The Next Action Heroes
Nanda's Deconstructionist Fight-Scene Theater
I want to begin with Last Action Hero, a film that stars Arnold Schwarzenegger. At the time of its release in 1993, this film (about an action hero who falls out of the fantasy world on the screen and enters the real world of pain and sad endings) revealed to everyone that the Hollywood action machine had run out of steam. Consumers wanted something new. Hollywood had nothing new to offer.
The action film was on its way to the morgue when The Matrix appeared out of the blue. This film, directed by the Wachowski brothers, introduced a completely new mode of action: Alacrity replaced strength, fluidity replaced hard and inflexible muscles, metrosexuality replaced macho, flying kicks replaced flying cars. In short, a heavy dose of Hong Kong cinema was injected into the dead Hollywood system, and it worked. It works to this day. We have not left the long shadow of The Matrix.
The Jacket is a wonderful deconstruction of the post-Matrix action film. Performed by Port Townsend's acrobatic troupe Nanda (Tomoki Sage, Kiyota Sage, Misha Fradin, Chen Pollina), The Jacket disassembles and reassembles the dominant and globalized language of fight scenes. The disassembling happens onstage and the reassembling happens on a movie screen upstage. When fighting onstage, the four men re-create million-dollar fighting sequences naturalistically and impressively. When fighting on the screen, we see the proper home of these inhumanly swift arms, slow-motion leaps through the air, and cool flapping of clothes.
One fight sequence takes place in a Tokyo subway station. A man walks onstage with a silver bulletproof briefcase and sits on a bench. The briefcase contains a magic jacket that everyone wants. If you own the jacket, you rule the world. As the man waits for the train, other men enter the station. As the elements for the battle are gathering, we can't help but recall the famous subway scene in The Matrix. We anticipate the incredible punches, the concrete pillars smashed by flying bodies, the super-swift chops and kicks and blocks, the deadly knife-hand strikes slicing the air.
The fight erupts on the stage, and the four men take on multiple roles, becoming many men battling for a briefcase. It's not that it looks like the illusion that we see in the movies, but it shows us how that illusion works. They dissect the fight's insides the way you might dissect the insides of an animal: the guts of special effects, the ligaments of sound effects, the bones of stunts. When the performers leave the stage and the movie screen comes to life, we see these guts of cinematic fighting reassembled. The illusion is seamless.
The Jacket also has lots of slapstick and traditional juggling and acrobatics. All of this is entertaining, but the real value of the show is its presentation of a mode of fighting that has defined Hollywood action films since the last year of the previous century.