4 Times That Jiu-jítsu Was Used In Film

A Guide To The Least Film Ready Martial Art

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

When we say “martial arts movies”, the average person will conjure up images of those great kung fu movies from Hong Kong during the golden era of the genre. Entertaining movies with highly choreographed sequences based on exotic styles of kung fu. Movies produced by the Shaw Brothers and starring such luminaries as Bruce Lee, Gordon Liu, or Chiang Sheng.

However, due to the popularity and effectiveness of jiu-jítsu in recent years, it has made its way to the big screen. While I doubt that there will ever be a jiu-jítsu movie in the same vein as the aforementioned king fu movies, it has popped up in various movies through the years.

Enter The Dragon(1973)

Enter the Dragon is one of the landmarks of modern cinema. It was a big-budget production of the classic kung fu movie. With a diverse cast and a focus on social issues facing the protagonists. The famous martial artist Jim Kelly’s portrayal of Williams, a black American harassed by the police was groundbreaking then and is still relevant today.

Upon looking at a floating junk city in Hong Kong harbor, Williams muses that “Ghettos are the same all over the world. They stink.”

While there is little in the way of true jiu-jítsu in Enter the Dragon, there is a fight at the beginning where Bruce Lee battles a young Sammo Hung in what is a proto-MMA fight. In the match which is contested on a mat outdoors, the fighters both wear fight trunks and gloves that are quite similar to what you will see in today’s MMA promotions. The gloves are lightweight with minimal padding and open fingers to allow grappling. The fight begins with kung fu style striking and progresses to aikido and judo takedowns.

After one such takedown, Bruce Lee finds himself in a modified crucifix position and locks on what appears to be a somewhat primitive version of an America armbar which in turn causes Sammo to tap out. While the execution may not have been excellent, it is still one of the first instances of jiu-jítsu on film and almost certainly the first instance of someone actually tapping out in fight competition.

Enter the Dragon was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as “being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress. The movie with an Asian lead and a diverse cast was filmed with a budget of $850,000 and grossed $350M worldwide thus becoming one of the most profitable films of all time and setting Hollywood on its ear.

Lethal Weapon(1987)

Lethal Weapon is a buddy cop action movie starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as an odd couple detective pairing. In a movie such as this, one would expect shootouts and explosions and not to encounter jiu-jítsu in any shape or form. However, while there are plenty of the aforementioned action cliches there is also jiu-jítsu.

Mel Gibson, who portrays Martin Riggs is a former United States Special Forces soldier trained in all of the deadly arts. He is an expert level marksman and trained in hand to hand combat. The hand to hand combat includes jiu-jítsu and during the films clímax he uses a triangle choke to subdue Gary Busey’s Mr. Joshua, who is also a former special forces soldier but now mercenary for a drug cartel.

The movie ending fight sequence contains a mix of fighting styles. It starts off as a typical Hollywood big-budget brawling fistfight. It then morphs into a fight with karate-style weapons when Mr. Joshua takes hold of a pipe which is reminiscent of a karate bo staff.

To combat this Det. Murtagh(Danny Glover’s character) tosses Riggs a police baton. The police baton is little more than the traditional weapon of Okinawan styles of karate known as a tonfa. After the combatants disarm each other the fight goes to the ground and the jiu-jítsu begins. At this point Mr. Joshua is on top and has the advantage, however, Riggs uses some effective if not slick transitions to move to the guard position. From here he transitions to the triangle choke and while it is not applied 100% accurately it’s still an excellent choice to end the fight.

Especially considering that Lethal Weapon was released 5 or 6 years before UFC and the Gracie family popularized Brazilian jiu-jitsu in the United States. Which is actually to be expected as Rorion Gracie was the fight choreographer for that particular fight scene.

John Wick 2 (2017)

What more can be said about John Wick? In this fast-paced and fun action jaunt, Keanu Reeves battles Russian mobsters with a combination of gun-fu, judo, and Brazilian jiu-jítsu. To his credit, Keanu spent many hours training in those disciplines to achieve a level of reality in the movies. For the jiu-jítsu, he trained with the Machado brothers who are world-famous practitioners and instructors. As for the jiu-jítsu of the John Wick series, it is a treat to see such a quality representation in such a big budget and popular film series.

In the second installment of the film series, John Wick engages in a battle with Common, a rapper turned actor portraying the bodyguard for the sister of an Italian crime boss. Common finally catches up to John Wick and the fight begins. The action starts as a typical Hollywood-style fistfight before John Wick attempts an Ouchi Gari throw which originated in judo before finding its way into Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

However, this being a big-budget Hollywood movie and thus needs to be as entertaining the move has to be countered. So what does Common do? He counters with a flying armbar for maximum flashiness. After escaping from the armbar they tussle again with John Wick ending up in top position while Common utilizes the Spider Guard from the bottom. From there Common uses what is known as a lasso technique to an inversion to a sweep and finishes in the advantageous top position.

While some of the fights are Hollywood non-attention to detail to tell a story and move the action along, it is still a very cool display of jiu-jítsu. It is hard to make jiu-jítsu always appear flashy like has been done for kung fu in a film for so long, but this particular scene in John Wick 2 does an excellent job of just that.

The Simpson’s. “Treehouse of Horror XXIII” (2012)

One of the more accurate portrayals of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and also one of the funniest.

If you can think of any other good examples of jiu-jítsu in films, do drop a line in the comments. And hey, let’s connect here — JMN

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✦Lifelong Martial Artist ✦Musician. ✦Thinker. Philosopher. ✦Religion/Spirituality. Shintō/Buddhist. ✦Seeker of Truth and Knowledge ✦ Writer for ILLUMINATION