Real vs. Movie Martial Arts: Splitting the Fact From the Fiction

Flying fists...superhuman leaps...fountains of just how real ARE the martial arts you see performed in your favorite kung fu flick or action epic?  We break down the real from the movie magic...

Jason Kobelyby Jason Kobely

Audiences love “based on a true story” type films. The draw for most is that sense of realism — and moviegoers usually don’t have much concern at the time where the line between the reality and the fiction truly lies. 

As it turns out, most martial arts in film and television are also viewed by audiences this way.  In fact, go ahead and think of theatrical martial arts as a “based on a true story” version of the real thing.

Martial arts pioneer and grandmaster of the Bando system Dr. Maung Gyi put it best —  there are the three F’s of martial arts: form, function, and fantasy.  And in the world of theatrical martial arts, the concern is with form and fantasy.  Function…well, not so important in the realm of movie magic.

The form, however — the actual mechanical movement of the technique — is important when bringing martial arts to the big screen – and there is a crossover here with the real martial arts practiced by everyone from experts and youngsters every day.

Every martial art has form at least in the basic sense. It can be as simple as the mechanics behind a punch, kick, throw or lock — or as complex as a series of pre-determined movements with names like kata, juru and poomse. The primary function of form in theatrical martial arts is all about the aesthetics – basically, just how cool do all these flying fists and swirling kicks look on film.

The form must be readable to the audience.  They have to be able to recognize what they just saw flicker across their movie screen. This is where the diverging art of theatrical martial arts have to take things in a different direction.

A movement, such as a punch, might have to be slowed down, telegraphed, and made much larger to be “read” by the audience. If you were to execute it in the same way in a real fight, your opponent would easily see what you are doing and have too much time to react to it.  Bottom line: if you actually fought like most of the so-called experts you saw in a movie, you’d likely get your head handed to you pretty darn quick.

To maintain the aesthetic beauty of the fight, the totality of movements also have to have rhythm and timing – not to mention being pretty exciting. This, after all, is the true magic of fight choreography. The differences here between theatrical martial arts and real martial arts are both subtle and obvious.

Of course, in real martial arts or real fighting, there’s no such thing as choreography.  Wait for someone to block out your movements in the typical barroom brawl and again, you’ll likely be picking your teeth up off the floor.  In reality, it’s just free for all combat where combatants have to rely on broken rhythm, will to win, and superior technique rather than a script to win.  Compare any MMA bout to a stylized fight scene from a film like The Matrix or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. You notice any similarity?  Nope.

Theatrical fighters rely on complicated movements that dazzle the eye, where the real fighter must rely on simple and direct movements that are less likely to fail in the heat of battle. 

So where does Dr. Gyi’s third “F” – fantasy – come into play?  It exists mostly the world of theatrical martial arts, but not entirely.

Fantasy does exist in real martial arts — but only in the training halls before sparring. Once the fantasy technique or method is put to the test in sparring or in a more extreme situation, out on the street, Darwinism takes over.  The fantasy technique or method will usually die out pretty darn fast because, well, it just doesn’t work. 

Another example of martial arts shows up in how on-screen opponents engage in combat. You’ve seen it before in any number of films — multiple attackers all nicely waiting their turn to attack our hero one at a time. Yeah…that doesn’t happen outside of a Hollywood pipe dream. 

Live Free or Die Hard presents another example of logic taking a backseat. The gorgeous Maggie Q takes on Bruce Willis in hand to hand combat as she swings through a series of kickboxing moves.  Now, Maggie Q stands 5’6” and weighs 103 pounds. Bruce Willis is 5’11” and 210 pounds.  Isn’t there a reason why there are weight classes in kickboxing and MMA?

Short of being Bruce Lee, if one has a significant height and weight disadvantage, it makes overcoming the much larger opponent extremely difficult, if not impossible, when confined to fight in a kickboxing structure.  No martial arts or self defense instructor in his or her right mind would train a small woman to stand and kickbox with a much larger man.  Of course for the film, we need the fantasy – so we see Maggie Q beat the crap out of Bruce Willis with her kickboxing skills.

But with the number of everyday people taking martial arts lessons, the audiences for films are becoming much more sophisticated viewers – and to their credit, some filmmakers are stepping up. We’re seeing more and more very exciting fight sequences in films.

Actors are training and performing their own martial arts fighting sequences more than ever before. Remember back in the days of the original Star Trek series? Back when an obvious stand-in for William Shatner would perform a few Judo throws and basic punches on an opponent? Not anymore.

Today, we see actors such as Matt Damon (in the Bourne series), Denzel Washington (Book of Eli) or even Rob Schneider (in Big Stan) train for many hours at a martial arts training hall to get the movements down. To this extent, the martial arts are real since the actor does trains in the real art as a base for the movement. It’s only after they get the movements down that they move on to the fantasy and the choreography.

And the savvier audiences have brought with them the need for even more exciting fight choreography.  The top choreographers such as Jeff Imada (Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum, Total Recall, Book of Eli, Twilight Saga), Tsuyoshi Abe (47 Ronin, Double Tap, Love Like Bullets), and Damon Caro (300, Man of Steel, Sucker Punch) all have extensive martial arts backgrounds, from traditional martial arts such as Tae Kwon Do and Wing Chun Kung Fu to the more exotic arts like Kali and Silat. 

In fact, Kali and Silat, two arts now being taught to special forces teams around the world, are naturally exciting, brutal arts to put in the hands of modern film characters like Jason Bourne. The difference between reality and fantasy in those cases is usually just a slight modification to make it more viewer friendly. 

While the current trend in films seems to be taking us in two directions — big fantasy with all of the acrobatic wirework of the Chinese opera style films; or the realism of down-and-dirty faceoffs like the Bourne films — audiences will get to best of both worlds.