The Art of Action: Martial
Arts in the Movies takes viewers on a historical tour of the origins and
development of the martial arts movie, from the earliest Chinese films using
"kung-fu" to the modern action star Jackie Chan and director John Woo.
Hosted by Samuel L. Jackson, The Art of Action mixes clips from martial arts
films with interviews with important directors and actors in the genre to
create a very informative and interesting ninety-minute piece.
The documentary is very
well-structured, starting with an overview of the Chinese term
"wuxia" and then moving to the origins of the martial arts movie in
the Peking Opera. The Art of Action includes a great deal of very early
black-and-white film footage which was quite interesting to see, and will be
especially interesting to fans of the genre. The occasional use of split-screen
comparisons between early and modern films effectively highlights the
influences that the early films have had on the genre in both the fighting
styles and the overall choreography.
The Art of Action takes
a consistently chronological approach, which provides excellent context for
each new director, actor, or style that's introduced. Specific strong
influences on the development of the martial arts film are discussed at the
appropriate time, such as the realistic Japanese samurai genre, the work of
Bruce Lee, or particularly ground-breaking individual films such as The 36
Chambers of Shaolin. At times, the profusion of names of directors and
actors becomes a little intimidating, but the chronological framework gives the
documentary the necessary structure.
Some of the most fascinating
material in The Art of Action deals with the culture surrounding the
martial arts film genre. I was particularly intrigued by the changing roles of
women in the genre, as they were the first true stars of martial arts films;
the documentary does an excellent job of presenting this topic in an
interesting and informative manner. Other interesting topics are the reason for
the switch of martial arts films to Hong Kong, and the cycle of interest in
martial arts films in the United States. One area that could have been
explained more clearly was the exact way in which the destruction of the
Shaolin temples led to the creation of martial arts films via the Peking Opera;
it's clearly important, but it's rather fuzzily explained in the documentary.
Overall, however, The Art of Action does an excellent job of presenting
an interesting and informative picture of the development of the martial arts
The packaging states that The
Art of Action has been "re-formatted" to the 4:3 aspect ratio,
suggesting that the documentary has been pan-and-scanned, but this does not
seem to actually be the case. While I wasn't able to track down any information
on the film's original aspect ratio, the documentary itself doesn't show any
framing problems. Additionally, while the interview clips and Samuel L.
Jackson's commentary sections are presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, all the
film clips are letterboxed to present them in a widescreen aspect ratio. This
arrangement suggests to me that the original aspect ratio was in fact 1.33:1.
However, the image quality of the 1.33:1 portions is quite poor, appearing
almost to be the result of resampling a low-resolution original image, so there
may indeed have been some tampering with the original aspect ratio; it's hard
to say for certain.
The film clips are all
letterboxed to present them in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. I did some
double-checking, and for all the films I was able to find information on (Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Enter the Dragon; Face/Off; 36
Chambers of Shaolin; Charlie's Angels; Drunken Master),
2.35:1 was indeed the correct aspect ratio. From the looks of it, The Art of
Action has preserved the correct aspect ratio for all its film clips, and
should be highly commended for doing so.
As for the image quality
itself, it's fairly irregular: the parts showing Samuel L. Jackson are very
low-quality, with a generally blurry appearance along with some noise and edge
enhancement. Fortunately, this is the least important part of the film, and the
rest is of better quality. The various interview clips with actors and directors are of satisfactory
quality, with some of the problems that appear in the Jackson segments but much
less severely affected.
Most importantly, the clips
from the various martial arts films, which are used very extensively throughout
the documentary, are of very good image quality. Obviously, modern films like Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon look the best, but even clips from older films like Enter
the Dragon are clean and attractive-looking, and the earliest footage
(black-and-white Chinese films) is presented in remarkably good, watchable
condition considering its age.
The English Dolby 2.0 track
does its job well, presenting both Samuel L. Jackson's narration, the interview
subjects' voices, and the soundtracks from the film clips clearly and cleanly.
Several of the interviewees speak in Chinese while a translator provides a
voiceover translation; it's handled well, with the original speaker's voice
muted in the background so as not to interfere with the clarity of the
translation, while still preserving his original voice.
Optional subtitles are provided
in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai.
Six trailers are provided for
martial-arts (or martial-arts-inspired) action movies: The One; Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Double Team; Maximum Risk; Time and
Tide; and Universal Soldier: The Return.
The Art of Action
provides a very interesting look at the origins and development of a popular
genre: the martial arts action film. From its origins in Chinese and Hong Kong
"kung fu" movies, to its wider influence in U.S. films like Charlie's
Angels, martial arts have had an interesting history in the movies. Given
that it covers a wide historical period in only an hour and a half, the
documentary is probably most oriented toward the casual fan or newcomer to the
genre, but with its extensive archival footage of early martial arts films and
interviews with important actors, director, and producers, The Art of Action
will have quite a bit of appeal to hardcore fans as well. With its
satisfactory DVD transfer to back it up, The Art of Action is recommended.