Monday, June 19, 2006

Rapid Fire

Rapid Fire is not a great film. It's not even Brandon Lee's best film (I'd give that honour to The Crow). To modern eyes, used to the acrobatics of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it's not even a great martial arts film.

But ...

Back in 1992 Brandon Lee was being hailed as "The action star of the nineties." Admittedly this was by his publicist but even so it sounded good. Not everyone was impressed by this title however, I remember one film journalist claiming that Lee was actually kind of useless and only received his grandiose tag through being the son of a genuine action hero, the late, great Bruce Lee. Whilst it's true that at this point Lee hadn't really done much to justify his publicist's enthusiasm it should be pointed out that the other action stars of the period were Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal. Van Damme's fight scenes consisted almost entirely of fancy kicks filmed in slow motion and lame punches which were filmed from various angles and then edited together quickly in a vain attempt to con people into thinking that he was doing something dynamic rather than just sticking his arm out and waiting for the stuntman to fall down. Still, at least he used to get hit during his fight scenes. Seagal was invincible, destroying his opponents with bone-crunching wristlocks whilst never getting his hair mussed. Both Van Damme's and Seagal's schticks quickly became dull and repetitive. They set the standard for early 90s Hollywood fight scenes. Limited repetoire, limited entertainment.

Then Lee came along.

His fights in Rapid Fire displayed a wider range of techniques than Van Damme and Seagal combined had shown in their entire films up that date. And with a flair that completely surpassed the other two action stars.

Here's why.

Due to his famous father Lee had a love/hate relationship with martial arts. He wanted to define himself by his own standards rather than become a pale imitation of his father. But eventually he returned to the martial arts with a genuine desire to learn. He studied with Dan Inosanto, one of his father's closest friends and one of the most highly respected martial artists in the world. Inosanto taught him Jun Fan, the style of kung fu Bruce Lee developed. (The terminology actually gets a little tricky here. People normally refer to Bruce Lee's style as Jeet Kune Do but in some respects that was more the ideal state of martial arts perfection that he sought to attain. Although JKD is the more commonly used term most instructors I'm aware of refer to the specific art as Jun Fan. Furthermore they will break it down into Jun Fan Gung Fu (kung fu) and Jun Fan kickboxing.)

Inosanto also taught Lee Filipino martial arts utilising fists, elbows, kicks, locks, throws, sticks, knives and pretty much anything else you can think of. Lee also studied Muay Thai (Thai boxing), gaining an instructor's certificate. He also trained in kung fu with the instructor he met on the set of Kung Fu: The Movie. (Ironically Kung Fu was based on a concept created by Bruce Lee for a series called The Warrior. Lee Sr never got to make the series as the TV networks felt audiences wouldn't accept an Asian hero.)

Brandon Lee got to demonstrate his martial skills in real life when he disturbed a burglar who was robbing his apartment. The burglar grabbed a knife from Lee's kitchen and tried to stab him. Lee took the knife off him and restrained him until police arrived. The encounter left him with a scar on the web of his thumb.

Lee was also a fan of Jackie Chan films. This gave him a different outlook to the pseudo-realism of Van Damme and Seagal. He wanted his fights to be entertaining. This was enhanced by the acrobatics he performed in Showdown in Little Tokyo in which he starred alongside Dolph Lundgren. Lundgren was a real life full contact karate champion so his style was based on power whereas the lanky Lee pulled off the gymnastics required by fight choreographer Pat Johnson. (For all you chop socky nerds Johnson appeared in Enter the Dragon as the leader of the henchmen that menace John Saxon on the golf course -- "You take advantage, Roper." He was also the fight choreographer and Pat Morita's stunt double on The Karate Kid.')

On top of this Lee actually trained to be an actor, appearing in theatre and auditioning for screen roles outside of the action genre. Whilst I'm not convinced that he was a great actor (although obviously we'll never know what he could have gone on to achieve) he had an expressive face and his lithe physique meant that he wouldn't look out of place playing Everyman characters in the way that Arnie and Stallone did whenever they tried to broaden their range.

All this meant that in Rapid Fire Lee had a wide array of talents and experiences to draw upon.

He punched, he kicked. He used knife defences and staffs. He used his environment -- kicking doors shut in his opponents' faces, swinging open freezer doors to catch people in the jaw, sliding across the floor to kick a coffee table up into a gunman's face, running people down with a motorcycle, smacking a foe around with a clothes rack (these last two stolen from Jackie Chan's Police Story). He demonstrated Jun Fan trapping techniques against veteran stuntman Al Leong. He performed a backward somersault (albeit after a boost from Judo Gene LeBell, the man who taught Bruce Lee how to grapple.) He twisted foes' arms into painful wristlocks, he smashed through bannisters with a Thai round kick.

And then there's the small stuff for the Bruce Lee connoisseurs. Like when he is centre of the screen, his hands a blur as opponents crumple in agony on the edge of the frame as they did before his father's fists in Enter the Dragon. The Powers Boothe line, "Why don't you take your fists of fury outside?" The prolonged emoting after dispatching a foe. And the beautiful use of the Bruce Lee concept of longest weapon to the nearest target where he blasts a lead leg kick into his opponent's knee, using the motion to bring him into range to snap a lead hand punch into his face.

All this combined to make Rapid Fire the best Hollywood martial arts film of the early nineties. Of course by the end of the decade The Matrix made Lee's effort look less than brilliant.

But just remember what else passed for brilliant martial arts in the early nineties. If it's between Rapid Fire and Van Damme and Seagal's efforts I'll go for Rapid Fire every time.

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