Some action movies are best watched in the afternoon, the way they used to be shown on American television in the days before infomercials took over the airwaves. You’d flip around the TV and come across something you’d never heard of — unfamiliar actors speaking a weird kind of language where the words don’t match the movement of their lips and the movements of their bodies don’t match your understanding of physics. The movies would have simple plots, really not much more than a chance for the actors to rest between action scenes, so it didn’t matter if you start watching an hour in or right at the beginning. Maybe you’d see something weird and gross, a beheading or a demonic contraption, a gooey demon surrounded by cheap smoke effects or stunt men doing kung fu in gorilla suits with visible zippers. If you were lucky, you’d see an actor or a stunt person do something that should be impossible, but isn’t because they did it and a film camera was there to record it. It was a good feeling, as you’d sit there on the couch digging your way through, say, a five-pound box of Twizzlers, knowing that some humans out there are doing some amazing things.
Some other action movies are best watched late at night, when you’re just tired enough that the borderline between sleep and consciousness is porous to an extent that the movie world and your dream state seem to almost merge. These movies are short on dialogue and comic relief. They have lots of scenes of people looking at stuff: at the sky, at the ocean, at the mountains, at other people who are trying, for some reason no one can quite comprehend but that is nonetheless inevitable, to kill them. These are movies of shadows, of eerie scores and landscapes, movies that aim to conjure the vestiges of ancient myths and rituals and tell stories older than words. If you’re sleepy enough, it can all seem quite profound.
Fist of the Condor is a late night movie, one of the best we’ve seen since John Hyams tackled the Universal Soldier franchise. Marko Zaror, Chilean martial artist and action star (Savage Dog, Undisputed III, John Wick 4), plays a man who has dedicated himself to mastering the martial art taught by an Incan manual rescued 500 years ago from the European invaders and passed down since then from teacher to student in a hidden location high in the mountains. He claims to have a twin brother, but we’re not so sure.
The narrative is a tangled web of forward action and flashbacks, both of which make heavy use of the training montage. Present Marko (credited only as “The Warrior”) has a shaved head and rides a motorcycle, but doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. He spends his time training, eating properly (diet is apparently a subject dear to the impeccably-muscled Zaror’s heart), and riding around on his motorcycle. On his travels, people try to fight him. They lose. Director Ernesto Díaz Espinoza — who has worked with Zaror before on several films, ones with titles like Killtro and Mirageman — divides his film into ten chapters, complete with title cards (best title: “The Season of No Legs”), which neatly separate the various episodes, many of which relate The Warrior’s backstory: how he learned of the secret fighting style, his training under the master called The Condor Woman, his complicated relationship with his twin.
As we see it, the twin is The Warrior’s dark reflection, a killer who murders teachers and family alike for some unknown reason. The question is always present, however, of just how metaphorical the twin is. It’s not a Fight Club situation; this is a much less literal film than that. In his obsession with honing his body to superhuman levels, The Warrior seems to have split his consciousness, just as he’s had to cut himself off from humanity (metaphorically, or literally, murdering them). He spends much of the present trying and failing to meditate — trying, perhaps, to reunite these disparate aspects of himself. In flashbacks, the dark version of The Warrior sends one of his students after his brother. Or rather, the student wishes to challenge the brother, to win back the manual that he’s supposed to have stolen so that the student can learn from it himself.
The quest for a lost martial arts manual is a plotline as old as this genre itself. But the book in Fist of the Condor, like everything else in the movie, is more of a state of mind than anything else. We don’t know which twin stole the manual: both claim the other one has it. At one point, we see the book, but only in a flashback. Maybe it doesn’t exist anymore. If there is no twin, then the student is tasked with killing his master in order to advance to a higher plane of artistry, a dark inversion of the typical master-student dynamic. Everything in Fist of the Condor is slippery, itself and its opposite. The twin gimmick is less a kind of Fight Club-style projection than it is a reflection of unavoidable divisions, both in and around the text: the sacrifices required to achieve inhuman perfection; the split in Latin American consciousness between colonizer and colonized; the melding together of Andean legend with Chinese martial arts narrative traditions. In the present, we never see a showdown between the twins. The film, before the chapter headings begin, calls itself Fist of the Condor Part 1. It was apparently at one time going to be a TV series, and not a film. So maybe there is more to the story, maybe there really is a twin and in Part 2 we’ll see the two Markos fight. That would be pretty cool, but I hope we never see it. The movie is better off leaving us in this late night liminal space, where nothing is reconcilable but everything makes sense.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 14.