When Will We See the Next Great Asian Martial Arts Star?
The 70s were a sort of golden age for martial arts in cinema. Largely due to the enduring popularity of Bruce Lee, flying kicks and karate yells became the norm. As Carl Douglas so aptly stated, everybody was kung fu fighting. And perhaps nobody capitalized on the craze quite like the Hong Kong film industry, cultivating local hits like Jackie Chan, Woo-ping Yuen, Sammo Hung, Michelle Yeoh and Yuen Biao, all of who would inspire later hits like Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi and Donnie Yen.
Fast forward about three to four decades, and the Hong Kong film industry has not yet produced anyone to take the international audiences by the throat like Lee, Chan and Li.
It's no secret that the classic age of Hong Kong cinema is dead. Jackie Chan, who first worked as Bruce Lee's stunt double in Fist of Fury and had a minor death scene in Enter the Dragon, is just too old. Already having announced his retirement from action, Chan really didn't even need to make it official; his fans know the torture he's put his body through, and most are thankful for even the career we got. From the Chinese hits such as Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, Drunken Master, and Wheels on Meals to the American breakthrough with Rumble in the Bronx and the somewhat dependable Rush Hour series, Chan gave us much before he finally abandoned action.
Running somewhat parallel to Chan was Jet Li, another actor who had an established career in Asia before he was able to break into the American market, this time courtesy of Mel Gibson's Lethal Weapon 4. While Li promised something different from Chan — specifically, grittier movies due to his darker approach to filmmaking — Li's never quite materialized because of poor English-language film selection. Romeo Must Die and Unleashed were likely his best but they couldn't salvage a career with choices like The One. Li's Chinese-language career kept going strong during this time, with the crown jewel being the Academy-award nominated Hero, but Li couldn't do as much good with his name internationally as he should have. Since then, he has now become an Expendable and done some dramatic work, both signs that his action career is done and dusted.
And that certainly wraps us the two kung fu stars most known after Bruce. Beyond them, international audiences wouldn't quite know fan-favorites like the aforementioned Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung, so the Hong Kong film industry was effectively buried the day Li and Chan decided to pursue other things.
However, a bit further down East, a glimmer of light rose from Thailand as new action star Tony Jaa showed the world he was more than willing to do the stunts Hong Kong had long stopped because its aging legends either needed wires or were more interested in historical epics like Curse of the Golden Flower.
Jaa, on the other hand, did for Muay Thai boxing what Fist of Fury had done for Jeet Kune Do: made it awesome. Following his fanboyish — not to mention dangerously delicious — homage to Steven Spielberg in Ong-Bak, Jaa cemented his status as the new kid on the block with Tom Yum Goong.
Unfortunately, the second half of Jaa's career hasn't been as dream-like. Perhaps in an attempt to try something new, Jaa started working on terrible historical epics with weird fantasy elements, effectively driving his career into a chasm. He is back to acting after a long, religiously-motivated hiatus from acting, but he has work to do if he wants to climb back up the ranks.
Of course, it's probably not a lot of work because there really aren't a lot of ranks to compete with. As aforementioned, the big stars are gone and the only major film of the genre coming soon is The Grandmaster starring Tony Leung. Keep in mind that Leung is an amazing actor — hell, he's probably a better thespian than the martial arts genre needs — but he's hardly a martial artist. He has trained in Wing Chun for five years, but compared to these other guys, that just feels like a bad Karate Kid training montage. Also — seemingly going in circles here — he's 47; even if he somehow masters the art, his career in action will be a short one. And considering his love for dramatic, Oscar-type roles, he may leave the genre after this film anyway.
Hope for martial arts cinema originally resided with Jaa but, as aforementioned, he has to earn the spot he had so quickly managed to claim and just as quickly managed to lose. His Tom Yum Goong co-star Johnny Nguyen, stunt double for the Spider-Man series and a very talented martial artist in his own right, is another option.
But until someone in Asia rises to the challenge and becomes the next Jet Li or Jackie Chan (there can be no "next" Bruce Lee; the man even killed Chuck Norris), we will all have to endure Michael Jai White and Jason Statham.