Why Care About the Hero?

Donnie Yen in Ip Man

Donnie Yen, Badass Extraordinaire and Great Actor

I originally entitled this post:

The Best Fight Scene Ever. Part Deux. 

But then I realized that this article is just as much about how movies make us actually care about the hero as opposed to just watch them go around and do things without any emotional involvement.

Note: There are a few plot spoilers in this article.

Move over, Jackie Chan. Need to make some space for Donnie Yen.

Okay, okay, so I already made a post about the best fight scene ever, so how many movies can I say that about?

In my previous post, I stated that, along with Roger Ebert, I consider the final fight scene in Jackie Chan’s Drunk Master II, a.k.a. The Legend of Drunken Master, the greatest fight scene ever. But looking back, I should have qualified that statement. First of all, what criteria are we using to judge it as the greatest fight scene ever?

Length

I’m admittedly too lazy to go back and calculate exactly how long Drunken Master II’s final fight scene was (if you know this statistic, please leave it in the comments below), but it seems to me like it was about 20 minutes. 20 minutes of relentless, non-stop, Jackie Chan-at-his-finest, ass-kicking.

Physical Intensity/Speed

The DMII scene was as intense as any fight scene I’ve ever scene. In fact, much more intense. (Physically, that is. See below.) They were throwing kicks and punches at hundred miles an hour, non-stop. (For that whole 20 minutes!) Not to mention Jackie Chan was mixing in all sort of crazy flips and Zui Quan (drunken kung fu) pandemonium.

Stunts

In this midst of all this mayhem, Jackie Chan, who not only starred in, but actually directed the final fight scene, included all sorts of crazy stunts, including walking on hot flaming coals, and catching fire. That Jackie Chan is a madman.

Harder, better, faster, stronger. Suffice it to say, Jackie Chan leaves me with martial arts envy.

Drunken Master II takes the cake in length, physical intensity, and stunts.

However, there are other criteria with which a fight scene can be judged. I am going to propose that the greatest fight scene ever in terms of emotional intensity is the scene in Ip Man where Donnie Yen either kills or seriously maims 10 Japanese soldiers in retaliation against the tyranny of the World War II Japanese Occupation of China.

Emotional Intensity

We previously talked about the physical intensity of Jackie Chan’s scene. But one thing that I absolutely love is movies that actually make us care about the hero. Movies that move us. That make us feel as if we were there in the hero’s shoes. I think I can honestly say I prefer a movie with emotional intensity to one with physical intensity alone.

Some examples come to mind. In Batman Begins, we enter the psyche of the hero, Bruce Wayne, as played by Christian Bale. It was the first Batman movie actually about Batman, not about his antagonists. Its sequel The Dark Knight had more physical intensity but arguably less emotional intensity, at least as it involves the Bruce Wayne character.

Other prime examples are John Woo’s action films from the late 80s and early 90s, such as A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, and Bullet in the Head. The bullets flying in Woo’s films actually speak more volumes about the characters’ emotions than the actual words that come out of their mouths. It is action cinema turned into Art in every sense of the word.

As you are beginning to see, I love films full of angst. And nothing can be angst-ier (just created a word!) than when Donnie Yen playing the part of Ip Man finds out that a cruel Japanese general has been taking his friends away and using them as punching bags for martial arts practice, and as a result, killing several of them. He volunteers to go and fight them so that he can learn what happened to one of his friends, whose murder was covered up by the Japanese military and their translator, another Chinese who was supposedly a friend of Ip Man’s. When he finally confronts the Japanese general and his men, another one of his friends is callously shot in the head right in front of him. He then asks the general to let him spar with 10 men at once. He systematically beats the crap out of all ten of them, breaking their bones and apparently killing some of them, taking revenge on his friends, and showing the Japanese army that there is one among them that is willing to retaliate.

Donnie Yen in Ip Man fighting Ten Japanese Soldiers

Donnie Yen is the man

That scene was one of the most emotional scenes I’ve ever seen in any movie, regardless of genre. And at the same time it was extremely physically intense and rapid-fire. It goes to show that Donnie Yen is able to simultaneous display an extremely high level of  proficiency in martial arts while simultaneously creating a compelling performance that moves us and makes us care about his character. That scene was not only a great feat of martial arts, it was a great feat of acting.

Given, the emotional impact of this scene has a lot to do, not only with Donnie Yen’s amazing abilities but also with the writing and directing of the film. Screenwriter Edmond Wong and director Wilson Yip definitely deserve to be mentioned here for their fine contribution to this bit of martial arts cinema history.

So, if you love emotionally intense films and scenes, watch Ip Man. Bring on the tragically conflicted hero. Bring on the kung fu. Bring on the angst.

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6 comments

  1. Fight scenes are something that pundits and critics often disrespect or are unable to appreciate properly. I mean, I found myself surprised when Roger Ebert of all people decided to watch action cinema.

    In any event, the emotional payoff from the fight scene is definitely something I’d put a lot of weight behind. Your example for Ip Man is excellent, and in spite of suffering of sequel syndrome, the last fight in Ip Man with the boxer was also quite dramatic and emotional, even if everything else bordered in Wu Xia unlike the sober pace of the first. Nice observation!

    1. Yeah, I used to think Roger Ebert was this stuffed shirt kind of snobby dude who rips into movies, but after reading some more of his stuff, I’m quite impressed with his observations and the breadth of his work.

      Hmm…yeah the second one was kind of interesting how they had a european boxer fighting a wing chun master. Well, I guess in real life it might be a little more plausible than we would think, seeing as kung fu movies make their practitioners seem like gods. Either way, it was definitely something different. At least, I’ve never seen any other movie that paired up two practitioners of those arts in a duel.

      1. Not in such a meaningful way, at least. It wasn’t just a revenge story like, say, Rocky IV or Bloodsport. The acting was very good and the emotion behind Samo’s death definitely fuels the story. It makes you care about who’s beating who.

      2. That’s true. I still like the first Ip Man better though. I guess fighting against the British overlords just wasn’t as emotional to me as fighting the Axis Japanese regime. Although I’m sure to natives from Hong Kong it may be just as emotional.
        Speaking of Sammo…Sammo Hung is the man! I watched Enter the Dragon the other day. I didn’t realize it the first time I watched it, but he was the one who fought with Bruce Lee in the very beginning of the movie.

      3. Yep! And they were using a style very similar to mixed martial arts, with punches, kicks and grappling.

      4. True. Donnie Yen is the man. Make me want to get out there and train again!

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