So I’m finally getting around to Iron Fist (I’m only 6 episodes in at the time of this writing) and I think I’ve come to certain realizations. Episode 6, in particular, helped crystallize a lot of the thoughts that were bubbling and percolating in my head throughout the first five episodes.
Let’s start with the big one: Chinese martial arts.
And I see now how I may have set myself up for disappointment on this one. I stayed away from all the promos for the show, assuming (in hindsight, a foolish assumption) that the show would naturally embrace the formal qualities of Chinese martial arts cinema. It’s a subject I’ve written about before (here and here and here), and which is near and dear to my heart. I mean, it seemed like a safe assumption to make: the main character is a superhero whose superpower IS Chinese martial arts. And with the incredible fight choreography and cinematography on display over at Daredevil, it seemed only natural that Iron Fist would embrace what felt like its inherent characteristics more fully. But they didn’t. At all. At least not in these first 6 episodes. And even if that drastically changes in the second half of the season (which would be weird in itself) it still wouldn’t make up for how the character’s already been introduced.
To be clear, all of the formal elements of Danny Rand’s fight scenes have been completely in line with – and in some cases better than – your “typical” Hollywood-produced action narrative. But, and here’s the important part, they do not fully embrace the aesthetics and traditions of Chinese martial arts cinema, which brings with it very specific expectations:
Expectation #1: Longer Takes, Fewer Cuts, Wider Shots
On a purely formal level, Chinese martial arts cinema employs fewer cuts, and longer takes. In terms of the fight choreography, I’m talking about the ability to see the performers execute a larger number of strikes, blocks, and martial arts moves in between each cut. It’s the difference between this sequence from The Matrix, in which we get 1 block, 1 kick, 4 strikes, another kick, and a few more punches in a shot that begins at 2:18:
And this one from Kickboxer, in which we get one kick…and two cuts:
And so far, where Danny Rand is concerned, the editing leans more towards the latter than the former. As seen here:
And especially here, where these reverse shots of close-ups on his face seem to serve no other purpose than to break up the flow of physical demands on the performer(s):
A big part of the aesthetic of longer takes and wider shots is related to the next expectation, which is at the heart of the Chinese martial arts cinema aesthetic.
Expectation #2: Our Focus is on the Actual Physical Ability of the Performer
All of the great Chinese martial arts cinema stars trained in their art since childhood. And “trained” doesn’t really feel like an adequate word to describe what the likes of Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Donnie Yen went through in terms of their martial arts education. On a certain level, it doesn’t feel right using the same word to describe Jackie Chan’s grueling time at opera school as we use for the actor who trains for a few months before filming begins on a particular movie. Now I don’t know how long Finn Jones trained for Iron Fist, but based on what movements we do see, it’s more than clear that this isn’t really a lifestyle for him.But there are ways that the editing and cinematography can amplify what skills a performer does have, or at least show what they do know. For example, even though I still maintain that The Matrix was a turning point in the style of Hollywood action cinema due in part to its embrace of Chinese martial arts aesthetics, Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving in the clip above look pretty stiff and amateurish compared to clips of Jackie Chan and others who’ve been doing it all their lives. But Reeves and Weaving feel more impressive than Jones in Iron Fist, because the cinematography and editing actually let us see what they’re doing. And ok, so they’re not as good as someone like Jackie Chan, but they’re clearly doing all that stuff themselves. With Iron Fist, I can’t help but think that a) he’s not as good as the pros, and b) the show doesn’t really think he’s that good either, because the editing seems more focused on making up for his lack of ability as opposed to enhancing and adding on to his talents.
I think being aware of that balance between actual performer skill and production-enhanced apparent character skill is further illustrated through Jessica Henwick’s character – and consistent scene stealer – Colleen Wing. Her cage match is a good example. She clearly has the talent as a martial artist, which is then further enhanced by the show’s formal elements:
There’s an even better scene in Episode 6 where she swiftly dispatches a thug in the hospital, but I can’t find a clip of that. But I hope I’ve made my point. The higher the actual real-world skill of the performer, the more opportunities for longer takes and wider shots, which together can lead to a higher production-enhanced skill for the character. (I’m going to talk to a mathematician friend to see if he can come up with an actual equation for this.)
A key point to remember: slow motion does not a great fighter make.
Expectation #3: Environment- and Prop-Based Improvisation
This particular expectation led to a spectacular let-down with Episode 6. One of the elements of the Chinese-opera-based martial arts cinematic tradition is the way that performers will manipulate otherwise every-day items in awesome ways. Ladders, tables, and chairs are the most usual suspects, but they can include all sorts of weapons, jugs, brooms, mops, dragon masks, and pretty much anything else. They also use the environment in cool and unexpected ways. So that as a fight forces the performers into new spaces, your eyes are immediately scanning the surroundings to see what items or environmental elements might be incorporated into the fight.
So, in Episode 6 of Iron Fist, in the middle of the third and presumably final duel, the fighters suddenly find themselves in a room that looks like this:
And here’s Jason Statham doing some similar work in Transporter 2:
Notice how in both cases, the characters are “naturally” pushed towards a particular environmental element that they are then forced to incorporate into their fight.
Unfortunately, Iron Fist does nothing of the sort. I can’t find a clip of the fight in question, but those metal frames and bars are mainly used as shields and things to duck under, instead of ways to gain advantage as a skilled and analytical fighter. It’s all in the last 10-15 minutes of Episode 6. Check it out and tell me what you think.
Honorable Mention: The Axe Gang
Come on! They even messed with the Axe Gang! Again, whether the show realizes or not, it’s entering an existing conversation. Martial artists fighting a gang of axe-wielding thugs is practically a trope of Chinese martial arts cinema. Even if they specifically – and kinda awkwardly – make clear that they were “hatchets,” not axes, it’s still the Axe Gang.
I’ll end this post with a comment-free exhibition of various takes on the Axe Gang, ending with one from another current American show, Into the Badlands, which I highly recommend for anyone interested in seeing what it looks like when an American show more fully embraces the Chinese martial arts cinema aesthetic. Spoiler alert: beautiful (and violent) things happen.
You already saw Iron Fist‘s take on the Axe Gang in the “Hallway Fight” scene above.
Here they are in a badly dubbed clip from 1994’s Drunken Master II:
And in 2004’s Kung Fu Hustle:
And in 2008’s Ip Man:
And, finally, from the first season of AMC’s post-apocalyptic, western, kung fu drama, Into the Badlands. Warning: graphic violence.