I’ve been wanting to write something like this for a while. I’m a fanatic of martial arts, training in one form or another for nearly four years at the time of writing. I also love movies, with three of my top five personal favourites having martial arts in them.
I didn’t want to just write what my favourite fight scenes are (because that would just be me saying The Raid 2 over and over again). But more of what types of martial arts are in films, because the term “kung fu movie”, while very apt for when a certain martial artist was the main star, isn’t applicable anymore. Think of this more as a gallery of martial arts in films. I’ll do four to start, but we both know this will take quite a few posts.
Game of Death – Jeet Kune Do
Where else to start than the master himself, Bruce Lee. While many (including I) would rank Enter The Dragon as is best film, I chose Game Of Death for insight into Lee’s own martial art, Jeet Kune Do.
His first films (things like Fist of Fury and The Big Boss) were displays of the kung fu style Wing Chun, but Lee soon grew to dislike the confines of it, so decided to make his own martial art, blending whatever ones he liked the most. He created Jeet Kune Do (or Way Of The Intercepting Fist), a philosophy on fighting rather than a set of moves. And this is why I chose Game of Death.
While Enter the Dragon also shows off Jeet Kune Do (or Jun Fan by its other name) the fights are more rigid, focussing mainly on trapping techniques rather than full fights. Game of Death was created by Lee specifically for the purpose of showing Jeet Kune Do to the world.
Game of Death‘s signature set-piece involves a pagoda filled with martial artists. Five floors were planned (only three were filmed) showing Lee and four allies fighting different styles; Hapkido, Praying Mantis Kung Fu, Kali/Escrima, whatever the hell Kareem Abdul Jafar was doing and then an unknown one at the top. The plan was for the four allies to fall away, showing the limitations of their styles and showing Jeet Kune Do to be the best around.
Since Lee died during filming, only half of the film got made, until frequent Lee collaborator Robert Clouse eventually cobbling together a half-baked scheme about the Mafia wanting to employ Bruce Lee’s character. But the surviving pagoda sequences are a great showcase of Jeet Kune Do by its creator.
Picture: Lee vs. Kareem Abdul Jafar in Game of Death (1978).
Jason Bourne Series – Kali/Escrima/Arnis
Many people confuse Jason Bourne’s signature fighting style with Krav Maga. This is incorrect. True, to an untrained eye it may look like Krav Maga (and it doesn’t help that some Krav teachers went and stole a bunch of moves from Kali and pretended they were Krav’s, but that’s an argument for another day). It’s in fact a Filipino martial art, which goes by many names but for the sake of brevity we’ll go with Kali.
Kali has been showcased in many films, including Equilibrium, The Book Of Eli and even 300 (yes, Zack Snyder/Frank Miller’s homoerotic Spartan kill frenzy). But I chose to focus on Bourne mainly for the use of improvised weapons.
Kali is predominantly a weapons based form. Sticks and knives are what are used in training, but the movements learnt are easily applicable when picking up everyday objects. This is what the Bourne series in known for, Jason Bourne and company picking up whatever is around them and using it to both defend themselves and kill their opponent.
Scenes such as the “Pen fight” in Identity (the pen swapped out for a knife) or the “Magazine fight” in Supremacy (the rolled up magazine replacing the stick) perfectly show this weapon-based and improvisational aspect to Kali. The third film, Ultimatum, shows off Panantukan, the empty-hand focus of Kali. This is seen in the Bourne vs. Desh fight, with the use of books, hand towels and ash-trays being picked up and used the exact same as fighting with sticks and knives.
Picture: Bourne vs. Jarda in The Bourne Supremacy (2004).
The Raid/The Raid 2 – Silat
I really couldn’t pick between them, so we’ll just go with both. The Raid reset the standards of both an action movie and a martial arts movie. Seeing as no-one saw director Gareth Edwards first Silat (pronounced See-Lat) based film Merantau, The Raid was many people’s first introduction to the form.
Found all throughout Southeast Asia but with Indonesia most commonly thought of as it’s home-place, Pencak (Pen-Chak) Silat (to give it it’s full name) has several different variations depending on regions and styles. Much like certain styles in Kung Fu, it can be based on the movements of animals. It’s main focus is split between ground-work as well as strikes, mostly using the elbows and knees. Interesting fact, Pencak Silat actually pre-dates Islam. When Islam became the predominant faith in Indonesia, it merged with Silat, creating forms that are based on ideas and activities in Islam, for example, washing hands before prayer. But anyway, let’s get on to the films.
The Raid while chiefly a display of Silat actually uses several different styles. This was mainly to give variety to the fight scenes. For example, Joe Taslim, who plays Sergeant Jaka was a professional Judo fighter. Also, there are several scenes involving police batons and knives where Kali principles are used. But for the main fights, Silat was used. And to speed up making the film by not teaching actors choreographed moves, they went and just got the choreographers to play the main roles of the film.
I’m in the minority that likes The Raid 2 more than the original, but it comes down to want you want out of a film. If you want non-stop action, then The Raid is better. It’s 90 minutes and nearly the entire film is action. The Raid 2 did a Goodfellas/The Departed undercover gangster story and stretched the run-time to two and a half hours, but upped the ante for fights. We get the protracted hand-to-hand sequences but also claw hammers (a nod to another martial arts action film, Oldboy) as well as aluminium baseball bats and a Karambit knife, highly identifiable by it’s curved blade. Karambit’s aren’t designated to a singular martial art (most reports claim it to be a Filipino weapon, so possibly Kali) but it is widely used in Silat.
Picture: Uco vs. The Assassin in The Raid 2 (2014).
Ip Man – Wing Chun
To finish, we’ll come full circle and talk about Bruce Lee’s first martial art, Wing Chun. But the story of Ip Man (Ip, not I.P.) is actually about Bruce Lee’s mentor.
Wing Chun belongs under the umbrella term Kung Fu, and is notable for being created by a woman mainly for women to protect their households when the men were away at battle. It is recognisable by the incredibly close-quarters fighting and the Wing Chun punch style, which allows a volley of punches to be fired off in quick succession.
While there is three Ip Man films, the first one is the best for a good representation of the art. The other ones, while alright, have some odd editing choices in fights or have elements of Wire Fu in them (Wire Fu, the technical term for films like Crouching Tiger or House Of Flying Daggers that use wires to allow for superhuman fighting).
While Ip Man uses Wing Chun, we get also a small variety of other styles. None are easily identifiable to me (sorry!) but through dialogue we learn that they are all Southern Chinese Styles. The sequel is easier identifiable, with Dragon and Praying Mantis being used in the Martial Arts Society sequence. Back to the first film though, as the story is set in the Sino-Japanese War, where one of the invading Japanese General’s takes a keen interest in Chinese Arts, and so pits them against his own men, all Karate fighters.
During the highlight of the first Ip Man, we see the brutality and speed of Wing Chun used on ten Karate practitioners at once. It’s probably the best scene of the film, showcasing the trapping techniques common in Wing Chun as well as the Wing Chun punch on a downed opponent.
Picture: Ip Man training in Ip Man 3 (2015).
I’ve only scratched the surface of different martial arts in movies. If you have any suggestions what martial arts should be in future posts, drop them in a comment. If I have missed out or said something wrong about an art, again, send a comment and I’ll change it. Thanks for reading!