• Film

Hollywood’s “Martial Arts” Law

Hollywood films are often thought of as America’s greatest export. But upon closer examination, it is rather ironic to note that many of the medium’s most significant creators were foreign-born. Where would cinema be without Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, Josef von Sternberg, Alfonso Cuarón, Ernst Lubitsch, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, Ang Lee or Milos Forman? While directors get the lion’s share of notoriety, credit must also be paid to other talent who have contributed notably to the cinematic landscape.

Just take a look at such movies as John Wick, Atomic Blonde, The Matrix, Kill Bill, The Wolverine and Iron Man. Where would they be without their martial arts ingredient? And in that respect, credit must be paid to Bruce Lee, whose 1973 feature Enter the Dragon is considered the greatest martial arts film of all time and set about a seismic shift in Hollywood’s embrace of the fighting style.

Just how noteworthy was it? In 2004, the Library of Congress selected the film for its National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Directed by Michael Clouse, this American and Hong Kong co-production was given a limited $850,000 budget and starred Lee (in his last feature film before his untimely death) as a martial arts instructor who is recruited from Hong Kong by British intelligence to help gather evidence on a suspected crime lord. Though some critics initially dismissed the film as a “low rent James Bond thriller,” audiences embraced the film nevertheless, delivering over $400 million to the worldwide box-office (the equivalent of $2 billion today.)

But more significantly, it forever altered the way filmmakers approached choreographing fight sequences. Though Asian martial arts films were once relegated to niche markets and categorized as B movies, a generation of kids grew up on them, and when they were grown and their time came to get behind the camera, they stepped up and elevated the action to first class status.

But let’s not get too far ahead. When did martial arts first gain entry to cinema? Upon first glance, these genre movies can be tracked to Chinese kung fu movies, which, fascinatingly, originated in Chinese opera and “Wuxia” novels. Those books were romantic in nature and relied heavily on Chinese folklore, often featuring a lone sword-wielding hero on a chivalric quest. Historians have found some martial arts films dating back to the late 1920’s, but like so many movies of that era, most have been lost.

The first noted martial arts film was a Chinese silent film released in 1928, The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple, directed by Chinese film director Zhang Shichuan and produced by the Mingxing Film Company.

While China would initially be at the forefront of the genre, politics entered the fray when mainland China banned Wuxia for promoting “backwardness and superstition.” This censorship would last until the 1980s, and in these intervening years, filmmakers moved their productions to Hong Kong where martial arts movies prospered under the banner of the Shaw Brothers studio.

Making over one thousand films, the Shaw Brothers are most noted for The Love Eterne, The One-Armed Swordsman, Come Drink with Me, Five Deadly Venoms and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.

“I grew up watching kung fu films and Japanese samurai movies and all the Shaw Brothers kung fu stuff,” recalled Quentin Tarantino when he spoke to the HFPA back in 2003 for Kill Bill. Noting how he had spent a year prior to filming re-watching many of the classic martial arts films, he commented that the experience had given him license to immerse himself in the genre, so that all his cinematic choices, such as zooms, double exposure flashbacks and simply the inherent vocabulary of the form would allow him a sense of ease in that film language.

Chad Stahelski, former stuntman and creator of the John Wick franchise, along with David Leitch, is another passionate fan of Asian cinema and Japanese culture. Formally a stunt double for Brandon Lee, Stahelski admits that his work has been heavily influenced by the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. He has noted that the third Wick film, Parabellum, is his western version of a “chanbara” film (slang for samurai/swordfighting).  “John Wick is basically paying tribute to all the great samurai and spaghetti westerns out there. That’s where we get it,” he acknowledged in a recent interview with Far Out Magazine.


The star of his Wick franchise, Keanu Reeves, is no stranger to martial arts action films. His 1999 film The Matrix, directed by the Wachowskis, is recognized as one of the first major Hollywood studio films to showcase martial arts. But the career trajectory that Reeves would take from the film almost took him by surprise himself.

“I don’t have a martial arts background, I just know movie fighting,” he declared to the HFPA back in April of 2019. “All the people who trained me and the choreography, there’s a lot of styles going on. People who can see them, they will be like, ‘Oh my gosh, he just did that!’ or ‘What was that throw?’”

While John Wick’s fighting style owes a great deal of gratitude to Bruce Lee, in that both men  “absorb what is useful and reject what is useless,” for The Matrix, Reeves was immersed in some unique wirework, known as “wire-fu.” The Wachowskis always wanted to bring the Hong Kong style of wire work and stunt sensibilities to western film, and so recruited Yuen Woo-ping, the noted Hong Kong martial arts choreographer, into the mix.


In a 2019 interview with the South China Morning Post, Yuen, who had rejected all previous Hollywood interview overtures, talked about his groundbreaking work on the film.

“The Wachowskis said that they wanted to integrate kung fu with special effects, to combine a sci-fi movie with a kung fu movie. That struck me as an innovative idea and a way to do something new, so I thought I would give it a try. I’m glad I did, as it really worked.”

While culturally and politically there might be differences between the two societies, in the world of cinema, there is no denying that Hollywood and Asia have formed a unique partnership. As a new crop of filmmakers emerges from the shadows, it will be fascinating to see how they will use their cinematic influences to bridge the divide between Asia and Hollywood in even more significant ways.