The training montage is one of the building blocks of almost any martial arts film (East or West) where the protagonist(s) must physically and mentally prepare for fierce competition. As the genre developed and the trope proliferated, the training methods became more elaborate and visually interesting. Trainers became firmer in their methods. Stan Bush sound-alike tracks skyrocketed in volume. As you read along, be sure to hit the YouTube playlist below for the ten leanest and meanest chopsocky training montages to make you grunt and grimace your way to high spirits and improved flexibility. Shirts optional.
Blood Hands (1990)
Sean Donahue as Steve Callahan
What this montage lacks in appropriate lighting or film stock, it makes up for with … well, logs, I guess. But the other unique touch that sticks out is Sean’s sadistic girlfriend acting as his trainer despite no kickboxing knowledge whatsoever, and she’s far from the passive dolt her blank stare in the beginning of the clip would lead you to believe. She beats the shit out of Sean with a wood plank while he’s doing crunches and screams like a banshee while he’s trying to do push-ups. Put a ring on it!
Honor and Glory (1993)
Donna Jason as Joyce Pride
This is basically a hammock meditation sandwich with a Tai Chi practice filling -- and that’s not a bad thing. Jason, who did two of Godfrey Ho’s Stateside films and nothing else, chills in a hammock tied across her front porch while balancing a bo staff in the opening shot. What happens if UPS needs to deliver a package? Tough shit homie, leave it on the lawn. The scene ends in the same place with a slight wrinkle: Jason answers a ringing telephone USING THE BO STAFF. Martial arts: the quicker picker upper (of telephone receivers).
Kenn Scott as Ken Marx
This one is a fat slab of Gruyere: montage fromage. You’ll recall that Billy Blanks plays a kindly karate-cop-turned-high-school-janitor and between his basketball hurling and random thumbs-up, he’s at Tae-Bo levels of motivation here. This has the worst music in the bunch by far, but it’s the best montage featuring Ben Stiller’s future wife who looks like Marcia Brady, and Jenny McCarthy’s future ex-husband who looks like a cocaine-thin Anthony Michael Hall.
Fighting Spirit (1992)
Loren Avedon as David Carster
What happens when you pair taekwondo legend Loren Avedon and Filipino exploitation supporting actor Jerry Beyer? If you answered “stretching and sparring backed by fuzzy wah-wah guitar and a disco beat” you win a lifetime supply of confused stares from chopsocky fans. The montage itself is nothing special but I admire the epic troll-job of taking a standard training scene and pairing it with funky library music instead of the customary “inspirational” rock track.
Sakura Killers (1987)
George Nicholas as Dennis; Mike Kelly as Sonny
No list of training montages is complete without at least one entry from the ninja film subgenre. This one has George Nicholas and Mike Kelly throwing shurikens, punching bundles of straw, cutting bamboo, climbing trees, and running endlessly through mountain ranges and what appears to be the Gobi Desert. Did I mention the scene ends with the ninjas and their master disappearing in a cloud of smoke? Because ninjas, I guess.
No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)
Kurt McKinney as Jason Stillwell
There’s some tremendous irony in the fact that a film featuring Jean Claude Van Damme -- a star who took the training blueprint from the Rocky franchise and revolutionized it for the martial arts set -- has great training scenes where he doesn’t even appear! You know the training is intense when your upside-down suspended ab-crunches and one-finger push-ups empty out the public park. Maybe it was the short-shorts and the uh .... thrusting that sent everyone running? Don’t judge, readers -- come talk to me when you’ve vanquished a Soviet kickboxer who broke your dad’s leg and single-handedly destroyed Seattle karate.
Brandon Gaines as Jack Cody
A lot of these montages place an emphasis on old-school simplicity: exercises in rustic settings, primitive equipment (e.g. wood, pulleys), and older grizzled trainers. Superfights takes it in the other direction. Your typical wooden dummy is replaced by plastic tubes that illuminate on contact. The heavy bag is replaced by a column of light that runs floor to ceiling. Even the choice of trainer -- Angel, played by the undersung Kelly Gallant -- is a progressive improvement on the formula. Oh, and the protagonist is popping colorful pills containing a combination of mind-control drugs and steroids. Why, again, is this scene so much different than the others? Oh, right -- this training montage is on drugs.
Trained to Kill (1989)
Frank Zagarino as Matt Cooper; Glen Eaton as Sam
How do you enhance a training montage that features vengeful half-brothers doing standard exercises like sunset beach jogging, push-ups, tandem leg-throws, and jump-rope? You combine slo-mo, close-up grimaces, and cutaways to Frank Zagarino making out with Lisa Aliff and you get the hell out of the way. Whatever this montage lacks in novelty, it delivers in style, strangely literal lyrics in its New Order-esque rock track, and impassioned speeches about finding your “center” in the “jungle” from Ron “Superfly” O’Neal.
Breathing Fire (1991)
Jonathan Ke Quan as Charlie Moore; Eddie Saavedra as Tony Moore
I had no recollection that this montage was so good and I *really* wanted to put this at numero uno, if only for its wildly thorough approach -- this one has everything. Punching through phone books nailed into trees. Master pummeling students’ shins and forearms with sticks. Crushing watermelons beyond eatability. Sunset beach running. Blindfolded sparring between multicultural brothers. We should all be watching Breathing Fire right now instead of reading (or writing) Internet listicles.
King of the Kickboxers (1990)
Loren Avedon as Jake Donahue
As far as Western chopsocky films go, this might the end-all, be-all of training montages. Drunken master? Check. Trainee striking and also being struck by flying logs? YUP. Overly elaborate pulley system designed to improve groinal dexterity? OH YEAH. Much credit goes to Avedon, who was willing to hand himself over to some wacky training methods that look alternately torturous and character-building. What really sets this scene apart is the pretext (demonstration of the villain’s signature attacks) at the beginning of the film that makes the climactic call-back (Jake using his training to counter-attack) both logical in the narrative and rewarding for the viewer. Concise but effective.
What would you add? What have I missed?