Wu Jing, now a massive action star, was in the first Kill Zone, the 2005 Donnie Yen vehicle that helped translate MMA street fights into cinematic language. Wu wasn’t the main star of that movie, but he had a memorable role as a villainous, knife-wielding henchman with bleached hair and all-white clothes. His final fight is an absolute classic: a fast, brutal, bloody back-alley throw-down against Yen. It ends with Wu dying in a particularly nasty way. But 11 years later, Wu Jing returned for Kill Zone 2. And he was the hero. Simon Yam, the sad-eyed Hong Kong veteran actor from all those great Johnnie To movies, was in the first Kill Zone, too, and though he likewise doesn’t make it to the end of the movie, he came back for the sequel as well.
As sequels go, Kill Zone 2 (which opened in some places in 2015 but which most of the world got to see in 2016) is a funny case. It’s a different story, with different characters, some of whom are played by the same actors. Wilson Yip, the director of the first Kill Zone, was a producer on the sequel, but he ceded directing duties to Cheang Pou-soi, a Johnnie To protégé who came up doing horror movies. The two stories aren’t connected in any way, but the two movies feel similar. They’re both dark, violent, vaguely noir cop movies with compromised loyalties, imperiled children, and remorselessly cold-blooded crime-boss villains. They’re both full of people dying while baleful classical music plays. And—most importantly, for the purposes of this column—both have insane, beautiful, groundbreaking fight scenes, scenes so elaborate and athletic and balletic that they both feel fresh and new. So maybe Kill Zone isn’t a narrative. Maybe it’s a feeling.
In the case of that first Kill Zone, the big innovation was MMA. When the world was still learning how it looks when people are really, really good at fighting, Donnie Yen, a big MMA fan, was figuring out how to inject armbars and double-leg takedowns into a more traditional martial-arts movie fight. In Kill Zone 2, the fighting is less about realism, more about some sort of fast, blurry, visceral fever dream. The fights don’t happen in alleys. They happen in places lit so brightly that they don’t seem real: a cruise-ship depot, say, or an impossibly swanky Thai penthouse that’s been converted into an operating room. And the fighters themselves represent some of the best that Asian cinema has to offer.
That brings us to Tony Jaa, quite possibly the greatest action star to emerge this century. A 27-year-old Jaa had his breakout in 2003’s Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, a Thai martial-arts romp that made up for its exceedingly simple story by offering some absolutely mind-blowing action scenes. Jaa was an expert in muay thai, and his fighting style—all knees and elbows, strikes that looked a lot harder and more legit than the whirling kicks of Hong Kong movies—seemed grislier and deadlier than anything that had been on screen before. He also did all sorts of crazy stunts, leaping over cars or vaulting his way through a crowded outdoor market. Jaa followed Ong-Bak up with The Protector, in which he fought to the top of a spiral staircase in one single, jaw-dropping tracking shot.
For a while, Tony Jaa seemed like he could be this generation’s Jackie Chan. Then he went away. Jaa feuded with his studio while directing two basically-incomprehensible Ong-Bak sequels, and then, for a few years at his peak, he became a Buddhist monk. When he returned to movies, he started to show up on American screens, but in ways that didn’t take full advantage of his talents. Upon the news that Jaa would be in Furious 7, my mind reeled; I imagined him kicking a car in half, or riding an elephant in a car chase. Instead, he’s barely in the movie, and Paul Walker kills him in a fistfight. Jaa got more to do in Dolph Lundgren’s good-not-great straight-to-DVD movie Skin Trade. But it turned out that Jaa got his greatest non-Thai role—and quite possibly his best role ever—in a Hong Kong movie, not an American one.
In Kill Zone 2, Jaa is a Thai prison guard with a sick daughter. The warden at the prison turns out to work for a Hong Kong organ-harvesting syndicate, and so Jaa has to decide whether he’ll do the right thing, helping the trapped Hong Kong cop shut it all down, or whether he’ll accept the free organ for his daughter. Jaa made his name playing small-town kids fighting their way into big, corrupt Thai cities. His whole persona was “deadly naif.” Kill Zone 2 requires him to show fear and pathos. The movie finds interesting ways to work around the fact that its leads speak different languages; Jaa mostly communicates with Wu via a translation app. But he and Wu eventually find a great action-buddy chemistry. Still, Jaa is in the movie because he’s one of the great all-time screen fighters, and even a minor scene like Jaa’s first fight against Wu brings the fireworks.
And it’s not just Jaa. The movie is full of absolutely ridiculous screen fighters. Wu Jing is a Jet Li type, fast and precise and absolutely convincing when he goes into surreal wire work. (The movie’s use of wires takes away the realism, but realism was never the point anyway, and it gives it a dreamlike quality.) As the evil prison warden, the former stuntman Zhang Jin is fussy and angular. He always fights without taking off his jacket or even loosening his tie, he rarely changes his facial expression, and he wields spikes in between his fingers. He’s great. As a henchman with no eyebrows, Zhang Chi does things with knives that rival what Wu Jing did in the first Kill Zone.
In terms of story, Kill Zone 2 does that traditional Hong Kong thing where it mixes extreme violence with mawkish displays of sentimentality and little in the way of actual narrative logic. In one breathtaking leap, we’re asked to believe that Wu Jing was always planning to donate his bone marrow to Jaa’s daughter, even though they’ve never met and they live in different countries and Wu was pretty busy with the whole undercover-cop life. The evil crime boss, meanwhile, is so evil that he’s planning on stealing his own brother’s heart. It’s the sort of movie where the villains know they’re villains, where they say things like, “You killed your own daughter. Chop him up and feed him to the dogs.” There’s also a CGI wolf, and after a couple of viewings, I still have no idea what that thing is doing in there.
But none of that matters because the action scenes are so next-level. The shoot-out in the cruise-ship depot is stressful and chaotic, and it gets across its story without relying on language. The final fight in the bright-white penthouse goes on forever and gets progressively more amazing as it carries on. Even a quick, insignificant kidnapping sequence that doesn’t feature any of the main characters is absolutely jammed with horrifying knife murders. But the movie’s real show-stopping masterpiece is a prison brawl, with long takes of bodies flying everywhere and the main characters all revealing that they’re basically superheroes. A couple of years after The Raid 2 featured the greatest prison fight ever put to film, Kill Zone 2 found a way to top it. It’s breathtaking, and most of it, sadly, isn’t on YouTube.
Maybe that’s the future for action movies: The best screen fighters from around the world squaring off in dream-match scenarios, sort of like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in Way Of The Dragon. Kill Zone 2 has a big, operatic storyline and some innovative uses of location, but the fights themselves are what sets it apart, what makes it the most important action movie of 2016. And as the action-movie world continues to get smaller, we’ll hopefully get more movies like that. Next year, Jaa will star with The Raid’s Iko Uwais, Man Of Tai Chi’s Tiger Chen, and the straight-to-DVD kings Scott Adkins and Michael Jai White in Triple Threat, a movie from the American director Jesse V. Johnson. That could be incredible, or it could be some Expendables malarky. Either way, I’ll be watching.
Other notable 2016 action movies: I came very close to granting 2016 honors to Jeremy Saulnier’s gut-churning punks-vs.-Nazis indie Green Room. That’s partly because I love that movie to pieces and because I want to reclaim Green Room for action cinema. People tend to refer to it as a thriller or even a horror movie, but it’s an Assault On Precinct 13 scenario with a drummer who does jiujitsu; I think it counts. And Green Room turned out to be awfully prescient with its choice of villains. A little more than a year after the movie came out, actual Nazis drove a car into a crowd of people a few blocks away from the Charlottesville theater where I saw the movie. But I tend to think of classic action movies as being, in one way or another, escapist, and there’s nothing escapist in Green Room’s relentless grimness.
I also came close to writing the 2016 column about Tim Miller’s Deadpool, the movie that brought both meta gross-out humor and R-rated bloodletting back into the superhero movie realm. But Deadpool is still more of a superhero movie than an action flick, and maybe more of a comedy than either.
In any case, 2016 was a weird year for the American action movie, and a lot of what came out was good. Shane Black, the onetime Lethal Weapon writer, directed The Nice Guys, a relentlessly charming and funny Ryan Gosling-Russell Crowe detective movie that had some absolutely raw action scenes. Mel Gibson, still in Hollywood exile before making his big return as a director, starred in a shockingly great B-movie called Blood Father. (There are many bad things about Gibson’s return to respectability, and one of them is that he probably won’t make any more movies like that.) Antoine Fuqua shot his Magnificent Seven remake more as an action movie than a Western. It was widely shit on, but I thought it was pretty good. Hardcore Henry attempted to tell a whole action-movie story from a first-person point of view; it’s a noble, if disorienting, experiment. And Ben Affleck starred in Gavin O’Connor’s The Accountant, a deeply strange movie about a John Wick-esque master killer who’s also an autistic math whiz and who works as an elite money launderer for various criminal syndicates. The movie was already plenty weird before its final plot twists, which pushed it over the edge into total surreality.
There were sequels. Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass returned to franchise-land for Jason Bourne, a movie that cranked up the confusion and labyrinthine plotting of previous Bourne movies a little too much. Tom Cruise made the square-jawed, watchable Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, a movie that plays out a bit like a big-budget, satisfying episode of some imaginary Law & Order offshoot. Netflix enlisted legendary martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping to direct Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword Of Destiny, a movie (bafflingly shot in English) which had none of the stillness or gravitas of Ang Lee’s original but which was a lot of fun on its own terms anyway. London Has Fallen was a right-wing fantasy about a global terrorist takeover. It sucked.
Sequels also dominated America’s straight-to-DVD scene. An impressive array of action-movie luminaries (including Jean-Claude Van Damme in the old-teacher role) assembled for the quasi-remake Kickboxer: Vengeance, not quite succeeding in turning former stuntman Alain Moussi into a star in the process. Scott Adkins took over Van Damme’s old role in Hard Target 2, which never came close to the excess of the John Woo original but which was still very watchable. And Michael Jai White took over as director for Never Back Down: No Surrender, turning the franchise into a global MMA saga. But my favorite of the year’s straight-to-DVD movies were originals. Eliminators had Scott Adkins as an undercover cop with a cute daughter, a dead wife, and a pissed-off crime-lord father-in-law. And Lady Bloodfight tells the classic fighting-tournament story beautifully, doing it with an almost all-female cast.
Sequels dominated in Hong Kong, too. Other than Kill Zone 2, the year’s biggest action movie was Ip Man 3, in which Donnie Yen returned to his most iconic role. In one of the best, strangest scenes, he faces off against an American gangster/businessman type, who is played by Mike Tyson. And then there’s My Beloved Bodyguard, in which Sammo Hung plays an aging fighter who’s suffering from dementia. South Korea, meanwhile, gave us the gonzo crime movie Asura: The City Of Madness and the historical espionage flick Age Of Shadows. The Japanese movie Re:Born told a John Wick-style story about an assassin so good at his job that he’s basically supernatural. And the Indian movie Baaghi essentially reimagined The Raid as if it had come from Bollywood.
Next time: I close this column in January with Wolf Warrior 2, which turns Wu Jing into the Chinese Rambo and grosses nearly a billion dollars globally, showing America that other places have learned how to do the action blockbuster better than it can.