is writer/director Gareth Huw Evans, a Welsh-born, Cardiff-educated martial arts fan, who brings Western sensibilities to Eastern action.

He was smart enough to fashion star/choreographer Iko Uwais’s role as a loving husband to his pregnant wife, not as a man who had a somewhat unhealthy devotion to his elephant (ala Jaa). Also of vital importance, Iko’s hero cop is not an asshole, unlike virtually every protagonist in Bangkok Knockout. Those truths alone will sustain viewers of the hyper-intense, ultra-bloody Raid.

The story is simplicity itself: a bunch of cops are sent to a fifteen story blockhouse of an apartment building, where a crime lord rules from a den of video screens, giving room and board to any violent sleazeball he sees fit. Sure, there are some complicating subplots, but those are icing on the cake to the high caliber and high kicking action that ensues.

There are some really sweet things in The Raid: a hallway hand-to-hand marathon about forty minutes in that’s reminiscent of, and rivals, similar sequences in Old Boy, The Man from Nowhere, and Police Story; a suspenseful scene that involves a wall and a machete; a table top joust that re-evokes Bangkok Knockout, and a final, three-way melee that begs comparisons to both Ip Man II and Police Story II.

In fact, the only place where The Raid Redemption falters at all is in what I call “the Itchy and Scratchy factor.” Itchy and Scratchy, of course, is the cartoon-within-a-cartoon on The Simpsons – a hyper-violent Tom and Jerry parody where a homicidally maniacal mouse goes all slasher porn on a poor cat.

The musical number that introduces the cartoon, which Bart and Lisa watch on the Krusty the Klown show is “They fight, and fight, and fight and fight and fight, fight-fight-fight, fight-fight-fight … the Itchy and Scratchy Show!” It is the theme song of all redundant, repetitive, one-note, empty-movement fight scenes – all you have to do is replace the last five words with whatever film it fits, from Star Wars The Phantom Menace to Kill Bill One and Two.

In The Raid Redemption, as in Ong Bak II and III, the fighters simply wail on one another, with no real reaction to each other’s pummeling – as if they were two kids fake-fighting … or Itchy and Scratchy. The whole purpose of the endeavor is not to show real pain, human behavior, or imaginative learning, it’s to show how tough and bad-ass you are.

As in the worst of Van Damme efforts, no one in The Raid learns a thing about their adversaries’ techniques, thereby being able to adapt their own to become superior. Iko, and his adversaries, don’t improve as they go on: they are the same in the first punch as they are on the last kick.

In fact, Ip Man II style, Iko does something at the end of his climatic fight that he should have done at the very start – but the opponents were too busy simply repeatedly punching each other in the face as fast as they could. Their goals seemed to be to prove themselves to themselves, rather than actually winning the fight.

The best screen martial art fights rise and fall, ebb and flow. They are dramatically valid as well as physically thrilling. Bruce Lee, especially, knew when to pause, establish specific conflict that would pay off later, and dramatic context that would result in audience involvement. He didn’t simply show off how fast he could kick or how much he could pretend to ignore direct punches to the face.

The Raid Redemption is a good action film that showed great improvement over Merantau. I am truly looking forward to Evans’ future work, now that he had turned down directing the American remake of The Raid in favor of two more Indonesian films. But The Raid Redemption could’ve been one of the best action films of all time had it been more concerned with showing how smart it was rather than how fast and tough it was.