Are Action Movies Ruining Martial Arts?

In New York Magazine, Kyle Buchanan laments the decline of the modern action movie:

…Actors often brag about how much Krav Maga or karate or capoeira they had to learn for their roles, but to judge from the onscreen world of modern action movies, that kind of skill set is hardly rare: A built-in understanding of martial arts is instilled in everyone, be they hero, villain, or mere henchman. (Fortunately, heroes always get to fight off bad guys who somehow know the exact same form of martial arts they do.) Too often, it seems like movies grind to a halt for obligatory hand-to-hand combat with low stakes and little invention, as though the screenwriter typed, “A fight breaks out,” and the director left it up to the second unit and fight coordinator to fill three minutes.

With little in the way of stakes, a sameness in presentation, and no blood or bruises, martial arts have turned action scenes into dance scenes…Gone are the days when a fight might involve a gun, a makeshift weapon, or a hit that actually hurts.

Mr. Buchanan misremembers the history of violence in cinema.

Before The Matrix ignited our current wuxia craze, with its improbable spinning kicks and high-precision fisticuffs, how did our heroes show their combat prowess? Primarily, as I recall, with a bullet-deflecting aura, flawless aim, and a bottomless clip.

In other words, these earlier fights were conducted with magical talismans, and not any representative of actual firearms. Imagine Harry Potter with a five o’clock shadow, versus an army of cross-eyed dragons that can’t shoot straight. In whose eyes were these gun battles any more realistic, or exciting, than (even formulaic and poorly choreographed) hand-to-hand combat? Within which paradigm it easiest for us to suspend disbelief, or to empathize?

America has always been uncomfortable with self-cultivation myths. The power of the cowboy, our original American superhero, flowed through his sidearm–and we are apparently meant to imagine he cast it himself, along with all the ammunition; but in contrast to legendary Eastern kung fu masters, our storied independence was always a product of the general store.

Superstar Jackie Chan, for example, is a real-life product of long and bitter kung fu training, and in the films that built his career, many of his characters share a similar background. Whereas, when courting an American audience, his movie plots too often concern a cybernetic tuxedo, or a magical medallion. (If you’ve seen either of these, then you know that twice is already too often.)

Fortunately for martial arts fans, not all on-screen violence is mediated by technology. While today’s hand-to-hand combat can be frantic, yet implausibly sterile, some scenes from decades past are unintentionally hilarious. Star Trek is a prime example, illustrating that there never was a greatest generation, or a golden age for violent action.

So what are the crucial truths about fighting and martial arts that popular movies obscure? First, that there is any difference at all between fighting and martial arts. Second, that there is a difference between fighting for dominance, and fighting for survival; even when lives are at stake, action movie heroes are more concerned with displays of personal heroism (no surprise here), and less with pragmatism or efficiency. Third, that a “successful” overt action is, at best, a rectification of previous failures at covert influence…

How are martial arts and the entertainment industry influencing each other? Is either improving, or corrupting the other? What do you think?


  1. well action movies today are becoming impossible goals for new martial artists, because they all want to be able to take on nonstop enemies in the coolest looking manner, although say 10 opponents will never attack one at a time, but all at once. what then, i dont care how fast you are, its not gonna happen. i stopped watching modern action movies a long time ago and prefer just regular practical sparring and boxing matches…well maybe a few movies here and there!

  2. Great post! I think that martial arts and the movie industry are intrinsically linked, with both influencing each other in different ways (life imitating art and vice-versa). I just wish that both would become more realistic but then again if they showed the less glamourous side, where the good doesn’t always win, it wouldn’t be so popular.

  3. The movies will always be the movies where the stories and the action are mostly unreal and overdone, tragically some people believe what they see and sometimes try out the violent acts that impress them on innocent victims. Realistic movie fighting would not be impressive enough for the majority of people as it would be only consist of very short self defensive initiatives with very basic techniques and appeal to only a few.

  4. There is a difference between fighting for dominance, and fighting for survival. Martial arts and the movie industry are intrinsically linked, with both influencing each other in different ways.

  5. I don’t believe entertainment has the power to influence martial arts. Martial arts have been around for thousands of years, how could an industry that imitates them have an influence over them?

  6. Martial arts in the movies does create some false sense of reality. But I am willing to bet their fortunes are heavily intertwined as I am sure enrollment in martial art classes spikes after a related blockbuster!

  7. The problem inherent in certain action films(one exception being Black Belt made in Japan) is that untrained people are misled about the work and dedication it takes to live the martial lifestyle.

    You can teach anyone basic self defense in 3-6 months. But to master the mind body connection it takes a lifetime and some never achieve that.

  8. I personally dislike the influence that movies have on the martial arts. Think about it for a moment. When these movies come out with the flashy shows, displays, and perfect timing then it creates an image in the general public that makes them think that’s how martial arts is supposed to be. But it not. As previous comments show, a real fight shouldn’t take three minutes against one opponent but a few well placed strikes and your opponent is on the ground or at the least disarmed and thinking twice about attacking again. How does this image influence martial arts? Simple, the martial arts are expensive and rather difficult to make a living off of alone. A sensei lives off of his paying students, and if his paying students only want to learn the flashy show they see in the movies then that’s what he’ll teach if he needs the money. I’m not saying this will happen in all dojos, but I’ve been to a few and the majority taught more about the flash and the tournaments (which is how you get noticed by Hollywood) than the reality of a fight and how to survive it. Maybe it’s just my limited perception of the area in which I live and just the dojos around here, but I’ve only found one that truly teaches the art in a classical manner that gives me a great deal of confidence that I can survive a real fight.

  9. I am with Entertainment like in movies will attract new generations to seriously get into martial arts. It takes a simple sign up or get 2 week trial and go from there. Remember to train hard and you will get what you expected base from the martial arts movies.

  10. Thanks for elucidating on a very interesting topic. I personally feel that martial art that includes hand-to-hand combat and mind-blowing blows or punch and kicks are more realistic than gun fights. Viewers are also more excited when they found the heroes performing karate, judo or flying kicks in defeating the wicked character. Performance of the unrivalled martial arts superstar Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon is still a visual treat for many martial arts lovers. If the hero is carrying a gun, we somewhat feel he is armed, hence safe. However, with the advent of technology in all fields, action movies just cannot overlook advanced techniques to make the fighting scene of a movie more appealing. It is not bad to uplift an action movie technically, where the director can show advanced weapons. But at the same time the fighting scenes should be well balanced with spectacular martial arts performance. It will take the movie to a new height. It is the best way martial arts and entertainment industry could complement each other.

  11. What i don’t like is how western action movies butcher the fight scenes with shaky camera scenes, what I am trying to say is, have you ever watched a fight where the camera is constantly darting around doing closeups of legs and arms and by the end of the fight the bad guys are writhing around on the ground and the good guy is still standing, you know he won obviously but your not quite sure how it happened..

    Now I am not saying all western movies are like this for example in undisputed part 2 the action sequences were choreogaphed beautifully, perfect camera angles and talented martial artists, ironically that movie went straight to dvd…

  12. I think that movies are just immensely inspired of the martial art practice so they create a creative way of showing the art to people.

  13. Not Literally. We like what we see. Like when we see an inspirational movie we start to act like we learn something from the movie that could help us improve our personal life. In that way if we watch an action movie, maybe that inspire many people to learn the art of Martial. So I can say action movies can be a way to inspire youngsters to learn martial arts.

  14. I was attacked by a dude, turns out it was a messy scrap… I knew enough to get him off of me, and escape it seems at least!!! The movies always make it look so clean and organized, meanwhile IRL it is usually just chaos…

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