It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The best martial arts movies have nothing to do with fighting and everything to do with personal excellence. Their heroes transcend space, gravity, the limitations of the body and the fears of the mind. In a fight scene in a Western movie, it is assumed the fighters hate each other. In a martial arts movie, it's more as if the fighters are joining in a celebration of their powers.
To be sure, people get killed, but they are either characters who have misused their powers or anonymous lackeys of the villain. When the hero stands in the center of a ring of interchangeable opponents and destroys them one after another, it's like a victory for the individual over collectivism--a message not lost in the Asian nations where these movies are most loved. The popularity of strong heroines is also interesting in those patriarchal societies.
Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is the most exhilarating martial arts movie I have seen. It stirred even the hardened audience at the 8:30 a.m. press screening at Cannes last May. There is a sequence near the beginning of the film involving a chase over rooftops, and as the characters run up the sides of walls and leap impossibly from one house to another, the critics applauded, something they rarely do during a film, and I think they were relating to the sheer physical grace of the scene. It is done so lightly, quickly, easily.
Fight scenes in a martial arts movie are like song-and-dance numbers in a musical: After a certain amount of dialogue, you're ready for one. The choreography of the action scenes in "Crouching Tiger" was designed by Yuen Wo-Ping, whose credits include "The Matrix," and who understands that form is more important than function. It's not who wins that matters (except to the plot, of course); it's who looks most masterful.