[TELEVISION] Influence of "Martial Arts"
- Fists of Fury: TV Is Kung-Fu Fighting
Fri, Apr 12, 2002 04:08 PM PDT
by Kate O'Hare
On television, it seems that everybody is kung-fu fighting.
Seemingly gone are the days when a good right cross and a gun were
enough. Now it's all kick-boxing and wushu, improbable flips and
impossible leaps. What would '60s TV tough-guy Joe Mannix (Mike
Connors) of CBS' "Mannix" make of a world where lithe Jennifer Garner
of ABC's "Alias" or petite Jessica Alba of FOX's "Dark Angel" can
make mincemeat out of enemies twice their size?
It's not that high-octane fighting is an entirely new TV phenomenon.
Back in 1966, martial-arts legend Bruce Lee played black-clad
sidekick Kato in ABC's "The Green Hornet," starring Van Williams as
the hero made popular on radio in the '30s and '40s. Britt Reid --
aka The Green Hornet -- may have had the souped-up wonder car Black
Beauty, but when it came to fisticuffs and flying feet, Kato was the
One can only wonder what would have happened had skittish network
executives not rejected the idea of Lee as the star of ABC's "Kung
Fu," which premiered in 1972, instead going with the definitely non-
Asian David Carradine as a fugitive Shaolin monk and martial-arts
master in the American West of the 1800s. Almost certainly, the fight
sequences wouldn't have all been in slow-motion.
But movie-style fight sequences remained a rarity on television,
which is produced at a blistering pace that seldom allows time for
the elaborate choreography and staging required for truly spectacular
battles. As with a weary Indiana Jones in "Raiders of the Lost Ark,"
it's a lot easier to just shoot the sword-wielding bad guy than to go
mano-a-mano with him.
On the big screen though, fighting just kept rising to higher and
higher levels, and that eventually would have an effect on
television. On April 17, USA Network premieres "Ultimate Fights," a
one-hour special featuring a selection of movie battles. Two
sequences -- from "Rumble in the Bronx" and "Legend of Drunken
Master" -- feature Jackie Chan, one of the martial arts' most
accessible stars. On-screen blurbs emphasize how slow a process it is
to produce an outstanding fight sequence -- 20 days for "Rumble" and
four months for "Drunken Master." For prime-time dramas shot in six
to eight days, that would seem an impossible challenge.
After a brief stab at weekly martial-arts action in the 1984 NBC
drama "The Master," starring movie tough-guy Lee Van Cleef, it was up
to action-film star and karate expert Chuck Norris to turn the
concept into a paying concern. From 1993-2001, "Walker, Texas Ranger"
blended Norris' deadpan acting style, old-style Western heroics and
just enough fighting into a winning formula for CBS' Saturday night.
In 1998, CBS followed up with "Martial Law," starring frequent Chan
collaborator Sammo Hung as a rotund but formidable Chinese police
officer on loan to the LAPD. The show only lasted a couple of
seasons, but in the meantime, a bomb exploded in the middle of the
martial-arts world, and things would never be the same.
In 1999, writer-directors Andy and Larry Wachowski brought together
the best of Hong Kong-style martial-arts action (with a particular
nod to the balletic gun battles of director John Woo), gravity-
defying wire work and dazzling CGI to create the feature film "The
Martial-arts action was back at the forefront, dressed in high-tech
style. This season, you can't swing a nunchak without hitting Woo-
or "Matrix" -inspired action. Whether helped along by the
supernatural (UPN's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), spy training
("Alias") or genetic engineering ("Dark Angel"), female heroes best
foes of every size and kind with amplitude and grace.
Not to be outdone, The WB Network's "Angel" opened its third season
last fall with vampire-with-a-soul Angel (David Boreanaz) battling
red-robed, demonic monks in an elaborate sequence that made full use
of his supernatural strength and agility.
Over on TNT, "Witchblade" -- which has been rerunning its first
season in anticipation of a June 10 second-season premiere -- dazzled
in its two-hour pilot with a move straight out of the Woo playbook,
in which New York cop Sara Pezzini (Yancy Butler) hurled herself
sideways while simultaneously firing two guns at her opponents.
Shows from syndication's "Mutant X" to The WB's "Charmed" are using
wires and harnesses to make their combatants windmill through the air
or float like birds (and there's at least one soft-drink commercial
that looks so much like the martial-arts feature film "Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon" that it needs a disclaimer).
And no doubt it was soaring, supercharged battles that contributed to
the longevity of such action fare as the syndicated
series "Highlander," "Xena: Warrior Princess" and "Hercules: The
So what's it all mean? Are we addicted to the violence? Perhaps -- or
perhaps it's something simpler. Fight scenes are as precisely
choreographed and beautifully timed as dance numbers. Maybe we just
love the moves, like "Buffy" creator and movie-musical lover Joss
Whedon, who says, "Fred Astaire has been replaced by the man flying
through the plate-glass window. They both give you the same kind of
rush, watching a human being do that, watching how they edit it, put
it together, the music, the way it all comes together."