Gimmicky mash-up or natural evolution?

A recent joking Facebook share from CA$H director Sam Akina got me thinking… In the category of movies I hadn’t thought about in decades:

Seen now, out of the context of the 80s, it seems incredibly hokey and dated and like a transparently cheap gimmick, the mashup of the then trendy forms of gymnastics and karate.  That said, there’s very similar things going on even now, like the mashup of Beat boys breakdancing and martial arts in Raging Phoenix, the new one from the folks behind Ong Bak and Chocolate:

Gymkata used an Olympic god medal gymnast, Raging Phoenix uses champion martial artists, bodybuilders, and breakdancers.  Come to think of it, Gymkata‘s French release title was aka “Gymkata – Le parcours de la mort“, which brings to mind the combat/parkour mashup flagship District B-13 and its use of David Belle:

Incidentally, still need to track down the sequel to that one.  Hoping at some point to get the Blu-ray set

The phenom is nothing new; Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung brought Chinese Opera back to martial arts films, adding that flavor and recreating the whole genre, for example.  Numerous celebrity pro-wrestlers, bodybuilders, and now UFC champions have tried to go on to acting careers, with mixed success but at least often bringing their previously successful skillset with them, unlike many of the pop singers who have tried to transition to acting.

Outside of action movies, there’s the general principal of combining physical and martial disciplines shown in these, which is also nothing new; readers of this blog will now be quite familiar with Bartitsu, a Victorian-era martial art (imagine if a modern movie producer had been running publicity for Richard Barton-Wright back then; “The manly virtues of English boxing combined with the vicious power of French Savate, the revolutionary cane fighting of Vigney, and for the first time seen in the United Kingdom, the exotic and deadly self defense techniques of JU-JITSU!”

Mixed-martial arts under that name have just become popular in this last decade or so with UFC and other public spectacle, but the idea of combining martial arts, or martial arts and other life skills, is as old as combat I’m sure.  I’m sure some at the time thought that the animal styles of Kung Fu were a silly gimmick.  Some of them probably were, and were short lived.  I’m sure some at the time thought that the Renaissance ideas of combining geometry and science and fencing was overly complicated and silly (I’ve even ready contemporary sources making that complaint about the Spanish school).  Perhaps it was, as sometimes practiced.

But that’s how we grow and evolve.  Let’s face it, it’s extremely rare if even possible to make up something genuinely new, especially involving the use of human body and basic mechanical tools.  What we do, rather, is try to combine things in new ways, see what works and what doesn’t, and keep the stuff we like.  Granted we are biased by completely impractical things like style/fashion, social acceptability, and other contextual elements that might have nothing to do with martial efficiency (sometimes even just how dated the soundtrack was- LadyHawke, anyone?)… but then again, maybe they do; part of self-defense these days is making sure you don’t do anything you can’t defend in court later, so while going straight for the eye-gouge might be martially sound and practical when grabbed by a larger, stronger, violent attacker, there’s also value in knowing lesser options in case the degree of actual threat is uncertain.

Cinematically, sometimes you try to latch on to and combine current trends and completely flop:

But hey, that’s how we learn, and if there weren’t some people making strong choices and pushing things too far, we wouldn’t find as many new successes either.  Skills don’t necessarily carry over; a good fighter may not be able to actually look like a good fighter on screen, let alone act well dramatically… but at the very least it can be interesting to see what they bring to a project.

Experiments: Sometimes best done by cannon fodder!

We’re just now getting to the point where Western martial arts are enjoying enough of a resurgence that we may soon get to see actors in movies who have actually trained in those arts, or see more current instructors dabbling with video gigs (apart from choreography, as from the beginning fight choreographers have been heavily involved in the research and resurgence of historical western martial arts).  It’s only happened once for me so far, in a stage production, that I had an actor who had studied WMA but not stage combat.  I expect that may change though, and it’ll be interesting to see what that brings to the genre of historical action.
So… got any good peanut-butter-and-chocolate moments when it comes to stage combat or martial arts?



  1. Posted April 9, 2010 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    Gymkata. Good times…
    Well being involved in old Japanese martial arts it’s been interesting seeing the ninja image morph through different mashup styles since the ninja fad in the ’80s. Mainly it’s more a generalization than a mashup per se (kung fu style unarmed with a theatrical ninjato and throwing stars out of nowhere).

    Would you call a cowboy/Asian martial arts style mashup something like the old Master series, or Walker, Texas Ranger?

    I was also thinking again about the first Matrix film. Technology meets theatrical martial arts?

  2. Posted April 9, 2010 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Or if you want to mash up Japanese and cowboy, there’s also Sukiyaki Western Django:

    Or ninja + teenage mutant turtles, etc.

    Yeah, I did Bujinkan too so I got all the ninja jokes.

    Or sometimes you get two that co-exist without blending:

  3. writerbakermusicmaker
    Posted April 22, 2010 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    Best Gymkata clip…ever:

    I play it when I’m having a tough day and need a laugh.

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