Want to see Michelle Yeoh as Indiana Jones? The burgeoning Hong Kong film industry of the 80s was eager to riff on Western movies and create their own counterparts. “Magnificent Warriors” is five movies in one, which was pretty common for martial arts films of the era. In only her third starring role, Yeoh wears a leather jacket, fights with a whip, carries a satchel, and Spielbergian visuals are visited throughout the film – although the whip gives way to a rope dart pretty quickly.
If that’s not the best use of a barrel in the history of cinema, I’ll eat the first hat that’s volunteered. “Magnificent Warriors” is filled with uniquely Hong Kong visual gags like this. Yeoh plays pilot and arms runner Fok Ming-Ming, who delivers weapons to Chinese villages seeking to protect themselves from an incoming Japanese invasion.
This places “Magnificent Warriors” during the Second Sino-Japanese War of the 1930s, which a non-European view often considers the true beginning of World War 2. Fok is given a mission to contact a Chinese spy and extract Youda, the leader of Kaa Yi, a city in Inner Mongolia. He has vital information that can help the war effort.
Fok will recognize her spy contact by a watch he wears, but the watch itself is intercepted by a clueless gambler who’s a riff on Eli Wallach’s Ugly character from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. See what I mean about five films in one? Misunderstandings ensue, but the ever-increasing team follows through on Youda’s extraction – only to find the Japanese are planning to build a poison gas factory to supply their troops.
“Magnificent Warriors” is a satisfying, cheesy 80s action movie filled with fights and explosions, but if I can break the fun for a moment, this plot point is based in reality. The Japanese invasion of China incorporated chemical and biological weapons, including mustard gas on the front lines, and dropping flea canisters containing bubonic plague on Chinese cities – a dreadful war crime that caused several outbreaks.
This plot point doesn’t villainize the Japanese. It reflects a genocidal reality of that war that informed China’s own cultural and political reactions. That it’s in a Hong Kong movie from 1987 can also be understood to reflect fears of Hong Kong being handed over to China (the handover was negotiated in 1984 and set for 1997, and this reality has dominated much of Hong Kong cinema since the 80s). In other words, Chinese heroes in these films sometimes symbolized Chinese resistance to Japan and sometimes symbolized Hong Kong resistance to China. Often, they did both at once. The film never plays so complicated as all this, but understanding these contexts, and how different audiences see them, helps us recognize the importance of these films as much more than just silly action movies.
You do have to be careful with 80s Hong Kong action cinema. I always grit my teeth a little bit in preparation when sitting down to watch something new. Jackie Chan’s own riffs on Indiana Jones in the “Armour of God” series often included misogynist and racist jokes. (I love the second one for its choreography and physical comedy, but it is deeply problematic.) Thankfully, those jokes and themes aren’t present in “Magnificent Warriors” (or at least the translation I watched), and that’s a relief.
Yeoh’s Fok reminds male characters a few times that she’s their equal and she’s been the one saving them. The worst we get here is other characters recognizing Fok and her spy contact have eyes for each other, and she’s careful to keep track that she saves his life as often as he saves hers. The film never infantilizes Yeoh, pushes her to the side, or fetishizes her heroism (as much of the so-called “Girls with Guns” subgenre did to women heroes to make male audiences feel better). Other characters occasionally question her abilities, and these are treated as opportunities for Fok to embarrass them by pointing out she’s kicked everyone’s asses to that point. Hong Kong action movies were generally more progressive than their Western counterparts of this era, but that’s not saying a whole lot for the 80s. “Magnificent Warriors” isn’t perfect, but it strikes me as standing out in this regard.
There’s aerial combat, spycraft, rooftop chases, fight scenes in raging fire, an extended siege, a surprisingly emotional interlude about resistance to occupation and genocide, and if that’s too heavy, a heaping dose of physical comedy and a fantastic “Who’s on first?”-style sequence about who was right and wrong in a dice game.
The fight choreography is densely packed and frequent, especially considering this was just Yeoh’s third starring role after “Yes, Madam!” and “Royal Warriors”. The stunt work is absolutely incredible.
“Magnificent Warriors” is overstuffed and doesn’t all come together in the same way that 80s action movies are almost always overstuffed and don’t all come together. That’s part of its joy. What’s practical is sometimes sacrificed for what’s awesome. How did that jeep suddenly ramp up and take a flying leap? Because it’s awesome. Where did that explosion come from? It’s an 80s movie, the better question is where did that lack of explosion come from? When did Michelle Yeoh find that motorcycle she’s using to lance dudes? Because it’s more awesome than her not finding a motorcycle to not lance dudes.
Once you can accept that and get into its vibe, “Magnificent Warriors” is an immensely fun watch. You can tell why Yeoh was on her way to becoming a movie star. Even if she would take a 5-year break one film later, she never left the top of her game, and has somehow only gotten better and more prolific.
There are a few options to watch “Magnificent Warriors”. You can rent the subtitled version from Amazon for $3, or watch the dubbed version on Roku or Crackle with ads. The trailer below is for the remastered Blu-ray from Eureka! which restores a number of martial arts films and has done incredible work in film preservation.
“Gunpowder Milkshake” is a Spaghetti Western that takes place in abandoned commercial spaces where smart light panels blaze inconstant, shifting colors into the night. Only robber barons and their armies dare to tread there. They shuttle between the defunct, collapsed memories of malls and the nostalgic retro-pastiche shops that act like anchors when everything real just…stopped one day.
Karen Gillan plays an assassin named Sam, after a job goes belly-up and her employers turn on her. It leaves her protecting a child through ever-more ridiculous action sequences. More importantly, Gillan leads us through a funhouse mirror reflection of action movies, built more from John Woo than “John Wick”, constructed on the bones and intentions of Sergio Leone Westerns, and strung with a deeply macabre and explicitly violent humor.
“Gunpowder Milkshake” is messy and imperfect, but it’s also unique and satisfying in a way so many other action movies aren’t. As in many Spaghetti Westerns, Sam has a chance at personal redemption by doing the right thing for once. That means turning on those she once worked for, with only her estranged gang of outlaws to offer support.
Pluck Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, or Eli Wallach out of yesterday’s Westerns and deposit them in “Gunpowder Milkshake”, and they’d feel right at home in the structure of it. The style, however, is anything but familiar.
There aren’t horses or sweeping desert landscapes here. There are bowling alleys, parking garages, a library acting much like the Western’s courthouse, a shake shop as the meet-up instead of a casino or brothel. The strange, sweeping music makes the Spaghetti Western connection more obvious, but “Gunpowder Milkshake” isn’t a straight analogue. It adheres to the framework of the Spaghetti Western, the meaning of it. The aesthetic is something altogether different, a suffusion of American realism and pop art, as if Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” was done by Roy Lichtenstein.
Where the Western was desolate landscape that reflected the barren souls of its characters and gave them a stage that stressed iconography, “Gunpowder Milkshake” is a retro diner, a run-down mall, an unbelievably sanitary hospital, all of them overwhelmed with calming pastels, or too-bright white, or neon-emulating light panels, anything to suggest a life and bustle that isn’t really there. It’s no less a limbo. “Gunpowder Milkshake” is a modern desolation, as empty as those deserts save for its murderers and the people who pay them. It doesn’t paint its own world so much as it interprets and abstracts our own.
It’s also funny, in particular during a series of escalating action scenes where Sam’s lost any motor function in her arms. Gillan plays her hero gruff and generally monotone, just like a Western hero, but it’s in these scenes that her comic chops shine through. Her sheer skill within action comedy can undermine that gruff approach, but she has a keen ability for Bruce Willicisms – eye rolls, exasperation, and that personally offended, put-upon reaction within shootouts and fist fights. This doesn’t really agree with the emotionless, lone rider approach she takes in some scenes, but it’s a trade well worth making.
I love everything that “Gunpowder Milkshake” is trying to do. I don’t know that it gets there with every note, but it succeeds on most counts. Even when it doesn’t, there’s still a phenomenal cast to watch beat fools up. Gillan is joined by Angela Bassett, Carla Gugino, Lena Headey, and Michelle Yeoh. I know, bury the lede, right? In particular, Michelle Yeoh reminds us that she may be the best action star in cinematic history.
There’s an anti-patriarchal message early and late, but it disappears through the film’s middle. It’s a thematic strength that “Gunpowder Milkshake” sometimes forgets to carry through in the narrative. This is made up in large part by the cast of women action heroes, who have been othered as both actors in their genre and the characters we see here. They’re much better suited than men to lead us through such a collapsing, late stage capitalist landscape. They inhabit it in a way the men they piss off never will. A cast of women can inhabit this abstraction of othering and economic decay because our culture asks them to inhabit versions of the same in our world. For a cast of Wahlbergs and Pratts, it would be nothing more than a diorama instead of a stage.
I’ll agree completely with many criticisms of the movie. You probably won’t like it if you go in expecting a straight-up action movie. This isn’t “John Wick” with women, and it’s not trying to be. It is a deeply weird, macabre Spaghetti Western that is also constantly excited and invested in its next ridiculous idea. It takes place in an abstracted, eroded commercial world – one that feels like elements of our own boiled down to the desolate iconography of late stage capitalism. If you can buy into and enjoy it at that level, it’s often a beast of a film.
The closest comparisons I have aren’t even in similar genres. They’re films that are both rooted in and playfully invert their own genres – yet if I say it made me think of “Dark City” or “Delicatessen” or “Six-String Samurai” in that way, I don’t want you to think it’s anything like those films. You can say two people approach their jobs the same way while understanding they do completely different jobs. That’s what I mean, and I think it highlights that there’s not a real comparison for “Gunpowder Milkshake” out there. Before it’s anything else, it is unique.
I certainly think there are places that could’ve been improved. The beginning is overlong, and uses a narrated framework that isn’t needed or maintained. There’s an overuse of slow-motion when nothing is happening early on, but this is solved by a constant deluge of events that make it useful later. While I think the sight gags and visual comedy of “Gunpowder Milkshake” are phenomenal, its comedic dialogue is hit and miss.
Are any of these enough to topple the ludicrous amount of fun that “Gunpowder Milkshake” is as a whole? Not at all. Don’t get me wrong – reviews for this from both critics and audiences are all over the place. This is definitely a “your mileage may vary” kind of film.
If you want to see a traditional action movie with a complex plot, this is likely too stylized, impractical, and episodic. It lacks interest in the connective tissue, fine detail, and storytelling mechanics of a latter-day “Mission: Impossible”. It also wants to abstract and get to the cinema of it all where more gothic action films ranging from “The Crow” to “John Wick” to “Justice League” would prefer to use their foundation of atmosphere for philosophical expression.
Neither is it a good corollary to the MCU, whose films and series are plenty witty and colorful, but before this year often misplaced their viciousness and were too restrained for the meta-pastiche, art-before-narrative attitude of “Gunpowder Milkshake”.
This is something told through good, creative action scenes, and uses these to pursue becoming a funhouse contemporary art installation. It’s engineered to be both entertaining and eerily uncomfortable around the edges. It has a fairly simple plot to complement a world that’s meant to be interpreted instead of told outright. If that appeals to you, then you may find one of your favorite films.
That’s why I make the “Dark City”, “Delicatessen”, and “Six-String Samurai” comparisons – not because any of these films are much like each other, but because the kind of art they become utilizes popular genre conventions to deliver a film that’s more expressive than particular, landscapes and realities more suggested than defined, a world that is meant to leave you turning it over in terms of how you felt toward it rather than how you understood it. The place where you understand these worlds isn’t on the screen. You’re not connecting to what’s already formed and just needs to be grasped. You understand them by what they evoke in you. These are films that can establish a home in your imagination.
Is “Gunpowder Milkshake” on the level of those films? It’s close enough – and this type of film evoked on this scale is rare enough – that I love it. I’d call “Gunpowder Milkshake” a good film. A great one? That would require it to behave itself more. The challenging thing about contemporary art is that it defies the idea that it should be judged as good or bad; you judge it on whether it makes you feel something in a way nothing else does. “Gunpowder Milkshake” does this, and a film like that is far rarer than a great one. When something like that plants roots in your imagination, that unique emotion or sensation that only it gives you is something that you now get to carry with you. Do I think “Gunpowder Milkshake” is great? Who cares when it’s something even better?
Female martial artists have rarely had the opportunities of their male counterparts. Even when Hong Kong saw the rise of the profitable “girls with guns” genre, producers treated these like exploitation films. Women performed martial arts, yes, but they were also trotted around in various states of undress and often needed last-minute rescuing from the male lead. There was also a certain brutality toward women in the fights that wasn’t always shown toward the men.
The Iron Angels series, also known as Fighting Madam, Angel, or Midnight Angels, exemplified the best and worst traits of the genre. It established the genre as viable on a bigger scale while introducing defining female martial artists like Moon Lee and Yukari Oshima to many martial arts fans in the West who hadn’t seen their smaller, earlier films. When the first film proved successful, however, its 1988 sequel backseated the women in favor of focusing on the exploits of Nathan Chan.
It is noteworthy that this sequel was co-directed by Raymond Leung and Teresa Woo. Women (as in the U.S.) rarely direct in Hong Kong or Chinese cinema, but Woo was a writer/director who enjoyed brief success.
We’ll focus on that sequel here, but I’ll feature a great fight from the original down the road. I want to focus on Moon Lee today because her choreography reflects the blending of kung fu, taekwondo, and kickboxing that was taking place in Hong Kong cinema at the time. Jackie Chan had originally infused kung fu films with his zeal for risky stunts. For years, he had also been bringing in foreign martial artists in order to vary up his choreography and the skills of the opponents he faced.
What Jackie Chan did, everyone did. This blending of styles was becoming very popular and what we think of as older, more rigid “kung fu” choreographies could become repetitive to audiences on their own. Moon Lee was one of the best – male or female – in terms of shifting into choreographies heavily informed by stunt work and non-traditional, “post-modern” martial arts.
The best fight in the entire Iron Angels franchise takes place between Moon Lee and fight choreographer Yuen Tak. It’s a condensed, no-frills fight where the two go toe-to-toe after she beats the snot out of his Lieutenant. (You’ll also see Elaine Lui there right at the end.)
It’s a shame Moon Lee and her contemporaries are rarely thought of in the same way that Chan, Jet Li, or Donnie Yen are. They were just as skilled, but no one with influence was interested enough in pushing female-led films.
This didn’t really begin to happen until Jackie Chan saw Michelle Yeoh practicing choreography for his 1992 film Supercop, and he delayed production to have the entire film rewritten with her as his co-lead. And, as we know, what Jackie Chan did, everyone did. That’s not to say things are at all equal today, but a lot changed thanks to Yeoh pushing the boundaries with her talents and Chan realizing what he’d overlooked for so many years.
Moon Lee’s film career was finishing up by this point, though she would continue to enjoy success on television. Within the parameters of what the industry allowed at the time, her career was massively successful. It’s just a shame that this still means we rarely think of her today. In the fight scene above, you can see why we should.
I went out and asked various writers a loaded question: Who is the next Jackie Chan? It’s tricky because, like Charlie Chaplin, Gene Kelly, or the Highlander, there can be only one. His skills are too unique to duplicate. I was just as interested in what Jackie Chan means to different viewers, and who might best embody those meanings going forward. Without further ado:
STEPHEN CHOW by Simon Scher
Who is the next Jackie Chan? To answer this we must first ask, who was the last Jackie Chan? When he first burst onto the international stage, his high-flying kung fu action and peerless speed were instantly compared to the father of international martial arts media, Bruce Lee. Chan did not hit the big time until after the death of Lee. So it would be hard to identify the next Jackie Chan until he too passes on or stops making amazing martial arts movies.
It has been said that Jet Li or Jason Scott Lee would fill the role, but though they are amazing martial artists with comparable skill and speed to both Chan and Bruce Lee, Jackie is still holding his spot while Jet and Jason are moving past their prime. I do not doubt that there will be another in the succession of Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan, but I do not believe he has yet made an appearance on the silver screen.
There are a number of young, talented Chinese Wushu stars simmering in the Hong Kong cinematic forge just waiting to make their way into Western cinema – perhaps it will be one of them. A strong but doubtful case can be made for Tony Jaa, but I don’t think he has the range or mass appeal to fill the slot. It will have to be a martial artist with range, language skills, and something innovative that takes the genre to a new level and in a different direction as both Bruce and Jackie did. If I had to pick somebody to pin my hopes on I would name Stephen Chow for his innovative approach to martial arts cinema, his amazing skills, and his sense of comedic and dramatic timing.
Simon Scher runs Northampton Martial Arts in Northampton, Massachusetts. He is a regular contributor to Black Belt Magazine, the biggest martial arts movie buff I know, and holds a sixth-degree black belt in Taekwondo.
JEEJA YANIN by Himura Sachiko
Having already shot one of the best martial arts sequences in recent history, Jeeja Yanin is my pick. I enjoy her work because her background is in Taekwondo, very close to my training, but she is choreographed in Muay Thai films. As a technician, she is perfect. Her kicks are some of the most complete I have ever seen. She over-rotates every one of them, which adds power, but she does so without losing control, balance, or speed.
Her style is a controlled lack of control, which speaks of true mastery and reminds me of Jackie Chan’s abilities. He was so perfect he could afford to be imperfect. Yanin also has Chan’s streak for the kooky, striking poses and involving dance in some of her roles. Ever since I first saw her in Chocolate, she has been my idol in my own training. She is also no stranger to insane stunt scenes.
My single worry is that she’s taking time off to have a baby. It is a wonderful decision and I congratulate her on starting a family, but time off has never helped a martial arts star grow. The man who laid the groundwork for her in Thai cinema, Tony Jaa, took time away and came back a shade of his former self, making films to cash in on his name but without the remaining skills to match.
Himura Sachiko is a business owner living in Osaka, Japan. She has a black belt in Shotokan Karate.
IKO UWAIS by Justine Baron
Jackie Chan is a martial arts legend who has graced the screen for over 50 years. Chan has managed to stand out from other martial artists by adopting his own style of light hearted comedy mixed with martial arts. He took roles like that of Wong Fei-Hung in Drunken Master, Dragon Ma in Project A, and Chan Ka Kui in the Police Story movies, to name a few of my personal favorites. He was, and still is, the quintessential example of an entertainer.
His first really successful English-speaking role was that of Keung in Rumble in the Bronx, which was a Hong Kong-made movie that was filmed in the U.S. with the intent of introducing him to Western audiences. This is where a lot of Americans, including myself, became familiarized with the man who would become a huge star outside of his home country, China. Rumble in the Bronx is actually the first movie of Chan’s that I’ve ever seen.
Not only that, but Jackie Chan was the first martial artist I’ve ever seen period. I was only about 7-years-old at the time and didn’t know who other martial artists like Bruce Lee were and, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have cared at that age. Jackie Chan was fun to watch. He was funny, talented, and charismatic – all the qualities that would appeal to a younger, as well as older, generation. I further enjoyed watching him in other Hollywood movies like Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon. Now that I’m older, though, I prefer a lot of his Hong Kong films to his American ones. He has made over 100 films in his career. As I continue to discover more and more of his movies, I just become more impressed with his performances and the stunts that he can pull off. Jackie Chan was the man who introduced me to martial arts and, because of him, I have loved martial arts movies of all kinds ever since.
I think it goes without saying that there will never be another like Jackie Chan, and maybe that’s a good thing. However, there is one other martial artist who has really caught my eye in the past few years, and that is the up-and-coming Indonesian actor Iko Uwais from The Raid movies. This guy has impressed me so much with his abilities to not only choreograph amazing fight scenes and perform his own stunts, but also to execute the choreography so perfectly, I oftentimes find myself rewinding scenes and watching them again because I can’t believe what I’m seeing. This guy has been practicing Pencak Silat since he was 10-years-old, competing in tournaments and winning titles. No doubt the intensity of his fight scenes is partly due to the amazing style of the director who discovered him back in 2007, Gareth Evans. Together, they make movies with some of the most skillful, hard hitting action I’ve ever seen. They have managed to completely alter my taste in action movies.
That’s not to say there aren’t other martial artists and martial arts movies that I absolutely love, but it’s the work of Iko Uwais that has really stuck with me in recent years. Even after the success of movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – which I did enjoy – that shows how wire fu can be used beautifully, artistically, and performed almost like a ballet, I still prefer the wireless, raw, bloody, bone-crunching action given to us by Uwais. Call me weird, it’s OK. In my opinion, there’s already a ton of violence in movies in general, so if you’re going to watch a blood bath, why not enjoy a talented guy who can turn that into a well-choreographed blood bath? I am hoping that he will continue to make amazing martial arts movies for years to come, and be able to keep taking martial arts films to the next level.
He may not have the same kind of appeal as Jackie Chan, and that’s OK. In my opinion, he’s great at what he does, and that’s enough for me to wish that he has a long-lived, successful career.
Justine Baron sometimes works as a freelance production assistant on films and commercials. She has a passion for movies, and she puts her B.A. in English and Film to use by writing about movies in her free time at Justine’s Movie Blog.
YAYAN RUHIAN by Vanessa Tottle
Leave it to me to pick the bad guy, but Yayan Ruhian is my favorite martial artist to watch. I’ve seen three of his films now, including the two Raid movies, all Indonesian movies directed by Gareth Huw Evans. It’s not odd to work with the same director over and over again; most martial arts stars stick with one until they have the cachet to control their image working in unfamiliar environments.
Yayan also choreographed those films, with Iko Uwais. In The Raid, Yayan plays the enforcer Mad Dog. He fights as if killing someone is a religious experience, an addiction of the soul. He is powerful. In The Raid 2, he plays the assassin Prakoso. He may as well be called Stray Dog. Murder is the only trade he knows, the only thing he’s good at. He is desperate and sad. In both, he brings an animal quality I’ve never seen before. He throws himself into fights with reckless abandon. He sometimes feels a step away from losing all control.
In both, he possesses a dramatic quality not always seen in action movies. This is what martial arts stars will need to display in the future. It’s not enough to just be a Jackie Chan anymore (except for Jackie Chan, of course). Or, for that matter, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. Those days of rooting for actors and never knowing the characters’ name are over. You must be able to play a character inside a story now. While many martial artists can impress us in their action scenes, we will only remember those who impress us in quiet, emotional scenes as well.
It’s fitting that our next Jackie Chan might be an expert at playing villains, like a Silat master Gary Oldman. We live in a time of villains, of religious addict mad dogs and sad, stray dogs under thumb who know nothing else. The next Jackie Chan will speak to his time the way Chan did to his, and Yayan Ruhian speaks to this time in a way that terrifies and intrigues me.
Vanessa Tottle is earning her Ph.D. in vertebrate paleontology. She writes often for this site, and holds a black belt in Krav Maga.
NO ONE by Chris Braak
Jackie Chan sat at the crossroads of a very particular combination of cultural factors – as a direct successor to Bruce Lee, whose influence helped change Hong Kong cinema from one that relied on elaborate special effects to one that focused much more on physical virtuosity; as an actor he sort of “broke through” in the U.S. in the 80s and 90s, when the kind of star-powered action vehicle was still going strong; and as a product of the Beijing Opera School, which taught a very performance-focused form of kung fu. And I’m not sure that this combination exists right now; American cinema is bifurcated between low-budget, very “acting” films and high-budget, elaborate-effects heavy movies, neither of which are geared to showcase (nor do they particularly require) the kind of virtuosity that Jackie Chan brought to his movies.
The star-powered vehicles are largely a thing of the past as well. It seems like Tom Cruise is maybe the last Hollywood star trying to work this way, and his movies aren’t doing so well; even the lower-budget martial arts stars are either abandoning that kind of movie (Jason Statham, for example, just doesn’t seem interested in them right now) or never quite made it with American audiences (David Belle is in his forties, now, and past his prime; Tony Jaa never seemed to catch on, and seriously I did my part, I saw Ong Bak in the theaters; who else? Stephen Chow seems to have abandoned the martial-arts-star movie.)
The kinds of actors who are working now as martial arts stars in the U.S. are either second-string, low profile guys (like Scott Adkins) or they’re old.
So where would the new crop of actors come from? Well, the thing is that there is nothing like the Beijing Opera School in the U.S. or any of the Anglophone nations where we get our actors (England, Australia, Canada). Nothing. And while that doesn’t mean we couldn’t get Asian actors with the kind of background in both performance and spinning flip-kicks if we wanted, it does govern the kind of movies that actors are drawn to, and thus the kind of movies that get made, and I think this is going to crowd out the virtuoso-martial artist movie, and therefore crowd out the virtuoso martial artists.
Furthermore, we’ve got to accept that American movies don’t select for virtuosity. “Martial arts” provides the background for a lot of actors’ workout routines, sure, but those are exactly what they sound like: workout routines. They’re about building big muscles and washboard abs, not developing that kind of grace and agility that only being sold to the Beijing Opera when you’re 12 years old and spending your formative years leaping over tables and whacked with bamboo sticks can provide. This is both limiting, in terms of what those actors are going to do onscreen, and also antithetical to the essential nature of kung fu: “cosmetic” kung fu is not kung fu at all.
In my opinion, we’re not in a place right now in American cinema that’s got room for a new Jackie Chan. I think we might be ripe for it, definitely I would be in favor of a new wave of popular, virtuoso martial arts movies; I expect they’re going to have to come from somewhere other than the U.S., though, and I don’t see anything quite like that on the horizon.
Many people name martial artists like Jet Li, to which I respond NOOOOO! You are missing the point if you consider actors like him. Jackie Chan is comedic, his predecessors were Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, not Bruce Lee. One of his contemporaries was Chris Farley. People are so blown away with Jackie Chan’s agility and physicality that they don’t make the connection that he is doing slapstick comedy. The Question becomes who is doing advanced slapstick these days, and I can’t think of anyone on this side of the pond. That’s my two cents.
[After asking Carter if there was anyone popularizing martial arts films the way Jackie Chan did as a director, she did add the following. -Gabe]
How about the Wachowskis? Sci-fi/kung fu crossovers weren’t common until after The Matrix.
Carter Churchfield is a tour guide/jack of all trades/international mercenary who is a horror aficionado/famed pigeon wrestler/diamond smuggler. She doesn’t know it, but it’s a high school performance of hers that got me interested in theatre and filmmaking in the first place.
GINA CARANO by S. L. Fevre
12-1-1 record in professional Muay Thai. 7-1 record in MMA (undefeated against fighters who didn’t get suspended for steroids). Here’s her debut. All 38 seconds of it. Arguably the best stand-up fighter MMA’s had, man or woman. One of the only actors who began her career as a competitive fighter. When she was filming a fight scene for Haywire, Michael Fassbender slammed her head into a wall too hard. She retaliated by breaking a vase over his million dollar face. (He told MTV he could tell it was coming a second before it happened, and that’s when he knew it would be a great fight scene.)
Cause I’ve met cats who hit harder than actors like Chris Pine and Zoe Saldana and there’s a plague of mainstream actors who think a few weeks of training make them look like secret agents. Carano’s knocked people out and she’s been knocked out. When she kicks someone in the head, I can believe she just gave them a concussion.
S. L. Fevre is an actress, model, and martial arts movie fan who lives in California. She kickboxes for fitness.
MICHAEL JAI WHITE by Kyle Price-Livingston
With the concurrent rise of superhero movies and Mixed Martial Arts, audience expectations for martial arts films have changed. Where once we looked for grace, speed, and agility, we now seek bone-shattering strength and brutality. The Jackie Chan of the future will need to demonstrate a mean uppercut, a working knowledge of submission holds and the self-confidence necessary to wear tights without embarrassment.
There is, to my mind, only one actor who can currently pull that off: Michael Jai White. At 46, White is perhaps a bit old to be considered “the next” anything, but he works consistently, looks the part, and even plays the Jackie Chan role in Skin Trade, an upcoming film which is basically a photo-negative of Rush Hour. He is, at the very least, the prototype for the next generation of martial arts stars.
All you need to know about Kyle Price-Livingston is that he’s the sort of guy who – when he posts about giving a chipmunk CPR – you think about it for a second, consider to whom it happened, and figure, “Yeah, that’s reasonable.”
ZHANG ZIYI by Gabe Valdez
Insofar as his unique physical performance and comedic presence, there is no next Jackie Chan. It’s a ludicrous question, which is why all these fantastic writers have been so game in answering it. To me, the next Jackie Chan is someone with demonstrated box office appeal who uses his extent of unique training to bridge cultural gaps, to make social commentary on his own culture, and to further popularize martial arts films by making people look at them in a way they never have before. Having been baptized in fight choreography against the icons of the previous generation only helps his credibility.
There is only one answer for me: Zhang Ziyi. Proven box office, name appeal in the East and West. Like Jackie Chan, she was trained from youth in a separate field from martial arts (dance) that lends her a quality that’s unique from every other martial arts actor on film. As anyone who’s seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; House of Flying Daggers; or The Grandmaster can attest, she has a dramatic ability most actors – martial arts or otherwise – can only dream of. She’s worked with directors Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee, and Wong Kar Wai in films that have revolutionized the operatic approach to kung fu cinema, and are simultaneously very popular in China and yet incredibly subversive in their themes.
And you can’t beat her resume – fight scenes opposite Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun Fat, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and alongside Takeshi Kaneshiro. She’s also starred in a movie with Jackie Chan (and if you ask me, Brett Ratner’s biggest mistake as a director has nothing to do with X-Men 3 and everything to do with giving us a Zhang Ziyi-Chris Tucker fight scene instead of a Zhang Ziyi-Jackie Chan fight scene in Rush Hour 2).
Most importantly, she can communicate a scene dramatically through her movement quality in a way no other actor has demonstrated. This has made directors change how kung fu is filmed.
Gabe Valdez writes the movie blog you’re currently reading. It’s read in over 90 countries and has featured more than 20 different writers. I hold a black belt in Taekwondo and analyze fight choreography regularly. I’ve most recently written on zen philosophy in Jackie Chan’s choreography and the mythical choreography in Troy and Serenity.