I'm not even sure what the first martial arts film I ever saw was.
With a lot of films or genres, I can tell you where my interest began, but with martial arts movies, it's not that easy. All I know is, I have always had a deeply-seeded love for watching dudes kick the ever-lovin' crap out of each other in the movies.
It's strange that it doesn't translate to real life. MMA fights and ultimate fighting and even pro wrestling... that stuff does nothing for me in a real-world context. But movies in which guys bust out the same skill sets and battle? Count me in.
Like most martial arts fans, I'll sit through a whole lot of crap in a movie to get to a great fight or even just a couple of great moves within a mediocre fight. And when you see someone who can handle themselves fairly well on-camera, doing it as real as possible, it's exciting. It seems like every few years, there's a new guy or a new country with a new industry, and we gets lots of potential new movie stars, although of course, not all of them connect in the long run.
The reason Bruce Lee was one of the most amazing movie stars (which is something totally different than an actor) ever was not because he fought well, but because of HOW he fought well. Bruce Lee was intensely aware of the camera and how he looked when he was running through a fight. He thought like a filmmaker.
The biggest story of the last few years was, of course, Tony Jaa, and right now Magnolia's doing one of their staggered VOD/DVD/theatrical things with "Ong Bak 2," the film that drove Jaa mad and sent him howling off into the jungles. It's great fun, and when I reviewed it earlier this year, here's part of what I said:
The film works on the level that it has to work, as a piece of visceral action cinema, and if you're a martial arts fan at all, you have to see this movie. Jaa is the most electrifying action star working today, and there are fights in this film that are amazing, end to end. One of the reasons I love his Thailand stunt team is because they are all obviously completely insane, willing to endure whatever close-contact brutality they have to in order to make a shot look great. Everything here looks like no punches are pulled. I'm surprised anyone survived these fights, Jaa in particular. He takes an unholy amount of abuse in the film, and especially in the final fight, which is about fifteen solid minutes of madness.
Now the thing about Jaa's films is that, like most martial arts movie star vehicles, they're good enough. But when I see a movie that both introduces an exciting new martial arts movie star AND actually works as a film on its own terms, well-directed, genuinely well-acted on all fronts... well, that's an event. And believe me... that's exactly the right term to describe "Merantau."
Iko Uwais is the star of "Merantau," and he's pretty much the whole package as a movie star. He's charming, he handles himself well in all the emotional material, and he convincingly plays the transformation from young man fresh off the farm to moral hero.
And he kicks unholy ass.
Indonesia once had a thriving exploitation industry, but it's been a while since they've had anything homegrown to brag about. Silat, a local martial art, has never really had a showcase on film, and if this is the introduction, I'm hooked. The way Iko Uwais moves through each fight with a purpose, with an original fighting style that is almost entire open-handed, is exhilarating because of how clear it is, how easy to follow. The "merantau" is the Indonesian walkabout, a rite of passage in which a young man trained in silat has to go find a way to be of service. Iko does, and that service happens to be kicking unholy ass to help a hot girl (Jessica Sisca) and her little brother. Undistinguished stuff, story-wise, but hwo the story is told more than overcomes any familiar elements in the plot. That's where Gareth Evans comes in.
The director of the film, Evans deserves credit for taking what could have easily been a "good enough" movie and elevating it. There's a reason "Above The Law" is one of the best Steven Segal films. There's a reason one "Die Hard" towers above the others. When a director who has real storytelling skills ends up calling the shots on an action film, sometimes you get something so much better than "just" an action movie, and that's exactly the case here. It's not even that he's flashy or that the film is some groundbreaking visual experience. It's just that Evans never makes a false move, and his sense of composition is impeccable. "Merantau" is a genuine pleasure to watch. He's also good with actors. Both of the bad guys here, especially Mads Koudal, are threatening but credibly human, and despite Koudal's limited fight background, he looks like he holds his own with Iko in the final sequence.
"Marantau" is simple, but that's one of its virtues. By not trying to reinvent the wheel, the film manages to emerge as one of the best examples of the genre on all fronts in quite a while. Here's hoping this gets a US pickup from a smart and aggressive distributor soon.
"Fireball" is sort of the opposite of "Merantau" in that it was not built as a vehicle for one movie star, but rather as an excuse for an entire stunt team to wail on each other for a couple of hours, with no one serving as the stand-out lead. The story of a young man whose twin brother is beaten into a coma, leading him to go take his place by way of "miraculous recovery" so he can go undercover in an underground full-contact basketball league, "Fireball" is unevenly paced and it really doesn't kick in until the second half, but there are some great action beats in the film, and the final basketball game is sort of awesome. It's not really a Muay Thai martial arts film, though, since so many of the fights are portrayed more as bare-knuckle brawls. It's enjoyable, it's forgettable, and unlike "Merantau," it appears to have a US distributor, so at the very least, you'll be able to check it out at home at some point courtesy of Grindstone Entertainment.
Both films were reviewed at Fantastic Fest in Austin. And the pole scene in "Merantau" is still the craziest thing I've seen in any movie this year.
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