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Martial arts muscling into big Hollywood films

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By Scott Bowles
Friday, Aug. 2, 2013, 7:45 p.m.

Everybody in Hollywood is kung fu fighting this summer.

Films showcasing Asian martial arts were once relegated to niche markets, but the genre is enjoying a mainstream resurgence. Tentpole films are using kung fu to woo Americans raised on anime, and they're luring Asian kids by showcasing action heroes from that part of the planet.

The past month has been rife with releases that would please the surliest of samurai:

• “The Wolverine”: The sixth installment of the X-Men franchise is a ninja-meets-superhero hybrid set in Japan. The film, featuring Hugh Jackman and a largely Japanese cast, scored a convincing No. 1 this weekend with $53 million.

• “Red 2”: Despite a premise of aging European and American spies, the sequel features a new character in South Korean action star Byung-hun Lee. He also provided the high-flying kicks in “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” out this week on DVD.

• “Pacific Rim”: The latest film from Guillermo del Toro is a mashup of martial arts and monsters. Inspired by Godzilla movies, “Rim” includes combat-training sessions in dojos of the future.

Hollywood's fascination continues with “The Grandmaster” (due Aug. 23), a drama about Ip Man, who trained Bruce Lee. Keanu Reeves becomes a samurai in “47 Ronin” (Dec. 25). And the Weinstein Co. just announced that it will remake two decades-old martial-arts classics, “The Avenging Eagle” and “Come Drink With Me.”

Japan and China have become titans at the box office, and films have had titles and scenes altered to sell overseas. Disney and Marvel Studios added four minutes to “Iron Man 3” to include Fan Bingbing and Wang Xueqi, both Chinese stars.

Chris Aronson, 20th Century Fox's president of distributions, says the studio wasn't catering to an overseas crowd in setting “The Wolverine” in Japan. The backdrop “comes straight from an X-Men comic book” that featured the Silver Samurai.

But authors and academics say there's more to it.

“I think the resurgence is definitely meant to pander to anime fans, international markets and our nation's ongoing fascination with Asian culture,” says Brad Ricca, author of “Super Boys,” a biography of the creators of Superman.

Aging fanboys are also behind the surge, he says. “These films are appearing because the directors and producers were raised on this fare and only now are in a position to make them as passion projects.”

As China becomes a bigger player, “it's inevitable for American films to feature ‘fusion' culture,” says Sang Nam, associate professor of communications at Quinnipiac University. “American culture was Euro-centric. Now, the Chinese are coming.”

Scott Bowles is a staff writer for USA Today.

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