Last year, when Rogue One came out, America learned something that much of the rest of the world already knew: Donnie Yen is, quite possibly, the single greatest movie star working on the planet right now. In that movie, Yen played the blind warrior Chirrut Imwe, who, at least from the hopelessly biased place where I’m sitting, walked away with the whole movie. In Rogue One, Yen had passion and gravity and grace. And more importantly, he got to do Donnie Yen things: a few quick, beautiful, thrilling fight scenes that established him as an absolute human weapon. It wasn’t a big role, but it was a role, and in last year’s biggest movie at that. And up until then, American audiences hadn’t really gotten a chance to see what Yen could do.
It shouldn’t have taken that long. If you’ve seen many of Yen’s Hong Kong movies, the Ip Man series in particular, you’ve seen Yen do amazing things on screen. Yen’s a handsome and charming guy, one who looks at least 20 years younger than his age. (He’s 53, which seems impossible.) He’s got eyes that sparkle and a catlike way of moving that you can see just in the way he walks across a room. (It’s that Fred Astaire thing: You don’t have to see him dancing to know that he’s a great dancer.) He can be cold-blooded when he has to, but most of the time, he projects Tom Hanks levels of warmth in every direction.
And most importantly for the purposes of this column, Yen completely throws himself into his fights, training, and choreographing like a demon. Yen’s best fights—the beautifully cartoonish final Iron Monkey showdown, the brutal duel with Collin Chou in Flash Point, the karate-dojo brawl in the first Ip Man—are among the greatest in Hong Kong film history. Yen was a martial artist long before he was an actor, training first under his mother, a tai chi grandmaster, and then learning different disciplines as a kid. When he got his first shot in Hollywood in the early ’00s, it was as a fight choreographer, working on movies like Highlander: Endgame and Blade II. He’s in both movies, too, getting a couple of cool scenes in Highlander: Endgame and getting killed in Blade II before getting to say a single word. (It wasn’t a language-barrier thing. Yen spent much of his youth in Boston, and his English is impeccable.) Later, he got to do some fun stuff as the villain in the Jackie Chan/Owen Wilson sequel Shanghai Knights.
But Yen, though already a star, turned into a transcendent action movie figure after he returned to Hong Kong and started working with the director Wilson Yip. Yip is the Scorsese to Yen’s De Niro. Together, they’ve made Dragon Tiger Gate, Flash Point, and the Ip Man trilogy—all classics, all featuring incredible fight scenes that Yen choreographed and essentially directed. (In Hong Kong, the fight choreographer generally takes over for the director whenever there’s a fight scene.) Yen and Yip first worked together on 2005’s SPL: Sha Po Lang (released as Kill Zone in the U.S. even though the killing isn’t confined to any particular zone). SPL’s particular claim to fame, and the reason it’s in this column (besides giving me an excuse to write about Donnie Yen), is that it’s the first martial arts movie to really figure out how to use MMA on screen.
The history of mixed martial arts in movies goes back a while. You could argue, as Yen has, that Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do style was an early variant of MMA. And in Lethal Weapon, Rorion Gracie, who would go on to help found the Ultimate Fighting Championship, served as a martial arts consultant, presumably teaching Mel Gibson the triangle choke that he did at the end of the movie. But by the mid-’00s, with the growing popularity of MMA, action choreographers had to deal with this new reality, where people knew how a real fight between experts might look, and how it didn’t have anything to do with flying kicks. With SPL, Yen cracked the code. His character in the movie, an edgy police detective who wants to win over his men and keep them safe, still does flying kicks, but he also throws arm-bars and triangle chokes and double-leg takedowns. The result is a thrilling hybrid, with the crisp, balletic beauty of classic kung fu movies but just enough realistic science and brutality to make it look new and, relatively speaking, real.
As far as its story goes, SPL is one of those awesomely violent movies that does its best to condemn cycles of violence. The Chinese title is a reference to Chinese astrology, to stars that are capable of both good and evil. The martial arts legend Sammo Hung is the villain, and he’s a calculating monster, one who orders the death of a whole family in a hit-and-run car accident in the very first scene, but we also see him mooning over his pregnant wife and his baby. Meanwhile, Yen is a badass detective famous within the force for once punching a guy so hard that he lost half of his mental capacity. He certainly looks like a badass; this is the rare movie where Yen does a lot of yelling, and where he wears a black leather jacket with a halfway-unbuttoned shirt. But he’s also overcome with guilt, and we eventually learn that he takes that punching victim out to play video games every week.
This being a Hong Kong movie, SPL is heavy on the sentimentality to the point of mawkishness. In the first 10 minutes of the movie, before Yen’s character even shows up, we get an adorable little girl wailing from car-wreck injuries, a character suffering a miscarriage, and another character learning that he’s got a probably-fatal brain tumor. The one with the tumor is Simon Yam, the great veteran Hong Kong actor, playing an obsessed detective. He’s adopted the little girl after Hung ordered her informant father killed, and he’s determined to bring Hung down before his cancer forces him to retire and Yen takes over control of his team. There are some vast and deep plot holes; why, for instance, does Yam have to frame Hung for murder when he could easily jail him for assault? But if you’re going to watch Hong Kong action movies, you’re going to have to accept that stuff. It’s the admission price for watching a guy do this stuff with a knife:
Because it has big things that it wants to say about humanity’s capacity for both good and evil, the movie is something other than a pretext for fight scenes, which is almost a shame. The acting is all good, and the ending is a genuine shock, but fights as good as the ones in SPL deserve to be the focus of the movie. As the central gangster, Hung is a revelation. In his ’70s and ’80s movies, with or without Jackie Chan, he was a rotund and bumbling goofball. But that’s all gone in SPL. Instead, Hung becomes a dark and intimidating figure, one willing and able to beat up a whole team of cops sent to arrest him. And his two fights with Yen are things of absolute brutal beauty.
Those fights, plus Yen’s great one against blond assassin Wu Jing, are the movie’s real legacy. In the years after SPL, Yen would keep doing great work, both with and without Yip, incorporating MMA as often as not. He’d get in another classic fight against Hung in Ip Man 2. And more and more directors, on both sides of the world, would figure out how to use MMA techniques in action movie contexts. For that, a lot of the best action movies of the past decade—The Raid, Haywire, John Wick, way too many others to name here—owe a debt to Donnie Yen and SPL.
Other 2005 action movies of note: As the most beautifully ridiculous Jason Statham vehicle, Transporter 2 gets runner-up distinctions. Statham was already a star before making it, but that movie, with its two-gun-blasting supermodel and physically impossible car stunts and barely there plot, went a long way toward proving how much fun a Statham movie could be. It’s the John Wick: Chapter 2 of its day: the sequel to a fun, ridiculous action movie that finds ways to be even more fun and more ridiculous.
Transporter 2, though made in English and set in Miami, is basically a French movie, a product of the great Luc Besson action movie factory. And most of 2005’s best action movies also came from other places around the world. Besson’s system also gave us Unleashed, a fun movie with a great Jet Li performance as a master killer who’s literally kept on a leash by Bob Hoskins’ scenery-inhaling gangster. Thailand gave us the rip-shit Tony Jaa classic The Protector, the movie with the greatest long-tracking-shot fight scene in action movie history. South Korea gave us the almost hilariously brutal gangster melodrama A Bittersweet Life, which helped establish just how fucked-up a mainstream Korean action movie could be. And Hong Kong gave us Election, a Johnnie To movie about the internal politics of a Chinese criminal enterprise. It’s more of a dark parable than an action movie, but it has just enough action scenes that we never forget we’re dealing with one of the world’s greatest genre filmmakers.
In America, things were a little sillier. Doug Liman made Mr. & Mrs. Smith, about dueling married contract killers. It was more comedy than action and, thanks to the way Brad Pitt left his wife Jennifer Aniston for co-star Angelina Jolie, more tabloid-bait than either. John Singleton’s Four Brothers went a long way toward making Mark Wahlberg a credible action star, even if its action scenes didn’t make that much sense in the context of the movie. Red Eye was a nice little Wes Craven thriller with some Die Hard-on-a-plane moments. And The Island was Michael Bay’s attempt at dystopian sci-fi. Its action movie stuff sits uncomfortably alongside whatever points it tries to make about the world, but the actual action scenes are some of the best Bay ever shot. The movie tanked, though, so it was off to Transformers world for him after that.
Antonio Banderas made the old-school adventure-romp sequel The Legend Of Zorro, a movie way less fun than its predecessor. Another less-fun sequel, though it did a decent job trying to be as over-the-top as the original, was xXx: State Of The Union, which swapped out Vin Diesel’s extreme-sports secret agent for Ice Cube’s glowering convict. And people in Hollywood did shitty jobs at making action movies out of a bunch of different types of intellectual property: video games (Doom), cult classic comics (Constantine), and MTV sci-fi cartoons (Aeon Flux). The stars of all three (respectively: Dwayne Johnson, Keanu Reeves, and Charlize Theron) would go on to do great things in action cinema, but those three movies didn’t really give them the chance.
2005 was also the year of A History Of Violence, the movie that gave this column its name. I didn’t choose the title because A History Of Violence is some kind of pivotal action movie. It’s not. Honestly, it’s really more of a character study, and I chose the title for pun-related reasons. But the movie’s fight scenes are visceral and uncomfortable and amazing in that distinctly David Cronenberg way, and they’re some of the greatest, nastiest things that anyone put on film that year. It might not be an action movie, exactly, but it’s a great movie. If you haven’t rewatched it in a while, you should.
Next time: The ponderous, probably fascist, often oddly beautiful 300 introduces the world to the mythic, hyper-stylized Zack Snyder aesthetic and brings in a level of bombast that hadn’t been seen in American action movies in a long time.