Battling the Undead: Swordplay and Martial Arts
It wouldn’t be a Mummy movie without intricate fight sequences. Any sequence involving master martial artist Jet Li raises the bar, but add to the film Brendan Fraser’s Krav Maga, Michelle Yeoh’s swordplay, Isabella Leong’s kung fu, Luke Ford’s martial arts-inspired street fighting and Maria Bello’s combination punches and you have a feast for fight fans.
Jet Li commends what was impressive about his director’s grasp of staging an exciting fight: “Rob has a very good understanding of the timing and the fast pace that is so important in a fight sequence, and he uses very interesting angles.”
Key fights in the production include one set in the Foundation Chamber, the subterranean temple in which the Emperor attempts to raise his Terracotta Army. With ceilings formed from the bones of conquered enemies, the chamber is filled with flickering flames that line the walkway as the Emperor weaves his dark magic.
In the sequence, Rick O’Connell confronts the Emperor by throwing a knife into his back. The Emperor, only slightly inconvenienced, yanks it out and attacks O’Connell with a rage pent up over centuries of being cursed. O’Connell races at him, and an incredible hand-to-hand battle ensues.
Cohen came up with the idea that, in the years since we last met our hero, O’Connell had become skilled in the type of practical street fighting found in the short, sharp moves of Krav Maga. “It’s a system of combat defense devised by the Czech Jews during the Second World War,” explains Fraser. “They started fighting back by using a system of body motions based on instinct. Basically, you go to the problem, rather than let it come to you. It’s confidence building and, needless to say, great exercise.”
“Brendan is a fantastic action actor,” commends Vic Armstrong. “He’s really been working out, and he is rock solid. He loves his action and knows what he is good at, so we catered to that in all fights we’ve done with him.”
Asian fight coordinator MIKE LAMBERT, who worked with Michelle Yeoh in her breakout role in Tomorrow Never Dies, was primarily responsible for training the actors and choreographing the fight sequences in conjunction with stunt coordinator MARK SOUTHWORTH. Lambert, who has lived in Hong Kong for years, knew many of the film’s actors from having taught them in that country.
One sequence that fascinated the Chinese press was the sword fight between Jet Li and his longtime friend Michelle Yeoh. The fight takes place in the desolate beauty of Tian Mo desert and represents the first time Li and Yeoh have been on opposing sides of a film fight. “It’s funny,” says Yeoh. “If you looked at our shooting schedule, it said, ‘The fight that the whole of Asia is waiting for.’”
Of the duo’s fighting sequences and trainers, Yeoh offers, “Jet’s fight coordinator, DE DE KU [affectionately known as Master De], is a longtime collaborator. He is so brilliant…we just stand there and let him weave his artistry around us. Jet and I understand each other. We are on the same beat and just doing the best we can.”
Jet Li agrees: “When you find a good player to fight with you, it’s like having a good opponent at tennis. You have to be on the same level to play well. I very much enjoyed working with Michelle, and I hope to do so in the future.”
Other actors also had their fair share of the action. Maria Bello lived a childhood dream in a fantasy sword fight sequence—an homage to swashbucklers—as Evy. “Maria’s character is a lot more refined,” explains Lambert. “She is a little more expert in martial arts, but she has also picked up Rick’s street-fighting style. Alex is a bit of a stylist, but again with a little bit of his father’s raw, street-fighting style mixed in.”
Luke Ford prepared for almost three months before production began. Necessary, as he would have to dodge a barrage of booby traps to awaken the planet’s newest threat. “I spent five days a week working on the fight training,” explains the actor. “I began with cardio, weights and stretching. hen I progressed into training for the fights; there were some martial arts, but also a lot of swashbuckling, punching and kicking. It was pretty intense.”
Ford’s sparring partner, Leong, also spent much time training in martial arts. Adds Lambert, “Every spare opportunity Isabella had, she came to train and stretch. She put in a lot of hours and it really inspired her to do more.”
Known for pushing the envelope in his action sequences, Armstrong went all out for this production. “It is just nonstop,” says the master stunt choreographer. “It’s the kind of film I can really get my teeth into—with all sorts of action, from large scale down to interesting chases, fights and Jet Li’s martial arts.”
During the key Shanghai chase sequence in which the Emperor Mummy drives through Shanghai on his chariot of four horses (filmed at Shanghai Studios), the sarcophagus flies through the streets while Lin and Alex desperately hang on. All the time, it is closely followed by the rest of the O’Connells on a truck loaded with fireworks. “It’s a bit like Stagecoach crossed with Ben-Hur,” laughs Armstrong. “We’ve got the two young leads in the movie fighting with Yang, who’s on the front of the chariot with the Emperor. It was a huge sequence and very complicated. We had a 500-person crowd every night for about two weeks.”
There was also a fair amount of horse riding needed for the film; this took place in Tian Mo. Much of the horse work was done by the actors themselves, and the necessary stunt work was accomplished by Chinese stunt riders. Michelle Yeoh rides with Russell Wong, who has action sequences with his group of 12 warriors, and Jet Li rides his horse into battle.
Once Armstrong and crew had completed work on key chases, they moved down to Hengdian World Studio to complete the final action sequences. Armstrong reflects, “With every sequel, you have to raise the bar, and the ones that have gone before have been very good, so it was quite a challenge. It’s really interesting watching Rob work, with the speed of the shots he wants as much as the length of the shots.”
Cohen also enjoyed their collaboration, especially Armstrong’s ability to execute ambitious projects with a keen eye for safety. “Vic has done everything from the Bond films and Indiana Jones to everything in between,” nods the director. “He is one of those guys who takes your idea, builds on it and knows how to create it so it can be done safely.”