Why Modern Action Movies Need To Embrace The Shaw Brothers
When one looks into the history of action films, the genre
hasn’t been around nearly as long as one would think. In the 60s and 70s, most
films were crime thrillers with some action sequences instead of the films that
we associate with the term ‘action film.’ Even early James Bond films, which
more or less laid most of the groundwork for the blockbuster concept, were
almost more adventure film than anything else. The same can be said of the
westerns that Hollywood had already been producing for decades by that time.
When one looks at the time and evolution of film in this aspect, the
combination of espionage thriller, swashbuckling films, and westerns was spun
into the Japanese chambara flick – or as they are commonly called, the samurai
The key to this brief film history lesson is not necessarily
to educate one on the evolution of the action film, but it’s a comparison to
what the modern action film looks like. We were able to see Sean Connery leap
from an exploding island fortress in 1962’s Dr. No, but the movie itself
was built as an espionage film that many younger action fans might scoff at for
being relatively ‘slow’ in comparison to where the genre has evolved since then.
The same can be said about key films that inspired the direction of a blooming
genre like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or Bullit.
To get to the main point of this article, it was Hong Kong cinema and most
importantly the Shaw Brothers production company, that converted the action
film into a genre all of its own – at the same time producing a new genre in
martial arts that would become a massively embraced aspect of all action film
making in subsequent decades. Taking the lessons of samurai storytelling and
the tongue in cheek adventure of what espionage and swashbuckling pirate films
were becoming, the Shaw Brothers did a variety of things to craft a formula and
foundation into what damn near every action film has used to this day.
Unfortunately, in the last decade or so, there has been a
move away from some impactful elements that Shaw Brothers perfected in their
relatively short (but productive) time in the film history. Seeing the cringe
worthy Taken 3 only reaffirms that Hollywood – and the world – needs to
move away from technology reliance and techniques that have plagued the action
film scene for too long and diluted the iconic genre into the castrated form
that we too often see. Action films need to go back to their roots and looking
at the Shaw Brothers film collection will aid in this task. The following five
ways outline how the Shaw Brothers can impact modern action films.
SIMPLIFY. When one looks back at why Shaw Brothers’ kung fu
films became an international sensation, there is one simple answer. These
films are not complicated. By the time that Shaw Brothers developed their
formula for a film (thanks to long running directors Chang Cheh and Lau Kar
Leung) it was a simple one. Rarely did the films feel the need to drown the
audience in exposition. Even the more epic tactics of the wuxia genre (massive
stories about sword fighters with near inhuman abilities), like Duel of the
Century or damn near anything crafted by Chor Yuen, rarely spent time
‘catching us up’ on previous events or characters. You jumped in or you were
left behind. This was one story with definable characteristics that an audience
could consume with ease. Many films created universes to exist in, they never
needed to treat the audience like children by babbling on and on about context.
Occasionally, a modern action film gets this right – the incredible and
efficient John Wick for example, but it’s too rare. Simplify!
CHARACTERS. Not only in modern action, but in every genre,
Hollywood seems desperate to appeal to the widest fan base as possible.
Unfortunately, this requires main characters to be drab and as relatable as
possible. More often than not these tactics make the characters less
interesting. Since the release of Taken, how many ‘good fathers in a bad
situation’ characters are we going to see replicated? How many are that
interesting? For the Shaw Brothers, not
only were characters lush with broad stroke aspects, but they were memorable.
Wang Kang in The One-Armed Swordsman was a deep and torn character,
fringing on being an anti-hero, but his portrayal by the illustrious Jimmy Wang
Yu is universal. Action films should follow this kind of formula more often.
Writers should create characters and allow the actors and director to develop a
meaningful human bond.
Not only were lead characters fun and exciting, they were
surrounded by other characters that were bigger than life too. When one looks
at why the Venom Mob was so successful after the release of The Five Deadly
Venoms, it’s because their onscreen chemistry and charm were better when
they were together. The characters were often silly and simple ones, but they
were brought to life by these traits and the sheer fun (still serious streaks)
that they brought to the screen. Justin Lin’s entrance into the Fast &
Furious franchise is a perfect example of this idea in practice. He gave
secondary characters a chance to be bigger than life; subsequently, the
respective actors and actresses owned those roles.
|The One-Armed Swordsman|
EMBRACE THE GIMMICK. When the Shaw Brothers Company was
producing double-digit films in one year, they understood that saturation was
inevitable and utilized this aspect to maintain a sense of freshness to the formula.
This is how we get classics like Crippled Avengers where four men with
various disabilities have to overcome them with specialized kung fu to take
down a treacherous ruler. It sounds ridiculous, but like I mentioned
previously, the film owns its outrageous concept and delivers big
entertainment, as well as some rather heartfelt moments. We are now past three
decades of action films and originality isn’t all that original anymore.
Saturation is nigh. This leaves films with only the opportunity to feel fresh
rather than be fresh. One can do this by embracing the gimmick. Take the
weird or silly premise, character, or plot and run with it. This is why last
year’s Guardians of the Galaxy was so effective. We had big characters
in a weird world that never should have been relatable in any way. James Gunn
and Marvel ran with the gimmick, embraced it for all of its quirky glory, and
delivered a stand out and hilarious action flick. None of us were the wiser
that it was completely built on standard action tropes and characters because
it felt fresh.
THE ACTION. This is perhaps one of my biggest complaints
with modern action films. Too often newer flicks rely on ‘spectacle’ and
‘style’ to sell their action sequences. The truth of the matter remains, most
of these directors have no idea how to craft an action sequence – whether it’s
pacing, editing, or plot relevance. The Shaw Brothers, however, rarely ever got
this wrong. Time and time again, classic directors and choreographers from the
Shaw Brothers studio showcased a knowledge and expertise on how to stage space,
movement, and intensity for action scenes. Even the most gimmick riddled and
physics defying films had a knack for being breathtaking and relevant. Whether
it was the multi-fight trident piercing finale in Masked Avengers or the
sheer showmanship of martial arts speed and style switch up throughout Martial
Club with the iconic Gordon Liu, the Shaw Brothers are a choreographer’s
dream come true. Few modern films are able to navigate such flow and thoughtfulness
in their choreography with how people and/or objects move through an
environment. One that does come to mind as a great example is Ninja II:
Shadow of a Tear. The combined talents of director Isaac Florentine, star
Scott Adkins, and fight director Tim Mann, is pure action brilliance. It’s not
flashy. It’s not spectacle. It’s true action through and through.
ENTERTAINMENT. I don’t care how snooty one is about film as
art – or how one believes film should reflect life, in some way, shape, or form
– film has to entertain. A great drama still entertains enough to hook the
viewer. There is a sect of individuals out there that will, to their greatest
abilities, take a silly concept action film and try to make it arthouse. Some
of those folks succeed (Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita) and some of those
folks completely fail (Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain). This is a lesson
easily learned by revisiting the films of the Shaw Brothers. To be profitable,
the company had to fill seats and the easiest way to do so was by entertaining
their audience. Sure, some films feel redundant at times because of the
formula, but even when the company went for more dramatic fare (King Hu’s
samurai inspired Come Drink with Me or the epic Five Shaolin Masters)
there is always a sense that the human aspect and depth fed into the
entertainment factor and not against it. The foremost goal of these classic
martial arts films was to entertain the audience as action flicks and if the
story and thoughtfulness of its dramatic beats fit in, then all the better!
The modern action film is not something to scoff at – it’s a
money making viable option for great film production. It’s simply unfortunate
that too many films have lost the balance and foundations that worked in the
past. This is where knowing history can be helpful. The Shaw Brothers
collection of films is one of the most robust in the world and young directors
and producers should pay more attention to why they have amassed a cult
audience. Directors like Chang Cheh, choreographers like Lau Kar Leung, and
actors like Ti Lung or Jimmy Wang Yu, are iconic in the genre and have action
star legacies lasting decades after newer films have faded. As the genre
evolves with new technology and stylistic choices, one can only hope that the
lessons of the Hong Kong titans will remain a foundation of the future.
*If you are new to the Shaw Brothers film collection, you can do yourself a
favor and watch a few of the titles mentioned in this article. Celestial
Pictures, legal owners of all Shaw Brothers materials, has recently been
releasing the archives to purchase or rent digitally on various formats like
iTunes, Hulu (for free with advertising!), and Google Play. It’s only
the tip of the iceberg for a studio that released hundreds of action films in
the span of three decades, give or take, but you have to start somewhere - I
highly suggest it. You can check out the iTunes collection HERE, the Hulu collection HERE, and the YouTube collection HERE.