Enter the Fat Dragon

Actions speak louder than words: Sammo Hung's tenuous grasp of English doesn't keep him from communicating in TV's international language--kicking ass

It didn't start with Vanilla Ice. By now everybody knows that American culture is at least half black--a tale of "love and theft," as the scholar Eric Lott called it. Wherever you look, someone's uncovering the miscegenation at the core of our most popular genres. Minstrelsy, America's first mass entertainment, teased white urban audiences with the opportunity to relish the presumed simplicities of slave life as well as the fear that doing so would make them savages. (Before you decide we live in more culturally sensitive times, feast your eyes on modern-day heirs like the Insane Clown Posse, who sell millions by living out gangsta stereotypes in whiteface.) Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin has fashioned an entire career out of the speculation that the real American voice is a mixed-race one: "Was Huck black?" Or as Chuck D once put it, "What's wrong with a little color in your family tree?"

But that theory hasn't been extended elsewhere. Is the American picture just black-and-white, or is it in color? Chicano traditions play a crucial role in California and the Southwest, and various Central American cultures add to the mix in New York City. But there's no visible Asian presence in the same way. Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, sure--young Asian-American writers banished all those old ghosts in the '70s in anthologies like Aiiieeeee!, and good riddance.

Yet their understandable desire to shove aside chopsocky stereotypes couldn't help but obscure the complicated racial politics of the nation's Asian infatuation. Look at it this way: In the '60s and '70s, Americans' fascination with Asian culture had vague but unmistakable left-wing traces. Whether it was David Carradine (who, yes, elbowed Bruce Lee out of the picture) dropping Eastern science on Kung Fu or Chuck Norris chopping government thugs through walls in anti-authoritarian vigilante flicks like Good Guys Wear Black, white people in yellowface were countercultural. Not to mention hippie kids like writer Mark Salzman donning bald wigs and playing kung fu master (his Lost in Place is primo '70s nostalgia) or a bunch of project kids in Staten Island deciding that Shaw Brothers films like Master Killer (a.k.a. 36 Chambers of Shaolin) furnished equipment for daily living. When these kids got big, their rap crew, the Wu-Tang Clan, paid tribute to these inspirations.

Though the hip line is that Hong Kong (HK to cognoscenti) film passed its peak five or so years back, mainstream America is finally rediscovering Asianness; this time, however, it's action's final frontier. Oriental wisdom is out the window; now we want bloodier gunfights, bigger explosions, more spectacular car chases. Jackie Chan's Rush Hour is packing them in at theaters (deservedly--it's his best American movie); HK directors like John Woo, Ringo Lam, and Tsui Hark have fled the mainland's deep freeze and are warming to the Hollywood sun; and the industry's biggest stars--Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung--are starting to follow suit.

And Sammo Hung is on American TV. In HK films he's often the hero's sidekick, a comic foil equally capable of kickboxing with pigs (though I haven't seen it, reliable sources adore his Enter the Fat Dragon) or holding off eight villains with a tent pole. Whether he'll become a star here remains to be seen. Although nothing else on Martial Law (8 p.m. Saturdays, CBS) comes up to the standard he sets, the grace and force of Hung himself make the show worth watching. He has a leading man's dignity and presence, wrapped in an, shall we say, atypical leading man's body (he weighs in at around 230 pounds). Hung's ability to carry the combination off is nothing short of enchanting.

The show's formula must have taken someone all of five seconds to figure out, probably after renting three Bruce Lee films. In fact, there's a kind of purity to it, a refreshing refusal to put on airs: fight at the beginning, introduction of plot, fight in the middle, complications, fight at the end, resolution. Charmingly, the last episode I saw even featured the time-honored standby of six of the hero's enemies surrounding him, then attacking one at a time for easier disposal.

Hung himself is given very little to do when not smacking someone around. His dialogue never lasts more than two lines, most of them remarks like "May I borrow your skateboard?" or "pork belly?" When he's really stretched, he has to offer pearls of wisdom on the order of "Martial arts is about finding your center. Mine is just easier to spot." But it's worth noting that he's not asked to provide too many of these koans or furnish mystical Eastern wisdom. He's too earthy for Orientalizing, too savvy an actor to be reduced to a cartoon. In fact, Hung is basically Clint Eastwood plus kicks. To wit, he offers a full complement of smart remarks after subduing the bad guys--though there's something weirdly arbitrary, almost defamiliarizing, about hearing those kiss-off puns from someone whose command of English seems tenuous at best.

But oh, those kicks. Jackie Chan aficionados will recognize the now-traditional outtakes at the end of each show that reveal how hard everyone needs to plan to make all those punches miss. My favorite fight so far involved Hung against two guys in a hospital room, with an arm cast, a saw, and a guy in traction all used as weapons; another excellent battle royal unraveled on the deck of a Mexican floating restaurant. (The show is set in one of those weird alternate universes in which everyone who becomes involved in a fight must seemingly be certified in one or more martial arts beforehand.)

The most magical part of the whole shebang, however, is Hung's ability to carry off the backflips, leaps, and falls as if nobody had told him what he looked like. The lithe, muscular, in-shape Jet Li would clearly have no problem flying around unassisted; but seeing Sammo Hung doing the same is, well, inspiring. It's like seeing Sancho Panza hop off his burro and kick Don Quixote's ass.

Yet to stay around, Martial Law needs to figure out something more than its fish-out-of-water scenario and the gravity of its leading man. (Its Saturday night sequel, Norris's Walker, Texas Ranger, might furnish an instructive example: It sticks around by expertly twanging the same populist vibe Chuck hit on 20 years ago.) So far, Hung's plots have been basic cop-show stuff: gangs, counterfeiting, rogue officers (in a story line lifted from Eastwood's Magnum Force). The much-missed New York Undercover, which ended its run on FOX last season, found its niche by disclosing worlds that white-guy shows like NYPD Blue ignored or distilled through the racism of Andy Sipowicz: rappers getting gunned down, Haitian immigrants fleeing the police. Given that precedent, think of the abundant possibilities offered by setting this show in a real, rather than a TV, California: home-invasion robberies, ATM theft, computer-chip heists.

California is home to millions of Asian Americans whose stories never get told in mass entertainment. Why can't Hung's back story root him in a community, make him part of a world and a history that are in but not necessarily of America, instead of another inhabitant of TV's placeless void? Margaret Cho's brief All-American Girl never had time to figure out whether or not it could live up to its name. Will Martial Law write Hung into the American story, or will it shove him to the margins, reduce him to a special effect to be played with and then discarded? It would be nice to see this placid warrior get a chance to stick around into the Pacific century.

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