The best thing about action films is that there’s something in there for everyone. Michael Bay fans get explosions, the menopausal women get to watch Jason Statham take his top off, my flatmate gets to tell me how you couldn’t actually drive a car into a helicopter and I get to spit on him.
If you don’t mind a bit of reading though, you’ll find that foreign-language action films are to our own what Louis Spence is to normal human beings: fundamentally the same but also completely and utterly insane.
Ghajini (India, 2008)
Sanjay Singhania is unable to remember things for more than fifteen minutes, and he’s on the hunt for the Ghajini, the man who killed the woman he loved. If that plot sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the screenplay for Memento with some names changed. But just like anything else we outsource to India, Ghajini works twice as hard at everything, which in this case includes violence and glorious song and dance.
Ghajini jumps between gritty action and saccharine rom-com at jarring speeds, but given that the story is split into a dual-narrative –wherein the present is seen through Sanjay’s angry, angry eyes but we are shown his past through the diary of his dead girlfriend when it was all roses and rainbow farts– then the conflicting styles serve only to emphasise (albeit ham-handedly) the shift in the main character’s psychology from humble man in love to furniture-hating madman.
I’m not going to lie, this is the only Bollywood film I have ever seen, but I understand it’s not uncommon for characters to break into song, and I’m cool with that; singing is as good a means as any to progress the narrative. What is important is context. When characters start singing, it comes out of nowhere.
One minute a man is pulling a 16-inch drillbit out of his thigh, the next he’s on a pier dressed in white slacks and a pastel shirt, singing about how your love is like the setting of the sun or something. If you were watching this on VHS, it’d be easy to assume that someone taped over half your film with the Indian top 40.
And it’s still kind of awesome because, despite the impromptu showtunes, Ghajini is all business. What money the movie didn’t spend on stunt men, it spent on hardwood furniture and slow-motion effects for every time someone is thrown through hardwood furniture, which is pretty much every time Sanjay is on screen. Also, and maybe it’s to do with the whole lack of stunt men thing, but no one in the Indian film industry has ever been taught how to throw a punch in any other way than like they absolutely mean it.
City of Violence (Korea, 2006)
The plot of City of Violence revolves around Tae-su, a policeman returning to his hometown to try and solve the murder of his friend Wang-jae, with the help of old friend/current debt-collector, Seok-hwan, but more than that it’s a film about how we change with age and sometimes forget who we really are and that sometimes that means getting beaten to death with a plaque. I can say with complete confidence that there has never in the history of anything been a title that more thoroughly described a films content.
Absolutely everything in City of Violence is solved through grievous bodily harm and wanton destruction of property. Want to answer the phone? Kick someone in the head. Fondly reminiscing about childhood memories? Remember the time you fought the entire student body of a rival school. Need to settle a dispute with your friend? Duct-tape your hands together and punch each other in the face until one of you can’t stand up. And much like Ghajini and also every single film I have ever seen come out of Korea, nobody here has ever heard of a stunt man or how to only make pretend that you are fighting.
When someone takes a crane kick to the chest in this film and falls over a balcony, he isn’t pretending to be hurt. And as soon as he’s broke for lunch and filmed the rest of his scenes for the day, he’s going straight to the hospital. You have to admire that Korean work ethic.
District 13 (France, 2004)
District 13 is a ruthlessly efficient film. About thirty seconds after things kick off, protagonist Leito has leapt out of more windows than the fictional Wall Street Crash bankers and started throwing himself off of roofs with an aggressive disregard for human ankles.
By the sixty second mark he has captured a drug kingpin and handed him over to the police who then release him because they are crooked. Then they try to arrest Leito because they’ve never seen what happens to bent coppers in action films. One of them then makes the double-error of saying ‘I’m three days away from retirement.’
After being sent to jail following the obvious conclusion of the previous scene, Leito teams up with an undercover policeman who has already proven his undercover abilities by infiltrating a crime syndicate dressed as Carlos Santana and piledriving someone through a roulette table. Because of course. Although initially reluctant to enter into a partnership, Leito changes his mind after finding out his sister has been kidnapped by the aforementioned drug kingpin who, in a Wile E. Coyote level of comic misunderstanding, has accidentally activated a bomb that is going to blow up the entire city.
What follows is an orgy of violence, acrobatics and car chases which serve only to remind us that all of the action heroes we grew up loving are now old and slow and crash cars into helicopters or make unbelievably sad films emphasising that their glory days are over, and reminding us that death comes for us all. Thanks a lot, France.
Tony Jaa’s Entire Career
In a world where no action film can go five minutes without some weepy exposition to justify a character’s actions (dead wife, betrayed by the country he loved, save the community centre) Tony Jaa is the only man with the balls to spin round and snap-kick the skull of logic and reason into submission.
Tony Jaa is what happens when you mix wolverine blood in a centrifuge with a Bruce Lee poster. He is a walking advert for the concept of survival of the fittest; a feat he repeatedly demonstrates by destroying every human being that comes into contact with him; either by punching all their favourite Christmases out the side of their brain or eye-fucking them into oblivion.
The point I’m making is that, as an actor and film-maker, Tony Jaa knows that feelings are for women and pussies. Coincidentally, he also knows exactly which part of your body to punch so that you can never feel love again.
One of the main boasts routinely featured on the covers of his films is that he doesn’t use wires, stunt doubles or CGI, and I believe it. There is no computer in the world that would let you program half the shit he gets away with in his films because for all wants an purposes doing a backflip onto an elephant should be physically impossible.
Tony Jaa chairs screenplay meetings the same way a five year old plays with action figures, abiding by two simple tenets: fuck everything and anything goes. In Ong Bak, Tony Jaa plays Ting and goes to the big city to retrieve his village’s statue. In Warrior King, Tony Jaa plays Kham and goes to Australia to retrieve his elephant. In Ong Bak II, Tony Jaa plays the collective cast of Street Fighter II and goes fucking insane.
One of the things I love about foreign cinema is that they don’t demand every film have a happy ending; most of the time the best you can hope for is that the good guy at least finds redemption before getting beaten to death. You might have noticed that in Western cinema, no matter how dire the stakes, the hero will never be harmed in any way that doesn’t make him look hard as shit. Even in Rambo 2, he only gets tortured enough to prove what a pussy the guy twice his size is for dying straight away.
Tony Jaa has never made a film where he doesn’t spend at least half his screentime getting beaten to a bloody pulp. This might not sound like great cinema, but unlike the training montages we’re used to, watching someone take a beating up until the point they find an opponent’s weakness then destroy them is infinitely more satisfying than just watching a load of sit-ups against a Paul Stanley soundtrack.
The only time a montage appears in Ong Bak II is when Tony Jaa is simultaneously mastering nine different martial arts, culminating in him fighting a witch that might also be a raven, I don’t know, it’s never really explained but he kicks the shit out of her. Then he goes to a slave village, gets drunk and batters everyone he can. I think at one point he tries to assassinate a king by dancing at him for five minutes then throwing a barrage of grenades. Then he fights the bird lady again and sort of dies. Spoilers, by the way.
Tony Jaa is what they show in Malaysian schools to explain natural selection. To explain Tony Jaa, they show Bloodsport and then execute the strongest student in the class.