Mixed Martial Art Impact on the Movie Industry
Fight scenes have always been an important part of the movie industry and one of major catalysts of the audience’s interest. Depending on the genre and the script, fights can be used, for example, to captivate the viewers, making them empathize the protagonist, or to create a fun episode. However, martial arts brought style and grace to Hollywood movies, significantly increasing their spectacular qualities.
After the Second World War, cultural connections between the United States and oriental countries, namely Japan, developed rapidly. Despite massive waves of immigration, Chinese and Japanese cultures never fully blended into the American lifestyle. Americans’ interest in foreign traditions presented a potential source of income for Hollywood producers. Among other spectacular environment, traditional eastern martial arts naturally drew public attention. It was a matter of time before eastern entourage became, in modern terms, a “fashion trend”. Thus, starting from the 1970’s, martial arts have been inseparably connected with American cinematography.
The Chinese art of kung-fu, sometimes referred to as “wu-shu”, paved the way for a plethora of Asian martial arts to American cinematography. One of the characteristic and most interesting features of kung-fu, used in movies, both Hollywood and Asian, as opposite to its “real-life” counterpart, is the combination of various styles. For the sake of entertainment and visual appeal, “pure” styles were adapted and combined into more spectacular forms, which can be regarded as the original mixed martial arts in the movie industry.
While the general plot of a majority of Chinese films of that time revolves about one school of kung-fu proving its dominance over the other school, it could hardly appeal to American viewers. For this reason, Hollywood moviemakers preferred to base their movies on another classic eastern plot: a master using his knowledge of kung-fu to avenge his family member, teacher, etc. and bring justice to a powerful enemy. To a great extent, these two types of plots, a fighting tournament and a vengeance of a martial arts master, were dominant in Hollywood action movies for about two decades.
The popularity of martial arts in cinematography, both American and eastern, was largely based on brutal and enigmatic charisma of Bruce Lee, who became a true pioneer of martial arts movies in the United States and promoted their further development on various different levels. Due to the universal recognition of his accomplishments, Bruce Lee still tops the lists of martial arts stars (“Top 20 martial arts film stars of all time,” 2010). First of all, thanks to his intense life-long training, Bruce Lee created the standard for future actors in this genre as all of them were bound to be compared with him. In fact, Lee set the bar so high that modern critics still consider the first martial arts movie in Hollywood, a forty-one year old masterpiece Enter the Dragon the best martial arts movie (“Top 10 martial arts movies,” 2013). In addition, Bruce Lee introduced the first attempt of showing mixed martial arts on the screen by creating the hybrid style “Jeet Kune Do”, as opposed by fixed traditional schools of kung-fu largely based on strict patterns. Last, but not least, many actors and stuntmen who worked with Lee later became movie stars and further developed and diversified this genre of cinematography. It is possible that without Bruce Lee the industry would have never acquired such legends as Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Bolo Yeung and others. The mysterious and unexpected death of Bruce Lee became another catalyst of people’s interest in martial arts and, as a consequence, boosted the further development of the movie industry.
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In 1980’s and -90’s, the popularity of mixed martial arts, combined with the interest in Eastern culture in general, streamlined the evolution of entertainment in the United States, particularly in the sphere of cinematography. This decade can be considered as the golden age of martial arts movies in Hollywood. However, the trend had changed from Chinese kung-fu to Japanese karate and, to even greater extent, to ninjutsu. The producers started to combine comical and melodramatic storylines with the martial arts environment, which is best seen in such movies as Karate Kid, Three Ninjas or Beverly Hills Ninja. Gradually, more martial arts appeared on the screen and became career-defining trademark styles for some of new actors. For example, Steven Seagal, and Jean-Claude Van Damme employed their knowledge of aikido and kickboxing, respectively, to boost their careers. Another prominent feature of that period is that on the peak of martial arts boom many athletes decided to pursue acting careers. This trend still continues and has recently brought into the industry such professional fighters as Quinton Jackson and Gina Carano. As an alternative, nowadays professional actors often take martial arts classes to help their acting. For example, Christian Bale and Robert Downey Jr. display kung-fu mastery in the recent sequels of Batman and Sherlock Holmes, respectively (Steinberg, 2011).
The growing number of martial art specialists capable of acting made it possible to shoot several movies depicting fighting tournaments usually representing various mixtures of different arts and styles. It should be noted that those films also represent first attempts to show mixed martial arts in their modern meaning: brutal wrestling-style fights with prevailing grappling and submission techniques. The examples include such films as Bloodsport, The Quest and, to a certain degree, Best of the Best, though it is based on the taekwondo contest.
The popularity of action movies with fight scenes also spurred the development of special effects and stunt techniques to prevent actors from injuries and to further increase viewer’s appeal, sometimes at the expense of realism. Due to the growing number of complex fight scenes in movies, there appeared a growing demand for skilled specialists of battle choreography, capable of setting spectacular duels, as well as skirmishes with multiple participants. Even nowadays, American moviemakers have to hire Asian specialists, such as the world-renowned expert in fight choreography Yuen Woo-ping, to ensure the highest quality of battle scenes.
In the twenty-first century, the further progress of martial arts in movies went on a new level with the help of computer graphics and digital special effects. Due to the declining interest in classic “kung-fu” movies, Hollywood producers decided to combine fight scenes and battle choreography with the genres of fantasy and sci-fi. In the new millennium American moviemakers rarely use martial arts as a base for new movies but rather employ fighting scenes for extra action and entertainment. The examples of Matrix and the new Star Wars trilogy prove that this approach is advantageous as those movies would have lost a lot without their thoroughly staged fighting scenes. However, the trend for Asian culture occasionally returns, as proven by the recent Hollywood movies Wolverine and 47 Ronin, as well as the remake of the classic Karate Kid (Bowles, 2013).
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Though the prime of martial arts movies has ended, it is undisputable that martial arts played a tremendous role in the movie industry. Martial arts forced the creation of more spectacular mixed fighting styles to use in films, as well as led to the appearance of new actors and iconic characters. They also contributed to the development of stunts, fight choreography and special effects that are employed in various movie genres.