Not everyone has karate skills that translate to film. If they did, then everyone would be Jean-Claude Van Damme. And now that I've given Jean-Claude Van Damme the plot for his next movie, let's talk about some of his colleagues. These are the action stars who, regardless of any real-life martial arts experience or toughness, never seemed able to put together a convincing fight scene.
In 1972, David Carradine was hired as the star of the show Kung Fu, supposedly because Bruce Lee looked too Chinese. There was hardly any kung fu in the show, which was lucky, since Carradine fought like a gentle current pushing a corpse against a rock. His character used combat as a way to spread peaceful enlightenment, probably because by the time one of his punches landed, no one could remember why anyone was fighting.
Despite attacking with the fury of a beginner tango class, Carradine was typecast as a martial artist and went on to film hundreds of clumsy slow motion kung fu battles. He fought Chuck Norris, James Remar, Rick Springfield, Al Leong ... he even had his own cardio karate workout video where you could stand and breathe your way to Shaolin fitness.
He eventually learned how to perform martial arts, but never managed to make it look like they'd hurt. The only thing slower than a David Carradine karate chop was the editing process for one of his fight scenes. If you didn't use eight camera cuts and a perfectly wigged stuntman for every attack, his battles looked like Tom Petty politely trading business cards with someone. It took David Carradine longer than a minute to throw a kick and, in what would be his undoing, longer than one masturbation session to get his neck out of a belt. It got to the point where the editors of Kung Fu seemed to be using the slow motion effect just to make fun of him. Take a look at the absurdly unnecessary use of slow motion in this scene and tell me I'm wrong:
When you picture the kind of filmmaker who would write, direct and produce a movie just to cast himself in the lead role of martial arts master rock star, you're picturing David Heavener (Lethal Ninja, Kill Crazy). Undiscovered actresses take one look at him and know his first question is going to be unzipping his pants. If evil scientists collected all the sperm from Hollywood casting room couches and jammed it into Tori Spelling, David Heavener is the beast that would hatch from her chestplate. I understand that the last half of this sentence will sound like I'm kidding, but Heavener is the man in this fight who isn't in a dress or a wheelchair:
Heavener is a living Tim and Eric sketch, and his fight scenes are violent mockeries of violence. It's often hard to tell if Heavener is trying to punch someone in the face or knock the boom mic above their heads out of frame. He makes battles against enemy ninjas look less exciting than battles against tile mildew. His co-stars have no idea how to react to him, since they can't tell when he's throwing an actual kick or just adjusting his pantyhose against their ribs. Luckily, he makes up for it with his incredible parkour. Prepare yourself as best you can for Outlaw Force:
People started calling Fred Williamson "The Hammer" during his professional football career, and when you think about how many gigantic men were trying to get that same nickname to stick, you'll realize that this achievement is the closest thing a person can get to a Nobel Prize in Badassery. This is a man who has crippled dozens of offensive linemen and starred in three movies that have the N-word right in their titles. And yet despite how terrifying that is to me, I'm still choosing to say that a Fred Williamson fight scene looks like two people with cerebral palsy feeding each other.
There are several reasons for these bad action sequences. First of all, he had to hold back so much to not kill his co-stars. If he wanted, Fred Williamson could kick your ass so hard that nine months after you die, your wife would give birth to his foot. Full-powered Fred Williamson attacks are the second ingredient in Taco Bell ground beef.
The other reason Fred's fight scenes suffered is that it takes a lot of Hollywood magic to get martial arts to look right on film. It's a collaborative effort between the choreographer, stuntmen, cinematographer and editor. Most of Fred Williamson's movies were made in Italy by his own production company, and his movies had budgets smaller than a family in a D.L. Hughley punchline. Fred Williamson can make a movie with 75 cents and a dirty look. The only drawbacks are that most of the extras are pedestrians gaping into the camera, a few of the main characters are Italian security guards asking everyone to leave, and if you ever see anything explode, that probably wasn't on purpose.
Still, anyone can admire the frugality in this scene from Black Cobra 3. Both the soundtrack and the dialogue were legally too stupid to pay for, and Fred massacres a gang in a grocery store while destroying only one candle, one package of cookies and one roll of toilet paper. If Fred Williamson made John Carter, it would have been called Spaceman Brown: Chocolate m**********r, and it would have turned a $250 million profit.
For four seasons of Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter taught the world how to get turned on by terrible fighting. You know, that might be why my yellow belt test involved so much mouth stuff.
I have no idea how Eric Roberts has been cast so many times as a martial artist. He fights like an interpretive dance about coming out to your father. The only fight I've seen him in that had any believability is this one from By the Sword, where he loses a gentleman's slap fight to aged Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham.
Eric Roberts has a reputation for changing choreography to suit his limited arsenal of attacks, which may explain why his character in Best of the Best, the captain of the American taekwondo team, uses only female rape-prevention techniques. In Dead or Alive, a stunt man stands in for so many of his moves that his face is like a special guest star that only shows up at the beginning and end of his fights.
Of the 300 Turkish movies Cuneyt Arkin has starred in, 400 of them are about jump kicks. No one on the planet has spent more time filming themselves do karate. Turkish scientists use Cuneyt's spectacular kicks to calibrate their earthquake warning systems, a complicated array of seasoned goat meats suspended in milk. With his unprecedented level of karate experience, his fight scenes should be breathtaking displays of precision, but they are nuttier than a Turkish seismologist in a room full of uncalibrated goat meat.
Really take in the vision that is Cuneyt Arkin. Does a man that handsome look like he could harm someone? His hands and feet were put on this Earth not to hurt us but to pull us closer for his moist kiss. This becomes very clear once you start watching him fight. He is so gentle to his co-stars that most of his films are sold as erotic massage videos. By the time you finish a Turkish action movie, you'll have seen Cuneyt Arkin delicately finger at least one ninja to orgasm. And there's no way to fix things like that in post. Turkish film editing is an imprecise process that involves placing the original camera negative under wizards while they sleep and hoping they dream about good harvests.
A lot of kung fu films use wire effects to make it look like the performers can fly or jump high. In Turkey, they have a much radder process. They push all their trampolines together, point the camera up and go f*****g crazy. They trampoline around in every movie regardless of its relevance. Courtroom dramas, romantic comedies, bathroom security camera footage ... it's not even legal to film a wedding in Turkey unless the bride is doing a front flip. Seriously, clear your schedule for six minutes and watch this scene from Death Warrior:
Like most blaxploitation stars, Pam Grier seemed like the baddest, meanest person alive right up until the moment she threw a punch. After that, it turned into a temper tantrum of half-remembered karate moves. Her fight scenes would be almost indescribable if my language didn't have the word "boner."
When I was compiling this list of the worst fighters in film and television, I didn't intend to be making fun of so many legendary African-American entertainers. Because if that were my thesis, I would have certainly included this.
The best thing about Rudy Ray Moore movies is that it's never clear when he knows he's being awesome. He's hilarious when he's being funny, maybe even more hilarious when he's being tough, and the line between those two states is constantly blurred. I'll show you what I mean. Here's a scene from the first Dolemite, and I think you'll agree with me that every line, punch and kick is delivered in both the funniest and most badass way possible:
When he made the sequel, Dolemite 2: The Human Tornado, he made a full-on kung fu feature despite never having taken a single kung fu class. He had a theory that there were only three elements to every kung fu fight: waving your hands around, pressing fast forward and replacing all the audio with zoo animal sounds. He wasn't right, but holy s**t, maybe he was:
You knew the whole time there was no other choice for the top spot. Bill Shatner invented entirely new ways to look ridiculous while punching, and he did it all at one-quarter speed. He threw judo chops so slowly against space monsters that he was already on T.J. Hooker by the time they connected. They say the Gorn still roams the Vasquez Rocks, waiting for his cue to duck:
Actual impending doom like global climate change or mass extinction just makes people bored.
In some cases, the Marvel source material just did better.