This article comes from Black Belt’s December 2012 issue — long before Jon Foo was selected to take on Jackie Chan’s role in the 2016 CBS TV version of Rush Hour.
Although Jon Foo is most notably known for acting in 2010’s Tekken, the film adapted from the hit video game, his martial arts and movie résumés extend far beyond that role. Foo has an extensive background in the Chinese arts, and he’s the first Westerner to have the privilege of doing film fights for Jackie Chan, Yuen Woo-ping and Panna Rittikrai, three of the greatest martial arts moviemakers of this era.
Born in 1982 to a Chinese father and an Irish mother, Jonathan Patrick Foo grew up in London not far from the world’s most famous football arena (soccer to the unenlightened), Wembley Stadium. Whereas most London lads would have cultivated a commitment to cheering on one of the city’s renowned football teams, Foo chose to forge a connection to the martial arts — in particular, those of his father’s homeland.
Influenced by Jackie Chan films and enthralled by the associated acrobatic skills, 8-year-old Jon Foo began practicing southern Shaolin kung fu. At 15, he joined the London Chinese Acrobat Circus and performed at various locations in the city. Several years later, he took up wushu, after which he met a coach who taught him a couple of competition forms that opened Foo’s eyes with respect to dynamic martial arts performance.
After he graduated from secondary school, Jon Foo opted to continue his education by attending art school. In retrospect, it wasn’t the best decision. “One day, I was designing a door handle and thought, ‘This is rubbish — I don’t want to design door handles,’” he told Black Belt. “I had a good demo reel and felt I needed to leave school and go to Hong Kong to do film.”
One of the reasons Jon Foo longed to head east was during his wushu training, his instructors would often lament that in China, coaches were able to push their students to greater heights because they weren’t constrained by the same rules and conventions. His curiosity sufficiently piqued, Foo booked a ticket to China, where he promptly sought entry into Beijing’s hallowed Shi Cha Hai Sports School — the same facility where Jet Li trained.
“In London, you go to the club once or twice a week, but in China, everyone lives in the school and trains all day,” Jon Foo said. “My most memorable moment there was watching an 8-year-old kid trying to squat 100 kilos (220 pounds). Once you see something like that, you think everything is possible.”
Foo spent two intensive weeks honing his wushu skills in Beijing, then headed back to London. From his U.K. base, he sent his demo reel to the JC Group in Hong Kong, half expecting it to wind up in a pile with the hundreds of other reels Jackie Chan no doubt gets every week from aspiring martial arts actors. Much to his surprise, Foo received a letter from Chan’s manager saying the superstar was impressed by his video. Even better, the correspondence contained an offer: If Foo wished to fly to Hong Kong to join the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, they’d be happy to have him.
“I went to Hong Kong and basically knocked on their door,” Jon Foo said. “Willie Chan (Jackie Chan’s manager — no relation) took me to some sets and introduced me to some directors, and I started working, doing fights on Yuen Woo-ping’s House of Fury (2005). Then I [went to] China to work on Jackie Chan’s The Myth (2005).”
While shooting The Myth, Jon Foo landed a role in The Protector, with Tony Jaa. Foo’s reputation must have preceded him, for he was afforded the top honor an up-and-coming film fighter could hope for: “I was asked to do a fight against Tony,” he said.
The stylistic differences between a Jackie Chan production, a Yuen Woo-ping production and a Tony Jaa production were stark, Jon Foo said. On the set of a Chan movie, “you have to basically learn that style, that rhythm,” he said. “So when I was not shooting, I’d be training with the stunt guys just to pick up the kind of pace that Jackie likes. It’s very specific — I mean, even if you see it in silhouettes, you know it’s Jackie Chan’s style.”
Working with Yuen Woo-ping was a very different experience, Foo said. “Woo-ping is on the ball. He knows what moves he wants and the angle of the moves he wants, and he already has these little things edited in his mind.”
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In contrast, filming in Thailand with Tony Jaa was much slower, Jon Foo said. “That’s good in its own way — people are always chilled out. Panna Rittikrai loves it when you do a good move or a combination he likes. He’ll just crack up laughing and his face lights up — you really see the feeling that he is excited.”
Being a lifelong martial artist, Foo prefers to make his scenes as realistic as possible — which is probably why the Thais like him. “They pad up as much as they can and take real hits,” he said. “It’s cool.”
When the camera is in position to show those real hits, however, the synchronization between attacker and attackee needs to be top-notch. “You have to capture that it’s real, and that comes from a true expression of yourself, rather than making it a dance,” Jon Foo said. “I know it’s choreography, but you still need to have the chi or energy in it. If you capture that, you have done a good job.”
As evidence, he cites the blockbuster Ong-Bak. After it hit theaters in 2003, Thailand made hundreds of “muay Thai warrior” films, but they didn’t rise to the level of Ong-Bak because they lacked that energy. It’s what makes one fight scene better than another and one movie work while another falls short, he said.
Jon Foo’s latest project reunited him with the intrinsic energy of Siam. Titled Bangkok Revenge, it has the martial artist playing Manit, a man who suffers from ataraxia, which causes him to be unencumbered by normal emotion and anxieties. The condition stems from an incident that occurred when the character was 10: He was shot in the head by the same criminals who killed his parents. Most of the movie takes place 20 years later, when Manit, now a skilled fighter, tracks down the murderers.
“He’s got shrapnel lodged in his brain and really doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Foo said of the complex character. “But he’s got these skills, he’s nonchalant and it opens the door for action that is raw, almost unsettling and often a bit twisted. Being emotionless was a challenge because usually when you do something, there is an emotional reward. But now there’s nothing.”
It was a sea change from his first mainstream role, which was playing Jin Kazama in Tekken. The film received mixed reviews, and fans of the video game on which it was based lambasted it. “I had a great time working on the film, but I would’ve liked it more if the production side of the movie had better insight into the game, with more research into the characters of the game rather than the characters in the script,” Foo said. “If a film is an adaptation of a book, it’s important to do research. Just because it’s [from] a computer game doesn’t mean it should not be as well-researched as any other kind of adaptation.”
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That attention to detail defines Jon Foo’s life — whether he’s practicing kung fu or making movies in Asia. And he attributes it all to his martial arts training. “It’s one of the main things in my life where I [can] find myself, be honest and be free,” he said. “[It’s] taught me to anticipate, calculate and allow myself to be — which is how eventually you will find yourself.”
Photos Courtesy of China Lion