There’s a 70-year-old man on stage who, I’m pretty sure, can kick my ass. That really isn’t saying much, since I’d be willing to bet money that more than half the people sitting in the Empire Room of the Sportsmen’s Lodge in Studio City, Calif., could pummel me into oblivion. And by the end of the evening’s events — namely the first-ever World Martial Arts Masters Expo, held Jan. 14 — I’m wishing they had.
The ’05 Expo touted appearances by celeb ”honorees” such as Tom Cruise, Wesley Snipes, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Jean-Claude Van Damme, even Walker, Texas Ranger himself, Chuck Norris. Our reaction to that list? We are so there! But of the 1,200 or so folks who are milling around the site, the highest-profile guests are along the lines of direct-to-video ”stars” like Don ”the Dragon” Wilson, Benny ”the Jet” Urquidez, and Olivier Gruner (too Gallic for a nickname). Ever optimistic, I assume the big guns have been smuggled backstage.
The air fills with the country-rock stylings of Doni Flanigan and the L.A. Cowboys. Because nothing gets people whipped up to witness martial arts like country music. ”Do you think they’re almost done?” asks the young Asian woman to my left, Nancy, who’s here to see The Last Samurai‘s Ken Watanabe. Not before the power ballad, sister.
The emcee for the evening takes the stage. It’s William Katt, the star of the late, lamented-only-because-of-the-theme-song ’80s TV show The Greatest American Hero. He runs the show like a DJ working the world’s most dangerous wedding. He introduces the expo’s cohost, Warner Bros. president and COO Alan Horn, with a very subtle ”This is as close as I’ll ever get to you, I’m sure.” From the audience, Airplane!‘s Robert Hays (huh?) watches with a look that lands somewhere between ”Man, am I glad I haven’t sunk to that” and ”Hey, why didn’t they call me?”
And then the main event: revered martial artists trooping on stage to break all kinds of building supplies. Who needs Tom Cruise when you have Grand Master Byong Yu (the aforementioned 70-year-old) whipping off his shirt and assaulting a stack of bricks? Or a jazz interlude by Yu’s student, bassist Stanley Clarke — who composed the scores for fight films like Romeo Must Die and What’s Love Got to Do With It — which gets interrupted by Yu’s ”impromptu” challenge to smash a series of boards? (Clarke can later be seen cradling one of his precious playing hands.) The crowd goes nuts for Last Samurai warrior Shin Koyamada (remember? He got his topknot hacked off), who performs a samurai sword routine to the screams of female fans. My new best friend Nancy and her best friend, Karen (a student of Shin’s), hold up a homemade sign, as if this were Martial Arts Idol. (Later, Shin, appropriately humble — and bandaged, after cutting himself — says he’s honored to be among so many martial arts greats.)
Two hours into the show, it’s clear that we’ve been suckered: None of the invited celebs showed up (Nancy is particularly pissed about Watanabe). Steven Seagal, however, went so far as to send a security team — who likely reported back that the expo was safe, but boring as all get-out. Still, event producer Angelia Evans doesn’t see the expo’s lack of glitz as a letdown. ”It was a success in that quite a few people flew in from all around the world to show their respect for these grand masters. Next year, we’re looking to really make a statement…by having some celebrities.” Famous people breaking boards? That’d be something to see.