Martial arts are so popular, they spawned an entire movie sub-genre starring some of the most respected martial artists of all time. Regarding this list, it’s a mish-mash. We have several martial artists turned actors, some of whom have passed away but will always be remembered as legends, and some actors who you might not know are highly skilled, trained and formerly competitive martial arts champions. The one thing that remains consistent when addressing all of these silver and small screen dynamos: every one of them fought their way into television and movie history.
11. Taylor Lautner
Nah. This can’t be right. Taylor Lautner? From the Twilight series? The guy who used to cuddle with Taylor Swift? You know it. Most recently, Lautner was seen in Adam Sandler’s The Ridiculous 6, and he’s presently appearing in the long-running sitcom Cuckoo. The 24-year-old has changed his look as of late in order to shed the tween image that offered him superstar status, and it seems to be aiding him out of the pigeonhole. Regarding his martial arts abilities, Taylor is a black belt in karate and won many form and weapons demonstration competitions. Before he was nabbed by Robert Rodriguez to become Sharkboy, he had appeared on the ESPN family of networks in the national competitions. For those who can more readily remember Kanye West crashing Taylor Swift’s VMA Award acceptance, Taylor Lautner offered some comedic, martial arts retribution on Saturday Night Live.
10. Jason David Frank
This list wouldn’t be a legitimate actor/martial artist list without a Power Ranger. There were many cast members on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers throughout the years, and some of them had legitimate martial arts training before being cast on the show; however, none possessed the martial arts badassery of Jason David Frank, who played Tommy Oliver. Jason began his martial arts training at a very early age, and by the time he was 18 years old he was teaching other kids while owning black belt status. At present, Jason owns a 7th degree black belt in Shotokan Karate, and is also training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He has competed in the world of MMA, and is also responsible for the development of an eclectic martial arts discipline, Toso Kune Do. Jason continues to stay involved in the MMPR circles, and often appears at conventions.
9. Sho Kosugi
Sho Kosugi was the quintessential movie ninja. The love of the shinobi can be attributed to the badassery of Sho Kosugi in the 1980s. Every movie made featuring a ninja with expert martial arts skill took advantage of Sho Kosugi’s incredible skill set. In addition to being an incredible fighter, and weapons expert, Sho Kosugi was a talented actor considering the source material. A great introduction to Sho Kosugi for those who aren’t in the know: Ninja III: The Domination. In this particular 1980s gem, there are no VFX to be found, merely practical stunts and in-camera tricks. This takes the so-bad-it’s-good martial arts to the next level. Within the film, Sho Kosugi is called upon to rid an innocent woman of an evil ninja spirit. Kids in the 1980s learned the art of paper throwing stars thanks to Sho.
8. Michael Dudikoff
Speaking of movie ninjas, how about the American Ninja series in the 1980s? Michael Dudikoff played the titular role of the American ninja, in the the film series of the same name. Michael was familiar with striking martial arts when he was cast in the role, but his training was in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which was a lesser-known martial art in the United States at the time the American Ninja movies were made. Fans of the American Ninja series will remember Michael Dudikoff being more physical than a lot of American martial artist actors who came prior, with the exception of Chuck Norris. What Michael really had going were his traditional leading man good looks. Michael enjoyed roles in several films that were outside the B-action genre, and has continued to work to this day.
7. Steven Seagal
Steven Seagal is now 64 years old, still going strong, and boasting a reputation in Hollywood as a legitimate ass-kicker. It’s common knowledge that a lot of people have had run-ins with Seagal, but he maintains good working relationships throughout the industry that made him a household name in the 1980s and 1990s. Seagal is a 7th Dan black belt in Aikido, and before he ventured in front of a camera, he was busy making a living as an Aikido instructor. He began his career in Japan, then opened the first Aikido dojo in the United States before moving to Los Angeles to potentially monetize his skill set. Steven was a refreshing change-up to the martial arts movie scene, and brought a darker tonality to his films. His soap opera, coolest-guy-in-the-room acting style has kept him employed in movies for nearly 30 years.
6. Jackie Chan
Jackie Chan had been doing it for years and years before he experienced success in American cinema. Ironically, one of his first films shot in America wasn’t even for an American audience: Rumble in the Bronx. And the film wasn’t really shot in America, per se. It was shot in North America, sure—Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, to be specific. Nonetheless, it opened American eyes to the Chinese sensation, Jackie Chan. Chan is an expert martial artists who has studied karate, judo, hapkido and tae kwon do. He was a product of the Chinese martial arts cinema, but his stunt work was sought after by the best of the best in Hollywood and the world over. He is still considered one of the finest onscreen martial artists, fight choreographers and stunt coordinators the industry has to offer.
5. Jet Li
Jet Li was another Chinese cinematic legend who eventually got his shot in American cinema. After starring in films for years in his native China, Li was offered the opportunity to star as the untouchable villain in Lethal Weapon 4, opposite Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. After blowing audiences’ minds in the blockbuster, Jet Li went on to enjoy immediate success in a string of American martial arts flicks, playing both hero and villain. When it comes to his martial arts training, he boasts mastery in several forms of wushu, and was a gold medalist in multiple Chinese national competitions before he reached the age of adulthood. While a teenager, he was already teaching and coaching young martial artists in the various styles of wushu. As of late, Li has been a part of Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables series, while also returning to his Chinese cinematic roots.
4. Wesley Snipes
Over the years, Wesley Snipes has proven there isn’t a lot he can’t do well…other than pay his taxes. Wesley is one of those guys you simply can’t put into a box, figuratively speaking. During the prime of his career, before he was thrown in the clink for his financial misgivings, he was a supremely athletic onscreen talent who could pretty much do anything. He also had acting chops for days, and could dive deep while remaining cool and subtle. He was also a certified badass. So, here we have a dude who did films such as White Men Can’t Jump, Jungle Fever and Blade. Because of his athleticism, it would have been easy to suppose Wesley was adept at merely picking up martial arts choreography for some of his films. In fact, Wesley has trained in six disciplines and holds black belts in Shotokan and Hapkido.
3. Jean-Claude Van Damme
This list wouldn’t be a list without a little Van Dammage. Van Damme-it, this guy made us all want to be martial arts experts who could proudly fight in the Kumite full contact championships. Jean-Claude Van Damme was born in Brussels, Belgium, as Jean-Claude Van Varenberg. His pops introduced him to the world of martial arts because he could see that JCVD was struggling to develop physically. At age 11 he began to study Shotokan karate, and as he progressed he also took up kickboxing, Muy Thai, Tae Kwon Do and full-contact karate. When he was introduced to the American masses in Bloodsport (1988), dudes immediately wanted to be him, and chicks wanted to be with him. JCVD went on to become one of the biggest and most successful martial arts stars in cinematic history.
2. Chuck Norris
There have been only eight Americans to be honored with an 8th degree black belt in Tang Soo Do. We don’t even have to say it, do we? Of course Chuck Norris is one of them. Chuck Norris has possessed a lifelong love of martial arts, and he took his studies, discipline and execution to the pinnacle of the sport. Chuck was a six-time karate world champion, boasting a record of 183-10-2. He was never satisfied with possessing the perspective of one martial art. He’s a mixed martial arts master. Holding black belts in multiple disciplines, Chuck’s understanding of the martial arts world translated easily to the screen. His first onscreen fight was against none other than the legendary Bruce Lee. While the Chuck Norris jokes and memes keep coming, we tip our figurative cap to a bona fide martial artist.
1. Bruce Lee
The legend of Bruce Lee goes far beyond the movie screen, but thanks to the medium, the world was able to know the martial arts master. For those who absolutely love the sub-genre of martial arts flicks, you can offer your continuous gratitude to Bruce Lee. No doubt martial arts films would have been made, but would they have been popular or profitable without the founder of Jeet Kune Do? Bruce Lee studied Wing Chun under the legendary Yip Man. Unlike many on this list, Bruce didn’t start training as a toddler or child, rather as an adolescent who was getting his butt kicked by rival gangs. To suggest Bruce was a natural would be an understatement. His ideology and martial arts philosophy existed outside the box. And as an actor? Bruce was as charming as they came. Such a shame to lose him at 32.