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Top Ten Martial Arts Movies

Updated on November 14, 2015
Souther29 profile image

Olly has a degree in French, has written for the University paper, and is an avid film, game, and exercise fan as well as a keen traveler.


Hey, Your Kung Fu is Pretty Good!

Martial Arts have such a rich history all over the world and this is a list of the martial arts films that have had the most impact on me, in my life, as both a film lover and enthusiastic martial artist.

One of Jet's Best

Fist Of Legend Trailer

10. Fist of Legend (1994)

One of the most watched Jet Li films in my collection has to be Fist of Legend. Whilst it’s a remake of The Chinese Connection starring Bruce Lee (and a recent inspired remake by Donnie Yen in Legend of Chen Zhen) it is a worthy one. Highlighting the conflict between China and Japan in 1937 and the suspicious death of Chen Zhen’s Sifu (father/teacher... read as Master) Huo Yuan Jia, a rivalry between Japanese martial arts and Chinese kung fu seems to be the only way to settle the superiority once and for all. Some very special fight scenes scattered amongst the entirety of the film showcasing the various styles of each country as well as some interesting philosophical aspects. The final fight scene against an undefeated opponent is one of the best fights I’ve ever seen and could watch it all day.

Great Wing Tsun Movie

Ip Man Trailer

9. Ip Man (2008)

Ip Man is a joy to behold as is based on the life of Grandmaster Yip Man (Ip Man) who famously trained Bruce Lee in (about 50%) of the Wing Tsun fighting system. It is a personal favourite of mine having studied Wing Tsun for a number of years and Donnie Yen, who plays Ip Man, is superbly skilled in the role. There is the right mixture of action scenes and story to the point where, by the final fight, the audience is completely engaged with anticipation – what martial arts style will be the most celebrated? Shaolin monks died to protect the system of Wing Tsun and this film does the best job so far of capturing the spirit of this powerful, but deep martial art. If you have never seen Wing Tsun in action, then prepare to be blown away by some of the scenes – the sheer intensity is staggering.

Killzone Trailer

8. Sha Po Lang (Killzone) (2005)

Another favourite from Donnie Yen, trying to bring down a seemingly untouchable and powerful Triad crime boss in Hong Kong. With Hong Kong heavyweights such as Sammo Hung, Simon Yam and the introduction of Jacky Wu (Wu Jing) it’s this ensemble together that flex their acting chops as well as their muscles (apart from Simon understandably!). Jacky Wu almost steals the show as an unhinged, unpredictable and very dangerous enemy but the fight between Donnie and Sammo is really something to behold. The intensity and violence of the fights really bring the passion and determination from Donnie’s character to dismount Sammo’s self assured character. If I was to compare it with anything I would say it’s a more action packed, less intricate version of Infernal Affairs. Well worth checking out if you like your action pieces in modern Hong Kong.

Ong Bak Trailer

7. Ong Bak (2003)

Ong Bak caught many by surprise when it was released. It was lauded as a 100% realistic film. No wirework, no CGI and really dangerous fights and stunts. Only in Thailand could something like this get approved, but I’m so glad it did. As a result the rather weak story is the showcase for some frankly jaw dropping Muay Thai action and acrobatics from Tony Jaa. In the same way as Ip Man helped widen the knowledge of Wing Tsun to a worldwide audience, Ong Bak serves to highlight the beauty (and devastation) of Muay Thai. It’s another ‘must see’ in my view as I can recall almost all of the fights because they are not only great to watch, but are designed to test Muay Thai against other styles making for some very interesting set ups. The sequels have never quite lived up to the original but are still worth checking out.

Breathtaking Swordplay and Action

Hero Trailer

6. Hero (2002)

Crafted by Zhang Yimou the only word I can use for this film is breathtaking. In my view it surpasses Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from a cinematography perspective and is its equal in the cleverly choreographed fight scenes. It’s a film on a grand scale with actually a very interesting story as well of a man known as ‘Nameless’ arriving to prove to a king in the palace of Qin (Chin) that he has killed 3 of Qin’s biggest enemies. But is everything as it seems? The use of colour is especially striking throughout and the film really does transport you into a mystical, ancient land.

Intensity, Brutality and Brilliance from Indonesia

The Raid: Redemption Trailer

5. The Raid: Redemption (2011)

In the same way that Ong Bak surprised many worldwide with bone-crunching, realistic fighting and helped showcase Muay Thai to the masses, ‘The Raid’ has given Indonesian cinema a bright spotlight. As with many martial arts films, the plot is simple but effective. A team of highly trained officers storm a 50 story apartment block run by a drug kingpin – floor by floor. Describing this film as intense is a massive understatement. It grabs you, smashes you into a wall and then carries your body up every single floor leaving you breathless. The action is brutal, unforgiving, bloody and electric to watch. You feel for the police struggling to take down the gang members and reach the final floor – it really is edge of your seat stuff. I challenge you to watch the trailer and then immediately try to not type the fight scenes into YouTube. Update - The Raid 2 is even better.

Gritty, Powerful and Realistic Action

Unleashed Trailer

4. Unleashed (Danny the Dog) (2005)

Unleashed was Jet Li’s first Western film where we really see him in a slightly more serious role. It tells the story of Danny, who has been raised by a shady debt collector from a young age only knowing one thing – how to fight. He treats him like a dog and is 100% obedient to his master (played very well by Bob Hoskins). The opening scene grabs you and is one of the most memorable I’ve ever seen. The sheer animalistic fighting style is very different to how we normally see Jet Li fight, but works perfectly in the film and for his role. The film goes quite deep into what makes us who we are, how outside influences affect us as well as the power of music but is also a showcase for some superbly choreographed fights charged with emotion (or lack of in some cases). If any of your friends are not too keen on martial arts films/fighting films I would urge them to watch this one and guarantee they will enjoy it. Also Morgan Freeman is in it... and he never puts his name to a mediocre film in my view.

Punching in Paris

Kiss of the Dragon Trailer

3. Kiss of the Dragon (2001)

Apart from being one of Jet Li’s better Western martial arts films, he actually came up with the story for this one too, and it shows, in a good way. Directed by Chris Nahon and produced by Luc Besson (a French cinematic legend) it’s a story of a Chinese cop coming to assist the French police in Paris in an operation involving a Chinese drug lord. It all goes a little bit pear-shaped though. What is great about this film is that there is very minimal CGI and hardly any wirework used so the fight scenes come across as gritty and realistic. You actually care about the characters because the acting is top notch (especially Tcheky Karyo) which means the fights have even more resonance and power behind them.

Enter the Dragon Trailer

2. Enter the Dragon (1973)

Probably the most iconic martial arts film of all time with the most respected martial artist some would say. Whatever your view, Enter the Dragon is still a fantastic example of the genre despite being over 40 years old. Tasked with infiltrating a possible drug lord’s hideout, Bruce must enter a fighting competition as a cover to investigate on a remote island. Whilst not Bruce’s ‘best’ film (Game of Death narrowly beats this one in my view) it propelled martial arts, and Bruce, into the world’s view. Some blisteringly fast fight scenes, an iconic villain and one of the most unforgettable final scenes of a martial arts film ever all help Enter the Dragon firmly mark its place as a favourite the world over. There is even a tiny guest appearance by a now, well known martial arts star. See if you can spot him!

Drunken Kung Fu Genius

Drunken Master Trailer

1. Drunken Master (1978)

Drunken Master is one of Jackie Chan’s early films, but a clear example of the powerhouse he would likely become in the martial arts world. The idea of a martial art that revolves around drinking is probably every man’s dream come true but the idea was emulating being drunk to throw your opponent off guard and then attack in sneaky and unusual ways. The trademark comedy from Jackie can be seen here, but the acrobatic stunts and fighting choreography are simply staggering. One fight with the King of Sticks stands out in my mind as being a fantastic example of taking a relatively obscure martial art and demonstrating its effectiveness. It’s pure inventive kung fu at its best. Wonder how good Jackie Chan was now he’s calming down? See this film and be amazed.

Find Your Own Way

With so many different styles of martial arts films, we're spoilt for choice and can only hope this continues for decades and this amazing film genre continues to flourish. Feel free to let me know if you agree/disagree or simply want to mention your own favourite martial arts films - I know many of you kindly did in a question of mine recently.

Hope this also helps those who haven't seen many martial arts films - you won't go wrong by watching a few of these. Enjoy!

Question Time!

Do You Like Martial Arts Films?

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