The Emergence of MMA in Hollywood Action

MMA, or mixed martial arts, is considered the biggest combat sport in the US. It’s history spans over 45 years, maybe longer.  Its history in Hollywood, however, may be surprising to some.

Bruce Lee certainly helped bring Karate to the mainstream in the mid-to-late 60’s with his role on the Green Hornet, and, as seen in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, helped train actors for fight scenes. But it may have started before that.

One of the first mainstream uses of martial arts in a Hollywood film was 1962’s “The Manchurian Candidate”. The sequence featured Frank Sinatra & Henry Silva, not names you really associate with fight scenes. Reportedly both actors insisted on doing the entire scene without the aid of stunt doubles. As a result, Frank Sinatra injured his pinky during the fight and, because he never had it checked out by a doctor, carried a considerable amount of pain for the rest of his life.

Skip forward a few decades and we come to Richard Donner’s “Lethal Weapon”. The director was very specific in wanting the fight between Mel Gibson’s Riggs & Gary Busey’s Joshua to stand out. With that in mind, he brought in three practitioners of martial arts to help out with the sequence. Notably, Donner brought in Rorion Gracie (of the famously Gracie family) to teach everyone some Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This was several years before Jiu Jitsu was seen by the mainstream public, courtesy of Royce Gracie in the UFC.

So with Gracie, Cedric Adams & Dennis Newsom’s help, “Lethal Weapon” succeeded in producing one of the most memorable fight scenes of the 1980’s, and went a long way in bringing MMA to the forefront. And yes, both Mad Mel & Gary did the entire fight themselves without any aid of stunt doubles or fancy camera angles.

So to quote my good friend Skadooosh they “did the effin’ work”. There is an amusing moment during the fight when Gibson even imitates the Bruce Lee scream when doing a jumping front kick. Jiu Jitsu then comes into play when the fight goes to the ground. Riggs gets in an armbar and when Joshua is able to get out of it, Riggs locks in the triangle choke to finish the fight.

In recent years, we have seen MMA used in several Donnie Yen movies including “Flashpoint”, which includes a 15 minute finale which is worth watching for that sequence alone. It was also successful in bringing worldwide fame to Tony Jaa with “Ong Bak”, helping bring Muay Thai to the attention of western audiences. Then there are phenomenal Raid movies and the John Wick series; action movies which feature MMA and have truly changed the landscape in terms of dynamism and spectacle.

This article is written by Ryan celebrating the cultural impact of the action genre in cinema & TV, and promoting THE LONDON ACTION FESTIVAL taking place in London from Wednesday 21st – Sunday 25th June. Sign up to the newsletter to receive all news, updates, and Early Bird ticket release.