Why East Beats West When It Comes To Action-Comedy

Thanks to Kung Fu Comedy, Hollywood still can't match Hong Kong
Why East Beats West When It Comes To Action-Comedy

The surprise hit film of 2022 thus far unsurprisingly came from indie darling production and distribution company A24, but it probably wasn’t the film they expected (or hoped) would be their big splash of the year. Despite the auteur studio’s efforts to make Robert Eggers’ high fantasy revenge story The Northman their blockbuster breakout into the mainstream, the sci fi action-comedy sensation Everything Everywhere All at Once is not only A24’s most watched film of 2022 – it is also their highest grossing film of all time.

Everything Everywhere All at Once succeeds at one of the most ambitious attempts of genre-bending that we’ve ever seen by combining the in vogue science fiction that dominates Western media with the intricate, formal, and physical spectacle of a classic Kung Fu Comedy. The film revitalized the tired action-comedy format and exposed one simple truth – the East does it better.

Fun fact – Everything Everywhere All at Once was originally written for Jackie Chan to play the lead, which is a logical choice for a screenwriter making an action-comedy – if you were putting together a basketball team, wouldn’t your first pick be LeBron James? Jackie is the king of Kung Fu Comedy, as the brilliant team at “Every Frame a Painting” have already explained.

Compare Jackie’s performances – specifically his roles in Hong Kong cinema – to an American action-comedy hero like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The classic, tried-and-true formula for a comedy scene in a play, movie, TV show, opera, etc. is to pair a high status character with a low status one, hence why The Rock keeps finding himself in movies with Kevin Hart – literally “high” and “low”.

Jackie Chan is the king of action-comedy because he excels in low-status roles. In 1978, he starred in two action-comedy films, Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle's Shadow. These films were hugely important in launching the career of a young Jackie as well as kickstarting the Kung Fu Comedy genre itself. 

In Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Jackie played a bullied and abused janitor at a kung fu school who learns a unique fighting style from an old beggar on the street, and in Drunken Master, he plays a lazy, lecherous ne’er do well who – well – learns a unique fighting style from an old drunk on the street. In both films, Jackie is beaten, abused, shamed, and humiliated for comedic effect right up until he triumphs in the final battle. 

Jackie didn’t stop playing low-status after he became a star. He realized the value of having an underdog in an action movie, and he understood that slapstick comedy requires the hero to get slapped from time to time. Contrast this with The Rock, whose contract stipulates that his characters cannot lose fights and are only allowed to take a certain number of hits. This tough guy image protection clause not only limits the kinds of roles The Rock can play, but even ended his involvement in the Fast and the Furious franchise because he and Vin Diesel couldn’t agree on who would win in a fight. Time and time again, Jackie Chan has put his body on the line to take an on-screen beating while American stars assign points values to punches for fear of injuring their egos.

Physical humor should be an essential aspect of action-comedy, but since Hollywood hunks can’t be bothered to sell a punch, it severely hampers the slapstick elements of these films. Imagine how bad The Three Stooges would be if Moe had a stipulation in his contract that capped the number of eye-pokes he'd endure. As a result, action-comedy filmmakers in the West just write scripts that alternate between funny scenes and action sequences with the occasional quip to cut the tension.

Look at a film like Kung Fu Hustle, a movie Bill Murray called “the supreme achievement of modern comedy.” The plot centers around a wanna-be gangster Sing, played by the director Steven Chow, who accidentally incurs the wrath of a dangerous criminal organization upon the annoyed and mildly inconvenienced denizens of Pigsty Alley. Each fight scene is used to characterize the colorful cast of misfits, set up visual gags, and escalate each motif to its most outrageous extreme.

Watch this alongside one of the better action-comedies America has put out in the last ten years in Guardians of the Galaxy. Guardians is probably the funniest film in a massive franchise where seemingly every movie is trying to be an action-comedy. Still, the laughs almost entirely come in the quiet spaces between fight scenes – or the brief dances that interrupt them – not from the action itself.

Finally, one of the most crucial elements that sets Hong Kong cinema apart from its American counterpart is the visual language of these films as it relates to fight choreography. The average American moviegoer probably couldn’t tell you the difference between karate and kung fu, and they subconsciously view all martial arts as these mystical, unknowable, sacred fighting styles mastered only by true prodigies like Steven Seagal. Fight scenes in American movies are simply sloppier than they are in Asian cinema, partially because we generally don’t have the literacy to see fights as anything more than a collection of punches, kicks, and the occasional throwing of the guy across the room instead of just smashing him head first on the floor.

Another factor in this failure to film good fights is that they are simply too time-consuming for most American studios to justify matching the meticulous nature of Hong Kong’s choreography. Look at a scene as iconic as the “Ladder Fight” in Jackie Chan’s 1996 film First Strike – scenes like this take days-to-weeks just to choreograph, let alone film. Hong Kong filmmakers are able to plant as many visual gags as they do because the time and effort put into these action sequences during filming offer opportunities for these details to be included. When American studios wash out their battle scenes with these big, blaring, CGI scatter shots, our focus is constantly pulled from shiny thing to shiny thing, and any subtle visual jokes that they sandwich between explosions fly right over our heads like a thousand animated cruise missiles.

In an era of Western cinema that is dominated by action movies that think they can be comedies, films like Everything Everywhere All at Once remind us that action-comedy doesn’t have to be a verse-and-chorus where the movie switches back and forth between serious action sequences and big buff dudes saying silly things. All of the elements of an action film, from character to choreography, can and should be played for laughs if American filmmakers want to match the mastery of their counterparts in Hong Kong.

It’s refreshing to see an artist like Michelle Yeoh – herself a contemporary of Jackie Chan – bring the scrupulous gift of funny fighting to an American-produced project. We’re not going to spoil the biggest laughs in the film, but some of her fight scenes in Everything Everywhere All at Once make Guardians of the Galaxy look like Sophie’s Choice.

We sincerely hope that Everything Everywhere All at Once ushers in a sort of renaissance for American action-comedy films inspired by Hong Kong cinema. Movies like Rush Hour and Big Trouble in Little China immensely benefited from their influences, and, honestly, there’s nothing Hollywood needs more right now than for a new Jackie Chan to show all these Hemsworths, Diesels, and “The Rock” Johnsons how to take a joke – and a punch.

Top Image: A24

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