People laughed. That’s the thing I remember the most from the sleepy art-house cinema where I first saw Ang Lee’s 2000 wuxia epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The first action scene, with its bodies sailing across rooftops gracefully, in ways that make an absolute mockery of earthly physics, looked strange and beautiful and alien. My crowd didn’t know what to make of it. Hence the laughter. It wasn’t a full-on belly laugh or anything. It was more of a nervous titter. But still: People laughed.
The wire effects of Crouching Tiger—the heroes who can basically fly—were nothing new to audiences in Hong Kong or China. Lee, from Taiwan, had grown up watching movies like that, and Crouching Tiger was, in some ways, the realization of a childhood dream for the director, who’d spent the previous few years making English-language interiority dramas like Sense And Sensibility and The Ice Storm. But Lee knew that he was making something new for Western audiences, for people who hadn’t seen those wire effects create dream-realities in movies like The Heroic Trio or The Bride With White Hair. And so that first action scene was, among other things, an intentional challenge to the movie’s Western audiences. Lee was telling us that we were entering a world where the rules were not the same, where fighters could drift slowly through the air and where nobody would act like that was a weird or unnatural thing.
It worked. It all worked. Crouching Tiger was a true experiment, an expansive and relatively big-budget epic, an action movie more concerned with delicate beauty than with blood-pumping intensity. It was put together by a motley pile of movie studios from four different countries (the U.S., Hong Kong, Taiwan, China), with an all-Asian but international cast whose accents simply didn’t match up with one another. (This was reportedly an issue for some Chinese audiences, but ignorant Westerners like me got to be swept up in the grandeur without that particular distraction.) And even though it had no real precedent in America, the movie clicked, pulling in nine box-office figures and a whole mess of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Unless we’re counting The Passion Of The Christ—and please, let’s not do that—Crouching Tiger remains the highest-grossing foreign-language movie in American history.
Crouching Tiger is absolutely an action movie; its fight scenes, from the master choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, are intricate and ambitious pieces of art, and the movie exists to showcase them, the same way every musical exists to showcase its song-and-dance numbers. But there’s no impact to any of the blows struck; even when a policeman gets a sickle-blade embedded in his skull, we don’t really get that “daaaaamn” moment that action movie fans live for. Instead, those fight scenes are a delicate dance, the characters’ toughness and intensity often overshadowed by their stillness and their unspoken feelings.
There’s a moment in the movie where Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) tells Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) that fencing and calligraphy are similar. The movie agrees. There’s a fluid expressiveness, a sense of florid and formal beauty, to the way its characters fight. The point isn’t exhilaration; it’s in the way the characters use fights to express feelings that their society otherwise forces them to bottle up. Every bit as much as the Jane Austen adaptation that Lee made a few years earlier, Crouching Tiger is a movie about societal repression, about characters resolutely sacrificing their happiness, and sometimes their lives, to fulfill a set of societal expectations that they hold as sacred as anyone else.
As the legendary swordsman Li Mu Bai, Lee cast Chow Yun-Fat, one of the most dapper and charming leading men in Hong Kong cinema history. Chow remains one of the greatest action stars of all time, but before Crouching Tiger, it was brashness and melodrama, not restraint and nobility, that were his calling cards. He wasn’t really a martial artist, either; his best roles had been in John Woo’s gun-fu melodramas. Lee brought something else out of him. In Crouching Tiger, Chow is all stillness and dignity, maintaining his composure even as the world falls apart around him. In what was probably the movie’s most famous scene, Chow whistles through the precarious treetops of a lush, green forest, sword-fighting with Zhang Ziyi’s character while gently lecturing her to change her life. Chow was really up in those trees, suspended on wires, and it must’ve been a terrifying experience. But Chow radiates an absolutely resolute calm. He knew what he was doing up there.
Still, even though Chow’s name appeared first on the poster, he wasn’t really the star of the movie. That position belongs to the movie’s two female leads. As Yu Shu Lien, the great fighter whose love for Li Mu Bai must remain unspoken, Michelle Yeoh found ways to project fire and restraint in equal measure. The unspoken longing that she shares with Chow is immediately apparent from the movie’s very first scene. And as the tempestuous young kung-fu genius whose story drives the entire movie, Zhang Ziyi, in her first real starring role, was just magical, starting off as a brat who steals legendary swords for fun and ending it as a tragic figure. My favorite scene in the movie, the goofy-fun restaurant brawl, is a total Zhang showcase. In it, she’s both a stone-cold bad motherfucker and a petulant child, and that’s not a combination we often see.
Lee knew how to play around with myths. The movie was based on a book from a wuxia novel series from the ’30s, and Lee clearly knew all the rules and conventions of the genre, working them effortlessly. But the movie also takes as much delight in the sheer beauty of its costumes and sets as it does in its fights. Also, Lee’s previous movie was the Civil War Western Ride With The Devil, and Lee clearly hadn’t gotten the Western entirely out of his system. Crouching Tiger was, after all, the story of a veteran fighter who decides, at the movie’s beginning, that he wants to hang his weapon up for good, and about the haughty young hot dog who wants the life she’s read about in books. These are pure Western tropes, and the movie’s desert scenes—the long flashback where Jen Yu falls in love with a roaming bandit after he steals her fancy comb—even look like a Western.
But the movie never feels like a movie-genre pastiche. Instead, it’s a completely sincere addition to a long cinematic tradition, albeit one pretty obscure to the Western art-house crowds who made up one of the main Crouching Tiger audiences. In telling his story, Lee wasn’t just nodding to older movies. He was showing how effective this sort of story could be, especially given the level of craft and budget and thought that he was able to devote to it. The movie is written so carefully that even the snarling villain Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei) has a coherent set of motives: She’s pissed because kung-fu masters have used her for sex without being willing to teach her anything, and because her protégé has surpassed her while keeping it a secret from her.
For whatever reason, Americans were ready for a movie like this in 2000. A lot of the credit probably goes to the wave of Hong Kong action stars and directors who came to Hollywood in the late ’90s, changing the visual grammar of Hollywood movies. And it goes to Yuen Woo-Ping, who’d brought a similar sense of ecstatic unreality to the fights he choreographed in The Matrix a year earlier. It didn’t hurt, either, that Crouching Tiger wasn’t just a kung-fu movie; it was also a grand and lush romantic epic with as much in common with The English Patient as it had with, say, Iron Monkey.
And Crouching Tiger changed things. Its director and stars never really benefited, at least in Hollywood. Chow and Yeoh had both been trying to break through in American movies for years, and it would never really happen for either of them. It wouldn’t happen for Zhang, either, though she at least got to cash in with Rush Hour 2. The movie did lead Ang Lee to get that superhero-movie budget to direct Hulk, but his vision was so deliriously weird that both audiences and studios rejected it. Lee saved himself from movie jail only by making a widely beloved transcendent masterpiece in Brokeback Mountain soon afterward.
Still, even if Crouching Tiger didn’t make any new Hollywood stars, it did lead directly to a revival of lush, grand-scale wuxia movies, with movies like House Of Flying Daggers and Hero (both of which starred Zhang) following shortly thereafter. And more to the point, Crouching Tiger set the stage for a whole new era in action cinema, one where people from different countries and cultures worked together, often outside the Hollywood system, to make movies that resonated globally. Two years later, we’d get The Transporter, in which a French producer-screenwriter and a Hong Kong director joined forces to turn a glowering British actor into a worldwide action star. Maybe Crouching Tiger didn’t lead directly to a world where things like that were possible, but it was an early sign that things were changing, that the map was realigning itself.
Other notable 2000 action movies: The year’s runner-up honors have to go to Japan’s fascinatingly fucked-up Battle Royale, a ferociously bleak dystopian dark comedy in which a class full of teenagers are forced to kill one another on an island, for the enjoyment of a ruling class of sadistic adults. This movie, which seemed almost impossibly nasty when it first came out—watching it almost felt like an illegal act—somehow helped lay the groundwork for a series of young-adult novels and blockbuster movies that would challenge Harry Potter’s dominance. How did that happen?
In Hollywood, much of the attention went to Ridley Scott’s grizzled period epic Gladiator, which was more or less an action movie even though the action scenes themselves were basically incoherent. Still, even if that movie was old-school Spartacus-style spectacle, there were plenty of signs of a new future emerging in American action movies. One of the year’s biggest was John Woo’s gloriously nonsensical Mission: Impossible II, a movie that climaxes with Tom Cruise throwing a somersault leg-drop. Jackie Chan got his first big post-Rush Hour project with Shanghai Noon, an Old West action-comedy that teamed him up with a sleepily charming Owen Wilson, a guy who seemed to mesh better with Chan than Chris Tucker ever did.
And then there was Romeo Must Die, which, implausibly enough, teamed Jet Li up with first-time actor Aaliyah, who would’ve probably been a huge movie star if she hadn’t been tragically killed in a plane crash a year later. Romeo Must Die would be the first in a troika of oddly antiseptic hip-hop martial arts movies from the Polish director Andrzej Bartkowiak, all of which would star both DMX and Anthony Anderson. In fact, DMX got to have a brief run as an honest-to-god movie star mostly because producer Scott Rudin noticed how pissed off audiences were when his character got quickly killed in Romeo Must Die.
Not all American action movies would be so forward-thinking. The dumber-than-rocks Gone In 60 Seconds remake was exactly the sort of explosion-happy Nicolas Cage vehicle that was still raking in Michael Bay-style money. The Patriot took the Mel Gibson grim-faced patriarch punch-up and moved it into the colonial era. The thunderingly stupid Ben Affleck robbery-noir twist-fest Reindeer Games would, tragically, turn out to be the last big movie from the old master John Frankenheimer, who had made the great Ronin only two years earlier and who would be dead two years later. The muddled and CGI-drunk cloning thriller The 6th Day was yet another sign that Arnold Schwarzenegger was washed-up. And the cheap, CGI-heavy Aliens rip-off Pitch Black was also pretty dumb, except for one crucial ingredient: a chiseled and marble-mouthed young star named Vin Diesel, whose enormous charisma was immediately obvious.
This would probably be a good place to mention X-Men, which made a ton of money and kickstarted the superhero movie craze. But for my money, X-Men is also the moment that superhero movies split off from action movies and become their own thing. There are certainly crossovers, like Blade II or Punisher: War Zone or Dredd, or even Deadpool or Logan. But for the most part, I don’t consider superhero movies to be action movies, at least not in the way that this column defines them. So this column will mostly ignore the descendants of X-Men going forward.
2000 was also the year that the Hong Kong lunatic Tsui Hark, after making a pair of probably unintentionally avant-garde Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, went back to Hong Kong to make Time And Tide, a gorgeously stylish hit-man movie that makes basically no narrative sense at all. But Japan probably had a bigger year than Hong Kong. Other than Battle Royale, Japan gave us Takeshi Kitano (who’d had a memorably bloodthirsty role in Battle Royale) directing himself as a yakuza who travels to Los Angeles and finds himself allied with Omar Epps, of all people, in Brother. And Japan gave us Versus, a low-budget indie film about floppy-haired yakuza fighting vampires in an enchanted forest. For all the chances that Hollywood was taking around that time, nobody in America was quite ready to try making something like that.
Next time: A street-racing-themed Point Break rip-off somehow makes a ton of money and, even more improbably, kicks off our greatest running blockbuster franchise.