The hard law of the fist has always dominated the universe of cinematic action, where our heroes not only perform demonstrations of strength but also often feature in movies as nuanced as the many styles and cultures of martial arts.
There are so many styles that closely resemble so many film genres, different but always part of the same magic, creating an emotional journey through choreographed movement that becomes an elegant dance rather than a display of violence.
Quoting Bruce Lee, a martial artist who led the way by bringing global success to a genre where even the likes of Gordon Liu or Sammo Hung had failed, one of the cornerstones of his philosophy was that an athlete needs discipline and self-control, no less than in any film production.
Not surprisingly, the literal translation of “cinema” is precisely “art in motion,” finding in martial arts a perfect companion that can enhance the distinctive style of any true filmmaker.
In this article, I want to explore the dynamic world of post-2000 martial arts with five movies where the emotional and psychological side is as important as the protagonists’ naked punches and acrobatic kicks, suffering in body as much as in soul in these compelling and must-see stories.
Thus, we start with the most unlikely protagonist for a martial arts movie: the young and introverted Zen, the clandestine daughter of a Yakuza romance who has always lived in the bullying and violence of street gangs.
Being an autistic girl, obviously, life is not easy, but I do not believe for a moment that this is why she is helpless.
Indeed, she manages to learn what she sees automatically, feeding herself Bruce Lee movies and learning Muay Thai techniques from the boys who train at a temple behind her house.
When her mother falls ill, Zen finds herself alone and decides to collect the family debts to pay the hospital bills, encountering a path of fierce opponents that will lead her back to confront her father.
Already, the premise of a mentally disabled protagonist who becomes an action hero is intriguing and well told; Thai director Prachya Pinkaew‘s excellent production work is no less, with the dazzling revelation of young Jejaa Yanin, here in her more than convincing debut as an unstoppable and unexpected fighting machine.
The idea of combining autism with martial arts, in the mechanical repetition of gestures that the young girl effortlessly learns, fits perfectly with her doll-like face and slender but nimble body in bringing to the stage the many breathless sequences of escape/chase and furious fighting.
A whirlwind of maws choreographed by a veteran like Panna Rittikrai, already behind the spectacular movies of the Ong-Bak saga or Bangkok Knockout, who brings respect to Muay Thai culture in a feast of crackling knuckles and kicks to the face that will delight any lover of the genre.
Ip Man (2008)
We mentioned Bruce Lee earlier (and how could we not when talking about martial arts movies), but here, instead, we talk about one of his mentors and among the most famous martial masters in the world.
So we go back to the distant 1930s in the far-flung region of Guangdong, a small, relatively peaceful oasis in southern China, where our protagonist, Yip Man, was born and raised.
Everyone knows his Wing Chun prowess, a style derived from the old Shaolin warriors’ techniques, so every now and then, some swaggering opponent shows up in town, challenging him to a duel to dispel the myth of his unbeatability.
However, old Yip never flinches and, with serene ease, defeats each new suitor, running his historic estate/dojo together with his wife and still young son.
As we all know, unfortunately, war destroys everything, and this is also true for the small town of Yip, which the Japanese invaders put to the sword, deviously managing to turn the Chinese against each other.
At that point, disregarding the army and the police, the only ones left to defend the defenseless population will be Yip Man and the other masters, who will put aside their rivalries by pursuing a common goal.
Although this movie, directed by Wilson Yip, certainly does not shine in terms of realism, one only has to see the high-speed / high-destruction-rate fights; it still remains heartfelt praise for the end of Chinese culture and its subsequent rebirth, not always under the best omens.
Simply phenomenal, Donnie Yen, in the lead role, is charismatic and agile as a panther in the action scenes, and to the delight of us Westerners, we will see him again as John Wick‘s friend/enemy in the latest movie of the eponymous saga.
From faraway China, we move to sunny California, where we follow the life of Mike Terry, a self-defense teacher who lives humbly by running his small gym and a small group of students on whom he imposes the philosophy and fighting style of Brazilian Ju-Jitsu.
In financial trouble along with his beautiful girlfriend Sondra, he fortunately finds help from a famous actor whom he rescues when some strangers attack him in a bar.
In gratitude, the actor would like to help him publicize his business and give him a consulting role in his new film.
Initially enthusiastic, he starts hanging out with the production entourage, finding better and better opportunities, but when asked to participate in a martial arts tournament, he flatly refuses.
His discipline does not involve performing or exploiting his skill, only self-defense, so he soon finds he is alone against all his new supposed friends, including his beautiful Sondra.
David Mamet writes and directs a great little movie about the dignity and respect inherent in martial arts, contrasted with the easy money and hypocrisy of show business and sports.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is an excellent protagonist, unassuming and taciturn, bound to the values he proudly defends; moreover, the actor does excellent in the various fight scenes, realistic and spectacular at the same time.
As always, a Pulitzer Prize winner like Mamet does not disappoint and combines stark realism and cynical characters with excellent entertainment pacing in a story that has much to say beyond what it overtly says.
Once again, we are in the United States, but this time following the lives of not one, but two very different men who are in financial trouble and out of work on the same page of their lives.
The first is a professor who occasionally fights underground fights to earn extra money, while the second is an Iraq veteran trying to reintegrate into society after returning from the front.
Both are excellent fighters and, by different routes, manage to enter the country’s wealthiest mixed martial arts tournament, where the winner will get a five-million-dollar prize.
The only link between the two is an old alcoholic and former wrestling champion, who we later discover is the father of both of these men, brothers who have separated and have not spoken to each other in years.
But fate will bring them together at the most crucial moment of the tournament, where they must fight mercilessly against each other.
Gavin O’Connor writes and directs two touching stories of toil, suffering, and sacrifice, able to mix stage realism with some thrilling fight sequences to the last breath.
The leaders’ choice is excellent, beginning with the mountain of muscle Tom Hardy, who expresses anger and instills fear with his eyes alone, against his brother Joel Edgerton, who is less explosive but more intense and believable as a family man, employing a more patient and intelligent fighting style.
Finally, the immense Nick Nolte is the narrative bridge between them, lighting the scene as always as an alcoholic and abusive former father, repentant and seeking forgiveness from his children, touching the heart with a dramatic performance that is not to be forgotten.
Although it is probably the most famous martial arts movie in this article, I passionately recommend it to anyone who may have missed it.
Cold Hell (2017)
After this journey from the Far East to noisy America, we return to Europe to the streets of Vienna with today’s most unfamiliar movies, an intriguing blend of thriller and martial arts.
The unlikely adventure features the young Özge, a Muslim taxi driver with a painful past of abuse and violence in her family, and in contrast, the girl has a very grumpy and lonely character, training every night to beat hard with Muay Thai in an all-male gym.
Her life is not all joy and happiness, but the worst is yet to come when her neighbor is brutally murdered, and the police do not believe a word she says about the possible killer.
Moreover, the woman was not the first victim but the latest in a series of Muslims who (the madman believes) have betrayed their traditions, and of course, the tenacious Özge becomes his new target to be eliminated at any cost.
True, the plot of this movie defies the law of improbability a bit too much at times, but director Stefan Ruzowitzky‘s good craft holds the pieces of a not-always-perfect puzzle together with an original and satisfying result.
Above all, we place the excellent performance of actress Violetta Schurawlow, a modern female version of the usual Charles Bronson-esque silent and lonely male heroes.
A woman who grew up in violence and finds refuge in the annulment of this violence through martial arts is brought to the stage realistically, even if they are not the movie’s greatest strength.
The real reason why I recommend it is the excellent atmosphere in general, aided by the eternal lousy mood of the protagonist, who is pissed off at the world and who, ironically, will be the only one to really do justice while the police don’t lift a finger.