Martial arts movies have been a mainstay of cinema since at least the mid 1970s. All the crazy choreographed action and high-flying stunts are certainly the main reason people have come to enjoy them, but it’s not the only one. The most memorable ones are full of history, humor, oddball characters, and, especially in older films, the hilariously cheesy dubbed dialogue. It all adds up to a movie niche that often makes for the perfect piece of Sunday afternoon entertainment. So if you ever find yourself in the mood for some fast and furious martial arts mayhem, consult this list for some of the most acclaimed masterpieces the genre has to offer.
10. Ong-Bak (2003)
Thai martial arts guru Tony Jaa’s phenomenal skills are nothing short of spectacular in Ong-Bak, which would probably be a pretty forgettable movie if it weren’t for all the jaw-dropping action sequences. In taking on the Thai underworld to retrieve a stolen statue head, Jaa demonstrates a busload of inventive kicks and devastating elbow/knee combos, all without using any of the wires or pulleys commonly employed for many Chinese martial arts movies. If anything, you should watch this movie for no other reason than the Street Fighter-worthy flaming spin kick he delivers to finish off one of the countless thugs he dispatches.
9. Drunken Master (1978)
This movie is largely considered to be the vehicle that launched Jackie Chan’s career. After the Golden Harvest production studio came to the decision that they didn’t want Jackie Chan to be marketed as the next Bruce Lee, they enlisted director Yuen Woo-ping to create first ever film depicting the legendary drunken kung fu fighting style.
It was Yuen Woo-ping’s father, Yuen Xiao-tian who originally taught Jackie the art of drunken boxing, and he also plays the role of the homeless beggar turned teacher in the movie. Needless to say, there’s enough slapstick comedy in this kung fu flick to break your funny bone.
8. Bloodsport (1988)
Many people who have seen this gem from the ’80s probably aren’t aware that Frank Dux—the character played by Jean Claude Van Damme—is actually a real life person.
Bloodsport is all about a secret underground martial arts tournament known as the Kumite. Only the world’s most lethal fighters are able to compete in it, and matches are permitted to be played out to the death. Action movie buffs everywhere will tell you its one of the greatest films of all time, not least of all for stellar performances from Van Damme and peck popping Bolo Yeung. But, according to Wikipedia, the accuracy of many of the real-life Dux’s claims have been widely disputed, including his martial arts background, fighting in the “Kumite,” and prior military service. The Los Angeles Times also discovered that the organization that allegedly staged the Kumite was found to have the same address as Dux’s house. And to top it all off the trophy he claims to have won for his victory was actually bought by him at a local trophy store.
7. Five Deadly Venoms (1978)
Now a renowned cult classic, Five Deadly Venoms is the archetype we all envision when we think of those cheesy, dubbed kung fu movies filled with whip-cracking sound effects and laughable dialogue. But if you ever see the movie in its native Mandarin language, you’ll probably find that, in addition to the superb fight choreography, it’s also got a great story with all sorts of interesting characters and plot twists.
6. Ip Man (2008)
Supposedly a film based on the life of one of Bruce Lee’s legendary wing chun teachers, Ip Man follows the story of an unrivaled martial artist who was living as a teacher during World War II. To say that Ip Man’s kung fu is strong would be the understatement of a lifetime. You can’t even put into words just how badly he destroys everyone who challenges him in this movie, without so much as breaking a sweat. Even after his body has been severely weakened from malnutrition, Ip Man still manages to take out 10 seasoned fighters as if they were a bunch of frail-bodied guests on the Antiques Roadshow. But, in all seriousness, this movie has a lot of compelling, history-rich story elements to go along with devastating action.
5. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)
This is one of the true genre classics. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin tells the story of a student whose parents are murdered by Manchu invaders. In order to take his revenge, the student steels himself and undergoes transformative martial arts training inside the legendary Shaolin Temple. The movie became famous for its ‘immortal’ fight scene, where one man takes on an army of spear-wielding soldiers using only his bare hands and a few Chinese lanterns. Fun fact, this is actually the movie referenced by the Wu-Tang Clan in the title of their debut studio album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
4. Hero (2002)
Director Zhang Yimou spared no expense with the production of Hero. This beautiful tale of love and revenge stars Jet Li and is based on the story of Jing Ke’s assassination attempt on the King of Quin in 227 BC. At the time of its release, Hero was the most expensive Chinese movie ever made, and it certainly looks as though it was. In addition to the gorgeously choreographed fight scenes, the costumes and set design are of the highest caliber. Seriously, this movie looks so pretty you feel like shouldn’t blink while watching.
3. The Raid: Redemption (2011)
After The Raid: Redemption came out in 2011, it was apparent that the bar for martial arts action movies had been raised to a new level. Director Gareth Evans dishes out an adrenaline-fueled, ultra-violent thrill ride that all takes place within the confines of a dilapidated apartment building controlled by a powerful crime lord.
There definitely isn’t too much of a plot to be found here. But the action is just so damn delicious it doesn’t really matter if it’s lacking in substance.
2. 13 Assassins (2010)
In 13 Assassins, a small number of heroes must fight against impossible odds to free the people of the land from the clutches of a barbaric ruler. The film is terrifically entertaining with great visuals, sound, and an epic 45 minute battle sequence at the end that’s full fantastic swordplay and inventive means of killing people. But despite the fable-like nature of the story, the movie never seems unbelievable, largely due to the excellent use of practical effects and blended CGI. Hollywood action directors should study this film and note the way it still manages to focus on story in the midst of all the intense fighting. If you’re a fan of Akira Kurosawa movies like The Seven Samurai, you really owe it to yourself to see this movie.
1. Enter The Dragon (1973)
Released only six days after Bruce Lee’s death, Enter the Dragon forever enshrined his reputation as the grandmaster of martial arts movies. Enter the Dragon is seminal in every respect, marking the first time a major Hollywood studio backed a martial arts film and opening the door to a world of Chinese cinema that had remained closed, to all but a few, for so long.
This is the movie that defined martial arts movies for the whole of the Western world. It managed to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western cinema, while at the same time elevating Bruce Lee to the pinnacle of global fame. The fact that Bruce Lee died only days before the film’s release imbued it with an almost supernatural element. As if the audience were witnessing a man at the absolute height of what a human being was capable of achieving. And if that sounds just a tad grandiose, it’s really all right, because few could make the argument that it isn’t true.