The best martial arts for action cinema: Part 1 Empty Hand Styles

February 1st, 2010By Category: Arts & Entertainment

Not too long ago, I was approached by a student who wanted to know the best martial art to concentrate on for action.  Although much like in the world of practical martial arts, there are those who would argue that one style that trumps all, most experienced martial arts action directors (much like most experienced martial arts masters) would argue that it simply depends.   Olympic taekwondo (which constitutes my own base and is also extensively used by Donnie Yen has a wide base of jumping, spinning, and double and triple kicks that is great for wide angle shots, master shots (a run through of the full choreography from a wide angle into which close-ups, and angle changes can be inserted), and one-vs-multiple opponent choreography.

Much like Wushu, it is most useful for more fantastic choreography styles, and complements (and blurs the line ) of wirework usage.  On the other hand however, for one-on-one fights which oftentimes feature a lot of bust up shots, Wing Chun (which is predominantly hand techniques and was the martial arts base for Nicholas Cage in Bangkok Dangerous ) is often considered the style of choice.

It is also a good style for those without a martial arts base, as it doesn’t require the kicking flexibility, and/or body strength that other martial arts such as Capoeira do which may take months or years of intensive training to develop.  Although one would think that Capoeira- which also has a wide range of fantastic kicking, gymnastics, and evasive maneuvers- would be the perfect ‘movie martial art’, much like Olympic TKD, it’s lack of strong hand techniques limits it’s applicability, and as such it continues to lie more in the realm of the stunts (i.e. Hellboy 2 – 2:03 -2:11 , Ocean’s 12 ) than other onscreen martial arts. Still, it does most certainly have its place, and with Lateef Crowder’s incredible performance in ‘ The Protector ’  and the new Besourno film on the horizon, it’s entirely possible that it may become a more mainstream ‘movie martial art’ in the future. On the other end of the spectrum, since the emergence of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), and it’s rise to global popularity, MMA/ kick-boxing style choreography has naturally also arisen, and has even made it into Hong Kong action films such as Flashpoint (albeit with a typical Hong Kong-style flare).

Although one may argue that the emergence of Tony Jaa has also brought Muay Thai-based action mainstream attention, personally I feel his choreography is much more closely tied to XMA (Extreme martial arts)  and is only ‘peppered’ with Muay Thai techniques.  In general however, for anyone interested in becoming involved in martial arts action films, I would say the best way is to simply chose a martial art you like, concentrate on it, establish it as your base, and then simply cross-train in other systems as much as possible. Films such as Only the Strong,  (Capoeria) The Perfect Weapon (Kenpo Karate) and Action Actors like Tak Sakaguchi (boxing) and Steven Segal (Aikido) have shown that one needn’t follow the mainstream standard to become successful. Furthermore, much like with foreign languages, it’s a lot easier to learn one after you have extensive experience in another, because understanding the logic and philosophy of the first will allow you to compare and contrast with the second, third, and so on.

Beyond that, one must also consider what they want to do on screen as well. If you are only interested in the fight scenes, then going the route of stunt man may be best, and you should concentrate on gymnastics as it will give you the skills necessary for all the falls, tumbles, and flips necessary to sell the impact of hits, and convince the audience of the power of the main character. If, on the other hand, your interest is deeper than that, then naturally, the most important skill set (even more so than your martial arts) you should develop is your acting. Afterall, you’ll have the super-talented stunt men there to sell the fight scene- but it will be on your shoulders to draw the audience into the story and your character’s psyche. Granted Jackie Chan, Tony Jaa, and Donnie Yen all have stunt backgrounds, so transitioning from stuntman to actor is certainly possible, but at least in the case of Donnie Yen, despite his incredible physical skills, his career never really took off until his acting in ‘Hero’ earned him a ‘Best Supporting Actor’ nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards.  Furthermore, even if you are not a martial arts master (as was the case of Jason Scott Lee in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story– who had no previous experience) if you can give the audience suspension of disbelief, then you will give them something worth watching- whether they are into the action or not. Having watched Dragon at least 30 times myself, I can certainly vouch for that.

Chuck Johnson is an internationally recognized action film actor. He currently teaches both action and Taekwondo in Tokyo and Saitama, and his next film ‘ Sukeban Hunters ‘ will be released this summer. Chuck’s action show reel

Author of this article

Chuck Johnson

Chuck Johnson is a Martial Arts Instructor/ Action Film Actor based in Tokyo, Japan, and Michigan, USA. He has been teaching for 16 years, holds ranks in Taekwondo, Judo, Capoeira, and Karate, and is an experienced bodyguard. He is also a member of the Screen Action Stunt Association, and Society of American Fight Directors. Additionally, he has 10 years of ELT experience, and is the developer of Phat English, a system that uses specialized hip-hop music to teach the subtle nuances of GAm English pronunciation. For more information, visit or follow Chuck on twitter at chuck_n_action

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  • chuck says:

    Thanks, and well said. 😉

  • DanCosgrove says:

    Nice article. I agree totally with your points on making a style your own.

    Acrobatics and flashy arts like Wushu and Capoeira are excellant for the types of stunts common to martial arts movies today, but having a style that you love is more important.

    Hell, Seigal became big with Aikido, Chuck Norris with Karate, and Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger) and Summer Glau (Serenity) were DANCERS. It all comes down to owning what you do.

  • Chuck Johnson says:

    Thanks for checking it out!!


  • Kylin88 says:

    I've watched “Chuck Johnson Action Show Reel”, and it's really awesome, specially your kick in Capoeira style! I became your fan!


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