Sunday, April 16, 2006

Action Movies

Having waxed rhapsodic on action in the past, I believe I may do so again.

When it comes to action movies, I believe a degree of the sublime was reached by Die Hard. It lacks the choreographed martial arts of Jet Li, or Jason Statham's The Transporter, but it is the rare action movie with a plot. There's a story, character arc, the works. It's the only action movie where the hero has any depth.

Which is not to say that I don't enjoy choreographed martial arts, far from it. Few things bring me more joy than to see people doing things very, very well, whether that be dancing or fighting. Indeed, the common reference between the two ("Wanna dance?", Todd Hockney, The Usual Suspects) has become so cliché that the actual relationship between the two is sadly ignored.

I speak, of course, not of the dancing you'll find in clubs or, in the European fashion, discothèques. That is more along the lines of mutual groin massages to a beat.

No, I speak of dancing wherein the participants are aware of, appreciate, and give full meaning to the terms "lead" and "follow". One partner initiates a movement, the other responds to it. Each, whether as lead or follow, provides a framework of movement and response. To say that the lead directs the dance and the part of the follow is merely to embelish defines a style of dancing doesn't do justice to the subject. When the follow responds, she cannot know with certainty what her lead intends. Her "embellishment" may go in a completely new direction. Hopefully, the two each move in unexpected directions, each challenging the other not only to move appropriately, but adapt and respond that they each form a pattern of movement and response; all of this reaches its own peak when dancers can spontaneously do this not only in response to one another, but in response to the music as well.

Now we return to martial arts. What we see in the movies is a beautiful lie, just as the dancing you see in movies is a lie. Dancers will never have a clear, open space in which to practice their art; they will never move cleanly and beautifully to the music. An exception to this may perhaps be found in Be Cool, when John Travolta and Uma Thurman dance to the Black Eyed Peas in an exclusive LA clubs. Never having been in an exclusive LA club, I don't know if the dance floor might be crowded. And they manage an open free form dance wherein the partners respond to one another; I recall they also pay direct homage to their dancing scene in Pulp Fiction.

To return to martial arts yet again; the lie we encounter in Kung Fu movies (if I may expand the umbrella of that term to include martial arts movies which don't limit themselves to the martial arts of southern China) is that fights are extended affairs, that the fights are clean, even tidy, that fights don't quickly degenerate into ugly brawls, wrestling matches where the winner is the bigger brute rather than the more elegant dancer.

Because we'd prefer that the elegant dancer wins. We love those stories in which David smashes Goliath. We fail to recall the many runts Goliath pounded to jelly because that's the expected outcome. We want the dancer to win because his movements are beautiful, not because he should in fact win.

Returning to the analogy of fighter as dancer, recall that I said that the dance is one of response between partners who have to learn what the other prefers, anticipate and respond as the dance proceeds. An example of a fighter so doing occurs in an obvious fashion (far too obvious, in my opinion, a weakness of this man's movies) in Jet Li's Kiss of the Dragon. He fights a titchy little Frenchman with a fondness for powerful roundhouse kicks. Because he's so good at them, Li can't defend himself effectively, and so has to maneuver his opponent into a realm where he simply doesn't have room to use his favored technique. Then Li kills him; again, he does so by anticipating a maneuver the Frenchman used earlier that had put Li on the ropes earlier in the movie (some sort of fancy kick set that puts the Frenchman in the air, allowing Li to grab his legs and plant his head on the floor, breaking his neck).

Now I'll speak more on the topic of The Transporter, which does an excellent job as a martial arts action movie (to distinguish it from, for example, the action movies of the governator). The fights are choreographed, but with a degree of, if not subtlety (because subtlety can almost never be applied to these movies), then at least skill. The hero must be outnumbered, because he's so much better that a one on one fight can never be a true challenge. If our unarmed hero can best multiple opponents with guns and axes, how challenging can any one opponent be? Well, to be honest, if he's very good and very big, any one opponent can be a real bitch to defeat.

So he fights multiple opponents, and rather than diving in and doing the same thing over and over, as when Jet Li simply uses pipes to take out the inner leg of pairs of opponents time and time again in Kiss of the Dragon in his single mob fight, Statham rather has to put himself in an environment to his favor or altar it in such a fashion.

For example, he finds himself in a bus depot fighting multiple opponents. Rather than face groups of four in the narrow lanes between the buses he enters a bus, whose terrain favors the single skilled opponent. When he later finds himself outnumbered and surrounded, in fact held in a half-nelson, in an open area, he has to struggle until he discovers open troughs of dirty motor oil. Suddenly, he's transformed the arena into an indescribably slick morass and covered himself with the stuff. When he then removes the pedals from bikes for some reason kept nearby (in terms of the plot, absurd. But they do provide him with a means of stability on a 100 square foot pool of motor oil. So that's all right) he's able to whoop booté. I have to wince many times at the end of that fight. Being kicked anywhere by someone wearing those pointy bike pedals... But being kicked in the face? Not even the French deserve that. Well, not all of them.

So that's where I stand on kung fu movies. I enjoy the shit out of 'em. Although I'd kind of like to see a movie where the fighting actually degenerates into a wrestling match. Wait... we have that. The last fight in Lethal Weapon. Man, that's a good fight. Very much an 80s movie, but a good fight.
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