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Exotic Ways to Kick Ass: Brick Mansions and Off-Kilter Martial Arts in Films

Jump. Run. Shoot. Punch. Kick. When it comes to action movie's five main food groups, English is a snooze. Now, parkour? That beguilingly badass French word perks up your ears. What is parkour, you ask? It's a movement that encourages untold athletic prowess with which to traverse your environment. But in American films, it simply stands for skittering up and around buildings and walls before, well, punching (The Bourne Ultimatum), kicking (Casino Royale) or shooting (Live Free or Die Hard) someone.


Call it a peaceable expression if it helps you vault a wall at night. But as a cinematic commodity, parkour is mostly a martial art—ably reinforced by this week's Brick Mansions, a remake of frenzied French film District B13. In the American version, parkour is the best defense against Detroit drug lords for a noble ex-con (David Belle) and a top cop (Paul Walker, in one of his last roles).

It's also among the many glamorous, exotic words glommed onto selling the proverbial something you've never seen before. Whether co-opted from foreign culture or created from whole cloth, Hollywood has many shiny synonyms for standard martial-arts scuffling. So bow to your sensei and do something that sounds cooler than jumping, running, shooting, punching and kicking.


Martial Art: Gun Kata Movie: Equilibrium (2002)In a future where pharmaceutical erasure of emotion prevents war, John Preston (Christian Bale) lays down the law with Gun Kata—an invention of writer-director Kurt Wimmer. Theoretically, Preston has analyzed "thousands of gunfights" to determine where bullets will land and create a "maximum kill zone" without being hit. In practice, Gun Kata amounts to striking Venice Beach poses, punching the air, waving arms like marshalling wands and slap fighting … with guns. Like Preston, this gabby Matrix knockoff has had its sense of fun chemically castrated, presenting Gun Kata with fatal self-seriousness.

Martial Art: Gymkata Movie: Gymkata (1985) Gun Kata's similarly fictitious Reagan-era forefather is just as ridiculous, although at least the film earns its schlock-cult status. Olympic gold medalist Kurt Thomas plays a diminutive, low-talking American gymnast undercover in Parmistan (a proxy Afghanistan). If he wins "The Game," a barbaric Presidential Fitness Test, the U.S. can build a missile defense station there. Can his, ahem, lethal fusion of gymnastics and karate win the day? At least this eminently enjoyable garbage embraces the crazy, especially as Thomas pummels a cannibalistic horde from a pommel horse.

Martial Art: Kenpō Movie: The Perfect Weapon (1991) Kenpō doesn't translate to "cock-punching" or "nut-stomping," but such are the pulpy, plainspoken pleasures of the discipline as displayed here. In his only lead role before DTV banishment, Jeff Speakman is a Kenpō enthusiast avenging a murdered Korean friend. His quest leads him to burly, surly Professor Toru Tanaka, who played Francis's butler in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. It may seem absurd that this tall, bulky genetic splice of Patrick Duffy and MacGruber could fuse "ancient fighting technique and modern scientific principles." But Speakman is an impressive precursor to Scott Adkins, today's go-to white guy for unexpectedly fluid ferocity.

Martial Art: Capoeira Movie: Only the Strong (1993) Capoeira, or Brazilian dance-fighting, can't shake its low-T pop-culture rank—e.g., Dustin Hoffman in Meet the Fockers and Tina on Bob's Burgers are its biggest practitioners. Only the Strong is one of few instances where capoeira isn't a punch line (at least not intentionally). In the film, ex-soldier Louis (Mark Dascascos) channels 12 teen thugs' "hyperactive, hormone-driven energies" into capoeira. Unlike Edward James Olmos, Louis can stand and deliver a beating when Brazilian and Jamaican gangs strike. Strong often abandons capoeira, as in a fight sequence with chop-shop mechanics-cum-karate-warriors, although not before featuring a song called Paranaue 10,000 times. It's no earworm. It's more like a parasite.

Martial Art: Drunken Boxing Movie: Drunken Master II (1994) True drunken boxing is a misnomer. Its disciples only mimic drunken lurches, staggers and stumbles to throw off their opponents before whirling dervish attacks. That, however, doesn't keep Jackie Chan's exaggerated version from packing a 180-proof punch. A fifth is usually enough for him to fend off British colonial combatants who steal Chinese cultural artifacts. For a jaw-dropping final fight, though, he quaffs quarts of industrial alcohol. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. edit omitted the original ending, in which said boozing leaves Chan blind and severely handicapped.

Martial Art: Tai Chi Movie: Man of Tai Chi (2013) Don't underestimate old folks in the park. Their tranquil tai chi could mask an appetite for destruction. Tai chi is a low-impact, meditative activity for sexagenarians as well as a placid, evasive martial art. However, for the film's deceptively dorky, unassuming Tiger, tai chi grows less about finding his center and more about sending foes hobbling to the sidelines. After entering a no-rules, big-money fight club to save his tai chi temple, Tiger's brutality threatens to subsume his humility. It's an unexpectedly thoughtful struggle, but fret not. His path to enlightenment makes plenty of pit stops for nimble, unbridled thrashings—including one of co-star/director Keanu Reeves, playing a scowling, snarling sociopath.

Martial Art: Pencak Silat Movies: The Raid: Redemption (2011) and The Raid 2: Berandal (2014)These relentless, fist-pumping triumphs of hand-to-hand combat could jazz the most jaded grindhouse junkie. The original finds an outgunned SWAT team in Jakarta fighting a skyscraper full of criminals. They rely on Pencak Silat—a singularly savage, 1,500-year-old Indonesian style inspired by animal movements and inclusive of feet, fists, joint manipulation and blades. This bone-crunching bombast builds to a battle royale against a supernaturally unstoppable maniac. Trading Die Hard-ish narrative simplicity for Departed-esque gangland sprawl, the sequel's pace slackens. Yet the pulse still quickens as villains' sternums become speed bags and street samurai like Hammer Girl and Baseball Boy add sadistic spice. You walk away dazed and convinced someone suffered permanently debilitating injuries. Director Gareth Evans has one more Raid film in the hopper; may we suggest The Raid 3: Living with CTE?


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Photo via Summit Entertainment

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