It’s All Kung Fu to Me

I saw Star Trek: Into Darkness over the weekend. A good movie – I had a lot of fun and that fun far outweighed the parts of the movie I found a bit silly (the Enterprise hiding underwater, for instance). This post, though, is only tangentially inspired by the movie, and I only reference it as a way to indicate how pervasive the issue under discussion is.

What I want to talk about is kung fu. Well, not real kung fu, but movie kung fu. The kind of martial arts action sequences that have been slowly permeating western cinema for the past 40 years or so to the point where, currently, it has completely taken over. “But,” you say, “not every fight scene is a kung fu thing!” True enough, but the various unspoken tropes of the kung fu fight are still very much present. The piped-in punch sounds, the dramatic pauses between exchanges, the acrobatics, and the duration of most fights, whether traditionally ‘kung fu’ or not, are pretty much everywhere. I would count Benedict Cumberpatch’s take-down of the Klingon patrol in this latest Star Trek as kung-fu in style, as was his thumping of Kirk and his brawl with Spock.

Now, I’m not here to say that the average kung fu style fight is an inherently bad thing, but there is another way to do things. The kung fu battle is something of a dance – we watch to see the grace and ingenuity of the combatants, even though the end is not inherently in doubt. We don’t spend the fight on the edge of our seats, we nod along and applaud the good maneuvers just as we might when watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers skip across the floor. This is not ‘real’ fighting or even a facsimile thereof – this is performance art. It’s fun, but it isn’t really intense most of the time. It’s a precisely timed routine with beats and rhythm, and you know when it’s about to end based on that. There isn’t much surprise in the Kung Fu fight, because surprise and shock are not its purpose.

As an example of the Kung Fu battle, consider this classic:

This fight is about five minutes and change, and it’s a richly choreographed and impressively performed scene. It has as much to do with real combat, however, as Grand Theft Auto has to do with actual crime. Here is my counterpoint, and, for my money, one of the most intense fight scenes in cinematic history:

From Russia With Love: Train Fight


This fight is ugly, brutal, and spontaneous. It doesn’t look choreographed (even though it is) and it’s hard to tell who is getting the worst of it. Is it real? Well, no, obviously not (I doubt the train compartment window would break so easily, for instance), but it isn’t a dance. This fight means business, and I find myself holding my breath every time I see it. Why? Well, it doesn’t have any signals that indicate what’s supposed to happen next. There are no piped in sound-effects to tell me who hits who harder, there is no dramatic music to tell me how I should feel. I don’t know if Bond is going to get strangled or not, despite his mile-thick plot armor. The old movies of the 60s and 70s have a lot of fights like this. Check out the old 1973 Three Musketeers with Michael York, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, and Raquel Welch if you don’t believe me – some of the most intense swordfights in history right there, and all because they worked to keep them away from the kind of stage stylization that has become common in modern movies. The violence is spontaneous and unpredictable, ugly and fast, and it’s hard to tell when the battle is going to end and how. I like that. I honestly miss that stuff in movies today, since it seems everybody needs to have their five minute ‘I punch you but it doesn’t hurt until the music’s right’ scene.

Let’s have a little less theatrics and a bit more drama in our fight scenes. That’s all I’m asking.

About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on May 28, 2013, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. The final duel in Rob Roy is also an excellent example of the brutal, intimidating, slow pace that you favor:

    You mention it as permeating Western cinema for the last 40 years, but I think we can narrow it down to the last 20 or so. There was a big influx of Asian stars in Western cinema in the late 90s (Jet Li in Lethal Weapon 4; Chow Yun Fat in The Replacement Killers). Then there was a huge upsurge with the unexpected popularity of both The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Prior to that, even martial arts films – the Jean-Claude Van Dammes and Stephen Seagals of the world – had a slower, more grounded pace.

    • Oh, yes–that Rob Roy duel is awesome. I would definitely agree that the 90s is where it really took off, but the popularity of Hong Kong style fight sequences begins with Bruce Lee, which is where this whole party starts. Granted it didn’t take over *everything* until the 90s (hell, up until then ‘Kung Fu’ was its own genre of movie), but I’d say it didn’t really *start* in the 90s so much as reach fruition.

  2. When I studied martial arts, kick-boxing was one thing, and wushu (the elegant, choreographed stuff) was something else–we never learned the applications for the kung fu moves. One reason, I was told, is that if you get in a bar fight, you might know how to move very prettily, but the angry, drunk guy you’re up against does not.

    The fighting in Eastern Promises and the Bourne movies is a bit more authentically brutal. But the problem with fighting, like a few other real-life activities, is that the real, unchoreographed version doesn’t move at a cinematic pace, and makes people look slow, awkward, inelegant, and sometimes ugly (that is, human).

    • Very true, but the trick is (I feel) to find that middle ground between ‘real’ (which is never much to watch) and ‘stylized.’ Bourne does it pretty well most of the time, as do a few other movies floating around (usually in the spy thriller genre, oddly enough), but there seem to be fewer and fewer of them each passing year, and more and more of the elaborate dances of impractical kicks and ‘fwap’ punches.

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