Martial arts elbowing into Hollywood's biggest films
05:00 AM, Aug 02, 2013
Everybody in Hollywood is kung fu fighting this summer.
Films showcasing Asian martial arts were once relegated to grindhouse theaters and niche markets, but the genre is enjoying a subtle resurgence in the mainstream. Major studio tentpole films are using kung fu to woo American kids raised on anime, and they’re luring Asian kids by showcasing action heroes from that part of the planet.
The past month has been rife with releases featuring Eastern-influenced action that would please the surliest of samurai:
The Wolverine. The sixth installment of the X-Men franchise is a ninja-meets-superhero hybrid set in Japan. The film, featuring Hugh Jackman and a largely Japanese cast, scored a convincing No. 1 this weekend by taking in $53 million.
Red 2. Despite a premise of aging European and American spies, the sequel features a new character in South Korean action star Byung-hun Lee, who plays an unstoppable Asian assassin. Lee also provided the high-flying kicks in G.I. Joe: Retaliation, out this week on DVD.
Pacific Rim. The latest film from avowed fanboy Guillermo del Toro is a mashup of martial arts and monsters. Inspired by Godzilla movies and the Ultraman TV series, Rim includes combat-training sessions in dojos of the future.
Hollywood’s fascination continues with The Grandmaster (due Aug. 23), a drama about Ip Man, the martial-arts master who trained Bruce Lee. Keanu Reeves becomes a samurai in 47 Ronin (Dec. 25). And last week, the Weinstein Co. announced that it was remaking two martial-arts classics from more than 30 years ago, The Avenging Eagle and Come Drink With Me (no release dates yet).
Studio executives say Japan and China have become titans at the international box office, and films have had titles and scenes altered to sell overseas. Disney and Marvel Studios added four minutes to Iron Man 3to include Fan Bingbing and Wang Xueqi, both Chinese stars, against a Chinese background.
Chris Aronson, 20th Century Fox’s president of distributions, says the studio wasn’t catering to an overseas crowd in setting The Wolverine in Japan. He says the backdrop “comes straight from an X-Men comic book” that featured the Silver Samurai. And the martial-arts infusion, he says, “was just to expand Wolverine’s skill set for the fans.”
But authors and academics say there’s more to it.
“I think the resurgence is definitely meant to pander to animefans, international markets and our nation’s ongoing fascination with Asian culture,” says Brad Ricca, author of Super Boys, a biography of the creators of Superman.
Aging fanboys are also behind the surge, he says. “These films are appearing because the directors and producers were raised on this fare and only now are in a position to make them as passion projects. Del Toro is an unabashed monster aficionado.”
As China becomes a bigger player at the box office, “it’s inevitable for American films to feature this ‘fusion’ culture,” says Sang Nam, associate professor of communications at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. “Previously, American culture was Euro-centric. Now, the Chinese are coming.”
Some welcome the invasion. Jeremy Conrad, editor of furiousfanboys.com, says the Asian influence “is natural, given fanboys were raised on Bruce Lee movies and Kung Fu TV episodes.”
He says that martial arts, “when they’re done right, look great in a movie. It’s ballet. We love that stuff.”