Shoot a "Fireball" or Practice "Wushu"?

Lions Gate released two very different fight movies this week, which showcased their respective martial arts in near-opposite approaches. On one corner is the Thai sports-actioner Fireball (which I've hopped and skipped for in the past) and on the other is the project Jackie Chan brought (as producer) to the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Wushu.

Fireball is one of those sports movies that invents a fictional sport just because regular sports are just not thrilling enough, but while movies like Rollerball and BASEketball invent whole new rules—or at least patch a bunch together—on how to play this new game, Fireball simply deletes rules. You see, a game of Fireball is just like Sudden Death Basketball, except there's no rulebook of any sort. There's no traveling, no carrying, no double dribbling, and most importantly, no fouls. What this means is you have to put the ball through the hoop by any means necessary—even if it takes picking up a metal rod and walloping the guy in the other team over the head with it. Simple, right?

The rules are not the only simple and unoriginal part of the movie. The story is a mish-mash of sports movie cliches. Our hero, Tai, joins an underground fireball tournament to win money for his comatose twin brother's hospital bills. His teammates are all poor and fighting for various sympathetic reasons: one has to protect his mother and little sibling from being evicted, one's wife has a baby on the way, one works a dead-end job harassed by customers all day; and just in case those aren't enough for us to root for them, the rival team (that you know will face our team in the final) is made-up of homicidal wildmen. Oh, and they happen to be the people who put Tai's brother in a coma. The drama!

Fireball is violent and unruly, with the Muay Thai moves (including the elbow-to-the-noggin move made cinematically famous by Tony Jaa) made to look like unschooled brawl-slaps. Its main attraction are the blood sprays and cracked ribs, not the skills, a direct contrast to Wushu, a movie that, unlike what the DVD cover may suggest, is made primarily to showcase it as a sport.

In its modern incarnation, wushu is an exhibition and full-contact sport, with China having tried and failed at bidding for an Olympics inclusion. This is the wushu that the movie portrays: exhibitions performed in a closed arena in front of an audience.

Wushu's cast is made up of real wushu students making their film debuts, with the exception of the great Sammo Hung as their grayed and weary coach. They bring an authenticity that won't be easily copied by professional actors or pop artists (Fireball's lead is the frontman of a popular Thai rock band), but also an added validity to what the movie is about. Wushu is a sport used as a guiding tool and future prospect for Chinese youths. The film discusses how the students can either be recruited by pro teams or go into the film industry (which is what the actors did). Some, inevitably, use their training for criminal activities.

It's a fascinating angle for a martial arts movie, and potentially educational too, which was the intention of the production—a measure to promote the sport. Too bad it hesitates to probe the why and how youths partake in this sport, in favor of a throwaway puppy love story, generic friendship pacts, and a really dumb child kidnapping ring subplot devised just to insert a couple of generic fight sequences (which aren't enough to satisfy anyone looking for an action movie, anyway). At least it lets Sammo Hung do something other than standing around looking paternal.

Fireball is the movie you want if you just need a quick morning jolt of violence, even though the idea of fight-basketball should really be way more exciting than what's in the movie. Wushu is the more interesting movie and offers the more impressive tricks, but those moments are just barely enough to warrant sitting through the slipshod filmmaking.

Both movies' main featurettes are your run-of-the-mill behind-the-scenes video. The Fireball one is especially boring, since it's just the director and the producer of the film explaining the plot of Fireball and the fictional sport involved, which we already know from watching the film.

An extra addition to Wushu that's better than those two combined is a video diary from the 2008 Cannes Film Festival where Jackie Chan escorts the film's two young stars as they face a crowd of journalists and potential buyers, exhibiting an impressive demonstration of their talents.

Now I just wish there's a movie with a premise as cool as Fireball, starring the talents of Wushu.

Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for


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