Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Re:Action - Why Modern Action Movies Need to Embrace the Shaw Brothers Formula

Why Modern Action Movies Need To Embrace The Shaw Brothers Formula

*fan fare*

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 film.

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.

Crippled Avengers
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.

Martial Club
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


  1. great article action flicks today are boring and stupid best one I have seen recently was john wick they got it right!

  2. I agree and disagree with this one... Most of the Shaw action films (I've seen VERY few of their other offerings) totally embrace spectacle and style - they're stage performances writ large. You're spot on with your first category - simplicity in execution is what makes them so...palatable? for those of us who like them. They're raw, quick, right to the point (funny to say all that when talking about something like KILLER CLANS or LEGEND of the BAT), and the point is giving you a show. Of course the Shaw studios were all about putting asses in seats and getting money out of wallets, but dammit, the movies feel like...I don't know, they're punk rock. Even something like MY YOUNG AUNTIE which tries too hard for my tastes still has that raw, forthright intensity. Shaw bros action films GO FOR IT. May it's as simple as that - they go for it, unashamedly melodramatic and lowbrow.