If you’re a fan of action movies, you’ve probably spent the past week or two monstering through the first season of Daredevil on Netflix. Daredevil has a ton of things going for it: a strong and clearly defined tone, a fun mythology, a whole lot of good actors. But at least from where I’m sitting, the single best thing about it is the action. There have just never been fight scenes like this on any TV show, ever. They’re incredible. They represent a level of care and planning and impact that we’ve never seen in this format. The second episode ends with a brutal, extended hallway fight that feels straight out of The Raid. And the style of fighting isn’t the stand-up punchy-kicky stuff you’d expect; instead, these guys are rolling around, countering each other’s moves, grabbing armbars or rear naked chokes. Daredevil uses MMA fight moves in a dramatic context, and as far as I know, that’s a first for TV. But those moves have been a presence in action movies for about a decade now, and more than anyone else, we have Donnie Yen to thank for that.
Donnie Yen is Hong Kong’s greatest action star right now, and he might be the greatest action star anywhere in the world. He’s handsome and likable, bland when he needs to be and edgy when he needs to be. He has that movie-star grace and charisma about him. He feels like he’s playing slight variations on his one basic character in every movie, and that’s a plus for a movie star. He’d probably be doing just fine even if he didn’t know how to throw a convincing punch. But he’s also one of the great movie-fight visionaries working today. His idea of how they should look is what elevates something like 2007’s Flash Point past standard Hong Kong cops-and-mobsters fare, turning it into something truly special.
Yen studied a few different martial arts as a kid, excelling in wushu in particular before breaking into the movies. In his earlier films, like Iron Monkey, he’s doing the standard magical wire-assisted kung fu that we’ve seen in decades of Hong Kong movies. He was really fucking good at it, but he was walking a well-traveled path. He can go back to that stuff whenever he wants, too. His greatest successes are probably the two Ip Man movies, period epics in which he plays the folk hero who would go on to train Bruce Lee. He uses traditional styles in those, and they’re incredible. But Yen’s heart is in MMA. If you read anything he’s said about it, his exposure to UFC fights in the early ‘00s pretty much blew his mind. He’s said that he would’ve tried to compete in the UFC if not for a nagging shoulder injury—even though he would’ve been around 40 the first time he even heard of this. (The image of one of the world’s greatest movie stars entering the Octagon is just too awesome to even think about. Fucking imagine.) Instead, he took that stuff to the movies with him. And that gives us a movie like Flash Point, in which motherfuckers are throwing away their guns and slapping triangle chokes on each other instead.
In the very first scene, we see Yen, as the loose-cannon cop Ma Jun, catching up with a suspect at a boxing gym. Rather than pointing his gun at the guy or slapping cuffs on him, he calmly climbs into the ring, kicks his shoes off, and effortlessly beats the guy’s ass. It’s an absolutely badass introduction: a cop who loves hand-to-hand fighting so much that he goes out of his way to make it happen. Within a few minutes, we see him throw an armbar on a criminal in a bar fight, and the guy taps out. (The movie is set in 1997, just before China took control of Hong Kong from the U.K. I don’t think anyone even knew what tapping out was in 1997. Doesn’t matter. Still awesome.) And those fights escalate in speed and intensity until a final, classic throwdown between Yen and a Vietnamese mobster that proves, beyond any doubt, just how incredible those jiu-jitsu moves can look onscreen.
The plot is pretty standard stuff. There are three Vietnamese brothers taking over Hong Kong’s criminal underworld by being more brutal than anyone else. There’s an undercover cop eager to find a way out. There’s a bickering partnership between two tough cops. There are authority figures who don’t like Yen’s methods, but do like his results. There’s a girl who doesn’t know the undercover cop is a cop. That stuff is all unremarkable and fine; it’s a skeleton for those action scenes. And those action scenes are so brutal and intense that they make up for any clumsy plot mechanics. Consider, for example, this:
The scene is fast and frenzied and nasty and short—barely a minute of actual fighting. And yet I’d put it way up on the list of the all-time great elevator-fight scenes, up there with the brain-squishing in Drive or the crazy knives-out brawl in the Korean movie New World. (For whatever reason, elevators are a great place for fights in action movies.) If you’re hesitant to click play, don’t worry; it’s not really spoiling much, and there are a million other fights like that in the movie. That scene, in fact, leads to a fucking crazy foot race that involves Yen German suplexing some poor fucker through a table like this was ECW.
Flash Point is full of these incredible, visceral moments. Yen did all the action choreography himself, and I don’t know if it’s possible to improve on it—Daredevil is getting justifiable raves right now for fight scenes that are maybe 70 percent as good as those ones. There’s a reason why the fights in recent American movies like John Wick or Captain America: The Winter Soldier have looked so good, and that reason is Donnie Yen. Along with contemporaries like Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais, he has elevated the movie-fight game. In America, we’re just now starting to catch up.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one.
Previous installments: The Way of the Dragon | Skyfall | Chocolate | Dirty Mary Crazy Larry | Iron Monkey | XXX | Headhunters | The Running Man | Project A | Homefront | Drug War |Robocop | Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon | Blood and Bone | Man of Tai Chi | Bloodsport |Battle Royale | Total Recall | Django Unchained | El Mariachi| Tombstone|Fearless | Red Dawn| Blue Ruin | The Man From Nowhere | Face/Off | The Chinese Connection | Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning| District B13 | Uncommon Valor | The Heroic Trio | Safe | Mad Max | Ip Man| Big Trouble in Little China | Sonatine | Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior |Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd | 13 Assassins | Death Wish 3 | The Legend of Drunken Master