Are Martial Arts Ruining Action Movies?

Photo: Jed Egan, PHotos: Columbia Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Focus Features, Warner Bros. Pictures, Columbia Pictures, iStockphoto

In Joe Wright's stylish action-drama Hanna, the titular character (played by Saoirse Ronan) has been raised by her father to study martial arts and close combat in seclusion before finally entering the real world at age 16, ready to kick some ass. She's never met a person other than her father (Eric Bana), she's never set foot anywhere other than the wintry landscapes of North Finland, and she's never known pop culture or seen a single movie ... and it's a good thing she hasn't, because if Hanna were to duck into a theater to catch the latest action flick, she'd be stunned: Everybody fights like her in movies nowadays. And it's starting to take the fun out of things.

Actors often brag about how much Krav Maga or karate or capoeira they had to learn for their roles, but to judge from the onscreen world of modern action movies, that kind of skill set is hardly rare: A built-in understanding of martial arts is instilled in everyone, be they hero, villain, or mere henchman. (Fortunately, heroes always get to fight off bad guys who somehow know the exact same form of martial arts they do.) Too often, it seems like movies grind to a halt for obligatory hand-to-hand combat with low stakes and little invention, as though the screenwriter typed, "A fight breaks out," and the director left it up to the second unit and fight coordinator to fill three minutes.

It was fun when the trend began — when The Matrix westernized the modern martial arts movie and the Drew Barrymore–led Charlie's Angels traded guns for roundhouse kicks — but it has quickly become rote. In movies like The Green Hornet, Salt, Sucker Punch, and The Last Airbender, the heroes fight off drone after drone after drone, occasionally taking a hit to the face, stomach, or back, yet emerging with little more than a comely cut on the cheek (if that). With little in the way of stakes, a sameness in presentation, and no blood or bruises, martial arts have turned action scenes into dance scenes, and while those can be fun, they're not usually renowned for their suspense. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was occasionally inventive within its fight sequences, but it was really more of a musical, and even Wright himself has admitted that when choreographing Hanna's fights, he figured, "Just treat it like dance and it'll be fine." That's all well and good, but whatever happened to treating action sequences like action sequences?

Gone are the days when a fight might involve a gun, a makeshift weapon, or a hit that actually hurts. Now every movie hero is Jet Li, and every woman is Buffy the Vampire Slayer (though Buffy's martial-arts acumen was a by-product of her mystical Slayer power, the new breed of action heroine can dispatch a 200-pound assailant even if the woman in question is five-foot-two and has a physique better suited for red carpets than battle). Hanna handles its action scenes better than most — and Bana gets a fun all-in-one-take fight that's highly choreographed but is at least dazzling to watch — but even the most stylish spin on these sort of fights can't disguise the feeling that we've seen this all before. It's time for directors to rethink the idea of a movie fight sequence, and if they can't add anything to it — or if watching the hero toss another drone over his shoulder adds nothing to the movie — then it should go. After all, what does it say when an actual dance movie, Black Swan, has ballet sequences and cathartic confrontations that pack more punch than any action movie we've seen over the past year?