UFC Fighter Cung Le Talks RZA's 'Iron Fists,' Bruce Lee, And Facing Off Against Rich Franklin
"I consider myself the Bo Jackson of entertainment." Martial arts cinema and actual mixed martial arts collide in the form of pro fighter/actor Cung Le, who continues his rising Hollywood action career with a furious turn as Bronze Lion in RZA's The Man With The Iron Fists. But his wild-maned, lethal work as the Lion clan henchman (who finds his toughest opponent in Lucy Liu's Madam Blossom) is just Le's "part time" job, of course; on November 10, a week after Iron Fists debuts in theaters, Le will face off against UFC fighter Rich Franklin in one of the biggest fights of his career.
The kickboxing and sanshou champion, now fighting in the UFC, built up his Hollywood resume in recent years with supporting appearances in Fighting, Pandorum, Bodyguards and Assassins, Tekken, and True Legend. He's also increasingly in-demand as an actor who can ably, and believably, fight; while filming RZA's Iron Fists on location in China, Le was simultaneously filming Wong Kar-Wai's Yip Man biopic under the tutelage of legendary choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping and shooting Dragon Eyes with Jean-Claude Van Damme, which he also choreographed.
Le stopped by the Movieline/ENTV studio for a new recurring Movieline video series to discuss RZA's martial arts epic, his childhood Bruce Lee obsession (and the unfortunate homemade nunchucks mishap that set him on the course to non-weapons based fighting), and his burgeoning second career as a martial arts action star and fight choreographer. As for his Franklin fight, broadcast by Fuel TV 6 on Nov. 10 from Macau, Le hints that his Iron Fists persona may make it into the octagon, and vice versa: "You will see a Bronze Lion with a Cung Le flair in action.
You had multiple choreographies in your head at the same time while shooting Iron Fists, Dragon Eyes, and Grandmasters pretty much at the same time – how hard was that to keep straight? And does your fight training help somehow?
Because I’m a professional fighter and I train all year round, I was probably the most in-shape on set, endurance-wise. The only thing that was tough was the weather, it was so cold. But I was excited to come to set and I was ready to put in extra hours – I did whatever it took. But martial arts, fight-wise, going from one movie to another didn’t really bother me. I felt like the transition was so natural and it came so easy to me, so everything was smooth, from one character to another, from one style to another – no problem. I think it’s so easy because my real job is stepping inside the octagon, looking up at my opponent pacing back and forth, who’s looking to take me out. That’s probably more nerve-wracking and more dangerous than what I’m doing in the movies part time. When I’m on a movie set it’s like, let’s do this! When I’m inside the octagon, oh, man – he’s got the look and he wants to kill me.
Doing both actual fighting and movie fighting, does it ever get confusing? Do your fight instincts ever take over during a fake fight, or do blows accidentally land here and there as you’re performing rather than fighting?
Of course my natural instinct is to connect with my punch or my kick or my knee, but I’ve been doing martial arts so long that it’s natural for me. I can pull the punch at the last minute, I can make it look big or small, I can shorten my punch – it’s just years of training. So that part, I don’t need to think about it. On The Man With The Iron Fists, when Corey Yuen broke down a fight scene I could almost see what was going to come next. With Dragon Eyes I choreographed all the fight scenes, and I knew working with Van Damme was going to be a bit limiting because he wants to do so many of his own kicks and punches. So I let him do all his stuff, but of course he didn’t want to take any punches or kicks – but in the movie we came real close, and sometimes we did connect, just to make it more realistic. We wrapped Jean-Claude and brought in my trainer and Jean-Claude’s stunt double and I unleashed on him, so it looks like a great fight inside the jail cell, but before then it was all him trying to throw hook kicks and he was really trying to knock me out. For some reason I see the whole fight scene, then I write it on paper. Most people will write it on paper then try to piece it together, but I see not just fight scenes but action, how it plays out, before I can write it.
Bronze Lion, like all the characters in Iron Fists, has a distinct martial arts style – what sort of discussions did you and RZA have about his form and how much additional research did you have to do?
Bronze Lion’s is not as popular as the Tiger Style, so we were open to using things like the claw from Tiger to Lion, but there were also the weapons. They didn’t just want Bronze Lion to use Lion technique because my specialties are my kicks and scissor kicks. Corey Yuen wanted to incorporate all my strengths into the movie so he let me do a lot of kicks – I did the jumping side kick back kick without landing, the spin-around wheel kick, the running up the wall and grabbing someone by the head, scissor kicking the other guy’s neck and flipping him… so I got to do not just the Lion technique, I also got to put the Cung Le flair in there. So Bronze Lion got a chance to use Cung Le’s technique!
Working with Corey Yuen and acting as Bronze Lion, did you pick up anything you think will help you in your actual fighting career?
Working with high level martial artists, you see how they work and put things together, how things are planned out and how things come naturally. It gives me my own flavor and variety and the more variety I have, the more I can pull from. When I’m in a fight and I need to use a different technique, the transition is much quicker. But I can’t say that it does or it doesn’t, I can just say that with the years of being a student and a teacher and a fan I feel I can adapt to any situation with the training that I’ve had.
Who’s your favorite martial artist of all time, the one you grew up watching?
I grew up watching Bruce Lee. Enter the Dragon, Game of Death, Chinese Connection. I think hands down now, since I got a chance to work with Donnie Yen he’s one of my favorites now because he’s so open to doing different things. Not just the same kung fu, but he’s open to doing MMA in his movies and a lot of other things. I kind of look at what he does to mold my own style.
Were you one of those kids growing up doing Bruce Lee moves in the mirror?
When I was growing up I was really into nun chucks, and since my mom didn’t buy me any, this old broom that broke, I cut it in half and cut that half piece in half and drilled a hole through it with one of those hand drills. I tied it with some rope and I was working and doing pretty good, but I must have not tied it good enough so when I flipped it, it came around and hit me in the head. I had this big knot – and after that I just figured I’d do things with my hands and legs. [Laughs]
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