The Fight Chemistry of Donnie Yen and Michael Woods
All the kung fu heroes are great in their own ways, but Yen stands out for delivering a frenetic modern combat style before audiences were educated enough to appreciate it. He could also do it without the need for cuts and angle changes.
You could not replicate his speed and precision today, not only because the actors of now don't have the same training and ability, but they also don't have the same dance partner.
Today we don't think of fight chemistry; it's all about how quickly the hero can dispose of the nameless baddie. They've become objects rather than people. But Donnie Yen wouldn't be Donnie Yen without Michael Woods. Just as Fred Astaire wouldn't be Fred Astaire without Ginger Rogers, except both Woods and Rogers had to do everything backward. Rogers did it in heels, Woods did his own stunts. They're people with their own actions and autonomy. And chemistry needs people.
So how did a Chinese action star develop an onscreen rivalry with a Black martial artist from Boston? It all started at Madame Bow Sim Mark's martial arts school in Boston, where Michael Woods was a student. Madame Bow Sim Mark also happens to be Donnie Yen's mother. Yen grew up in Boston and trained with Michael Woods, becoming good friends. Together they moved to Hong Kong to do movies.
Perhaps it's this long connection, friendship, and years of mutual training that made their fight scenes so spectacular. They've done at least seven movies together, including Blade II (directed by Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro).
Unlike other fight scenes of its day, there were no dramatic pauses, no freezing after a punch for the hero to admire their work, and no slow moments for the audience to absorb all that just happened.
For early Donnie Yen, a fight scene wasn't a solo where opponents were instruments; it was a duet. It was about making the fight look good, not just himself.
Highlighting individual performances is easier than making memorable fights. A great fight scene requires fairness and reciprocity—give and take, not just take, take, take. Prime Donnie Yen was more about making memorable fights than selling himself as a star. This is probably why his fights are so popular among hardcores, but his name is less familiar worldwide.
Yen and Woods were nonstop. Even their choreography was often improvised on the spot. No stopping, just constant flowing. That takes a lot of trust and familiarity. But that spontaneity and playfulness created logic and continuous momentum.
It was fun.
It was elite martial artists at play.
At the time, fight scenes consisted of one person attacking and the receiver standing still. However, Yen and Woods didn't stay still. There was no attacker and receiver; they were both attacker AND receiver. They constantly moved; they attacked while being attacked. They defended while attacking. They threw fakes, feints, and counters. They felt each other out as if they were really sparring.
Instead of multiple cuts, it was long continuous camera movements where someone was always moving forward, and someone was always moving back. Your eyes tracked their actions at all times. You got sucked in as if you were watching a real fight.
Rather than starting with big preplanned stunts or answers, Yen and Woods started with questions. If I did this, then what should follow? The stunts were outcomes rather than goals. Designing a fight naturally made the fights look natural rather than artificial and staged.
It looked real. It looked like what you'd see in kickboxing or MMA. Yen and Woods even added little things like adjusting their feet, resetting, gaining ground, regaining composure, changing approaches on the fly, and changing the pace of the fight. Things that weren't necessarily offensive or choreographed but added to the realism because this is what fighters did in live matches. And though that appealed to hardcores, it wasn't popular with international audiences.
Something unique to Yen at the time was that he mixed and adapted his style rather than stubbornly sticking to one tradition to prove its effectiveness. That's how we understand him now in Ip Man, but in his prime, he wasn't about promoting "the best style" but rather the best fighter.
Prime Yen dodged and slipped attacks to free his hands and feet to counterattack. What were people used to then? Turn-based choreography. Even when simultaneous, if you attacked with a punch, I used my arms to defend the punch, then when my arms were no longer preoccupied, I could now attack. It's still taking turns. (Ironically, Yen's Ip Man proves the enduring popularity of turn-based choreography and unrealistic fights. But this style is also less demanding and more sustainable.)
Early Yen liked fight scenes that didn't look staged; that didn't look compliant. I'm going to dodge and try to hit you as you dodge and try to hit me. We're not stopping after one strike; we're going to throw combinations and keep throwing combinations.
Overplanning makes the scenes longer to film. Treating the fight scenes like live spars maintained the immediacy of the fight. It's no longer actors pretending to be in the same fight, even though it was shot over several days. Instead, you see them in the moment, adding to the fight's authenticity. You're there watching the fight as it was unfolding.
However, much like early UFCs, it was a lot for audiences to compute. Another problem, this was a hard style for stunt performers other than Woods to keep up with.
Stunt performers can be fast, but can they think fast on their feet? Can they improvise on the spot? Can they go for long sequences without mistakes and lapses of concentration? Can they keep up with Yen's pace without tiring? Can they be playful and match his creativity? And can they do all this without hurting Yen or being hurt themselves? Without mutual trust and familiarity, there is no chemistry.
Yen's fight scenes with Woods represent not only his prime but also some of the best fight scenes ever recorded. They represent the joy and spontaneity of action.
Yen is now known for his historical martial arts movies where he's a master of one style, but that's more due to: what audiences wanted, Yen slowing down, and Yen not having Michael Woods.
Woods was exceptional. As the baddie, you have to present an advantage over the hero. Woods was not only convincing in his strength advantage or his mastery of weapons and his environment, but he was also an incredible kicker and acrobat. Traditional martial art choreography, even today, is about big geometric shapes. It appeals to our eyes. Woods and Yen could do that, those big circular movements to rigid blocks and squares. But what made them special was how they pierced and sliced.
Rather than butcher's knives, they were surgical scalpels. They didn't obey traditional physical boundaries. They cut through space and their opponent rather than enveloping space and containing their opponent. This was their chemistry.
They constantly pierced into each other's intimate space. Occupying their own space and each other's. Intertwined and immediate. This was their dance.
What their scenes lacked in big shapes, they made up for with details, pace, and relentless kinetic action. Who else could make a compelling and believable fight scene where the hero has his hands tied together? That takes two people and chemistry.
You don't often think of chemistry when it comes to fights because most fight scenes don't have any. Instead, it's clinical and mechanical. But with Yen and Woods, their real-life chemistry bled to the screen, and we were blessed to see their iconic fights in their prime.
Just as much as Yen's movies changed after Woods, they also looked quite different before Woods. Some of the best martial arts action stars wouldn't be who they are without the stunt performers around them.
Kung fu cinema at the time found its US audience among Black communities. The relationship was bidirectional. Not only did kung fu culture begin to permeate New York's Black urban culture, but Black hip-hop culture began to permeate kung fu cinema, as we see with Yen. It's this synchronization of Yen's real-life fight chemistry with Woods and kung fu cinema's cultural chemistry with New York's Black communities that gave us Donnie Yen vs. Michael Woods.
Yen's kung fu was about challenging convention, creating discomfort, and making beautiful dance with everyone. This makes Yen's career unique among all the other kung fu movie greats.