The Magazine

Look, Ma, No Hands

Why must every Hollywood movie have wire-fighting scenes?

Sep 10, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 48 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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HOLLYWOOD HAS ALWAYS RUN ON THE PRINCIPLE that what worked before must work again—and again and again and again, in movie after movie, until theatergoers reach the point of throwing things at the screen. The most recent example of mindless repetition is gravity-defying martial arts. And the time has come to clip its wings.

"Wire work," as it is called in the film world, involves harnessing actors and suspending them from thin cables high in the air. With teams of people tugging on the lines, the actors are able to soar across the screen, delivering a dozen kicks in a single jump or leaping gracefully from the ground to the rooftops. Wire work has long been a trope in Hong Kong kung-fu and sword-fighting epics, and now, like the Asian flu, it has infected American entertainment.

Modern wire work first came to America in the surprise hit of 1999, The Matrix, a science-fiction film directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski. The Matrix featured a buffed-up Keanu Reeves soaring on wires like a latter day Sandy Duncan, delivering spine-shuddering kicks and claiming, in his Keanu way, "I know kung fu!" Made with a budget of $63 million, it grossed $374 million worldwide.

If there’s anything development executives understand, it’s a profit of $311 million. Like sheep, everyone in Hollywood seemed to decide that the film’s success was due to this alien special effect. And so wire work began popping up everywhere, from the schlock movie version of Charlie’s Angels to the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, from Pamela Anderson’s VIP to the Goth police series Witchblade. The Matrix even became a verb in script notes—as in "Why don’t we Matrix this up some?"—and then finally, with this summer’s mini-hit Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, it became a story idea unto itself.

WIRE WORK HAS ITS ROOTS in the earliest Chinese cinema, dating as far back as the 1928 Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery, which film historian David Bordwell notes involved over three hundred martial artists and extensive use of wires. Wire work went into decline, however, and by the 1970s Chinese film-making—centered mostly in non-Communist Hong Kong and Taiwan—was dominated by wireless kung-fu movies. These films even made some inroads in the United States, as chop-socky became hip in the disco age.

In the 1980s, swords and wire work reappeared in Chinese movies, most notably in the high-flying Duel to the Death (1982). This new Hong Kong style was mostly missed in America, where Bruce Lee and kung-fu theater went the way of the pet rock. But then in 1987 a video-game maker released a modest little game called Street Fighter. It was a runaway success, and its 1991 sequel, Street Fighter II, became a cultural event, invading 7-Elevens and mall arcades across the nation. The Street Fighter games featured one-on-one combat as kids took control of cheesy martial-arts warriors and tried to beat the tar out of each other by flipping joysticks and pounding buttons—while the characters performed outrageous martial-arts moves, throwing lightning strikes and gliding to and fro as though they themselves were on wires.

Street Fighter succeeded where Chinese filmmakers had failed in planting the seed of the Hong Kong aesthetic in America. Which brings us back to The Matrix. During pre-production in 1997, the Wachowski brothers hired Yuen Wo Ping, a veteran fight choreographer, to, well, Matrix up The Matrix. Specializing in balletic wire work, Wo Ping brought a sensibility to The Matrix which had never been
seen in the West by mass audiences.
He became, naturally, a Hollywood darling.

The year after The Matrix, Wo Ping choreographed Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In this, the high-water mark of wire work, Lee and Wo Ping paid homage to nearly every cliché in Chinese cinema: the bamboo grove combat of A Touch of Zen (1971), the roof-top chase of The Jade Bow (1966), the temple battle of Legendary Weapons of China (1982), and the inn melee from Dragon Gate Inn (1967). The cinematography and choreography of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are so lovely that they obscure the pure ludicrousness of the movie.

In fact, there may be some connection between wire work and the vapidity of Hong Kong movies. For one thing, wire work takes forever to shoot. "On a hundred-day shooting schedule," says Ang Lee, "maybe eighty days would be spent on the martial arts scenes, twenty days to do the rest, so they don’t have time to get into the script."