How to Fight Your Way Into Kung-Fu Movies

By Roy Horan

Perhaps the greatest misconception in the martial arts world today is the more powerful and skilled a fighter becomes the greater are his chances for rivaling Bruce Lee. With all the facts pushed aside, this is not altogether illogical: if a man masters the art of kicking and punching at high speed, and can control with minute precision his own power, why shouldn't he be cut out for the movies? If we ignore minor details--like his inability to act his way out of a sopping wet paper bag--and pay close attention to the more technical aspects of filmmaking, we'll soon see why all his fighting skills are actually a handicap for an acting career.

Fighting on flim requires an entirely new type of martial skill which is completely foreign to both those practicing in the dojo and those pounding each other on the ring. It can be harder to learn this type of skill than to spot an opening in an opponent's tight defense and drive home a shattering blow. For movies you must not only be an expert martial artist, but also dance to a choreographer's tune, and look better than anyone else in the process!


Why Trained Killers Can't Act


There are vital differences between action and film action. A trained fighter, whether he be a karate, kenpo, tae kwon do, or kung-fu expert, must learn to react to an opponent's force instinctively. The key word is instinctively. He must have developed his mental and physical prowess to react immediately and without hesitation in both defense and conquest.

Now imagine the results of an encounter between this death machine and a normal daily-wage part-time actor who has just rehearsed a series of choreographed movements. No problem, right? The director sets up his shot, the two men are in place, and the fighter begins to get excited like a high-strung thoroughbred at the race track. A whisper goes to the cameraman to start rolling, and the director shouts "Action!" By the middle of the third move, our fighter sees a fist coming at his face, makes a lightning-quick block and sends the actor, toothless, through the air. "Cut!" screams the director. The actor mumbles a few syllables through his blood-soaked tips and staggers off the set with our man rushing to help him along, apologizing profusely, and hoping that he hasn't just lost the chance of a lifetime.

Let's suppose the actor was not all that important and that the director is in a forgiving mood. Another actor is brought in the next day and the same series of moves are rehearsed again. This time our man is much more cautious. He begins to follow the choreography religiously and pulls all of his punches, even though it kills him to do so. After the first take the action choreographer yells for "More power." In film language, this means our man is coming across as a veritable milksop who couldn't hold his own against a strawless scarecrow. Indignant, our fighter begins to step up the speed of all his kicks and punches using an arsenal of internal gunpowder and scaring the new stand-in actor half to death in the process. Still the choreographer prods him on, asking for "more power." By this time our man is blue in the face and has probably torn up most of the ligaments in his arms and legs; yet, he still can't seem to please anyone. Then, like a thief in the night, the real killer gets him fatigue. He's been shooting for less than one hour, and has another seven-to-nine hours left in the day, and can barely stand up.

By this time, the director begins to show his true colors and makes a merciless comment about this seemingly tough man's lack of power and stamina as opposed to his fledgling actors who manage two weeks of straight shooting without getting out of breath. Of course a few members of the crew begin an attack on our man's excessive sexual practices in an attempt to explain the problem more scientifically. Now our fighter is thoroughly insulted and offers to slay both the director and his crew as a minor testimony to his abilities.

Luckily, the lure of name and fame cures all. Our friend has calmed down and he's back on the set in the next half hour. Things don't seem to be improving much and the harder he tries, the weaker he gets. He soon begins to forget all the less important movements and before he knows it, 30 takes have gone by and he still hasn't gotten it right. He curses himself for not being able to perform techniques which in his dojo he would glide through with no sweat.

But by this time, the director is beginning to sweat himself. He knows he'll have to face the producer soon and explain why he's used up all this footage on just one shot. He envisions the piles of celluloid he’ll need to expend on the next 79 takes to complete this one fight sequence. He reacts almost without hesitation by yelling at the fight choreographer and demanding that he further simplify the movements to better suit our friend’s abilities. The choreographer starts grumbling about how no one appreciates his wonderful ideas and off-handedly remarks, within hearing range, that our fighter is an idiot with the memory power of a prenatal moron. Well, that does it! Our fighter stomps off to the shade of a nearby tree to lick his wounds, all the time cursing this entire group of monkeys for taking advantage of him.

A week later, we see our friend sitting in a preview room waiting expectantly, but with a smug look on his face, for the screening of his fight rushes. Just before the projector rolls, he secretly scoffs at the director and choreographer knowing that he's going to look great, despite them and all their opinions. Why shouldn't be look fantastic? He's been so sore that he could barely make it out of bed each morning. Certainly he put forth more effort than all the other actors...Well, there he is fighting away for all to see. But is something wrong with the projector? It looks like he's moving in slow motion; his legs are clumsy; his body's too stiff. The best takes he wouldn't even dare show his mother, never mind his students. Where did he go wrong?