Martial arts movies have a different set of criteria to be judged by then all other genres. Comparing them to any other film would be like comparing a ballet performance to a theatre production. Martial arts movies are about aesthetics and the actors that provide them. In this sense, they kind of bridge a gap between sports and film. I’ve found over the years that the foundation for them is an actor you can bet behind who can deliver awe-inspiring moves and jaw-dropping stunts.
I believe many take for granted what these performers can do and don’t appreciate the level of dedication and years of intense training needed to deliver such action. Seeing martial artists at the top of their game in these types of movies is the equivalent of watching athletes at the Olympics. Not only is it physically challenging in this way, but also creative and expressive too. Combat in these movies isn’t like any in real life—just watch some UFC and you’ll see how much sloppier, quicker and more brutal real mixed martial arts fights are. In comparison, you’ll appreciate how graceful and entertaining the choreography in these movies really is.
If you’ve ever wanted to see some of the best the genre has to offer from a long-time fan, here’s a list of my top ten favourite recommendations to get you started. Before we begin I’d just like to say that this genre is very subjective and just as there are different kinds of martial arts, there are different styles of these movies too. Personally, I subscribe to the more realistic ones that Bruce Lee laid the foundations for. So be warned, you won’t find any fantasy films in my list where people can fly or perform other fantastical feats. This list is about the best combat choreography, not necessarily the best overall movie. I’m also not a fan of kung fu comedy either, as Bruce said:
A good fight should be like a small play but played seriously.
So sorry Jackie, you’re great but you’re not going to break into my top 10. With that in mind, let’s get started and remember, all of these must be watched with subtitles to avoid any horrendous dubbing:
10. Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010)
Admittedly, this selection is a bit of a wild card based on personal interest, as I’m very fond of superheroes and I enjoy this movie immensely as it’s the best example of one that transcends both genres. It’s also the first of four movies on this list that are all connected. The amazing Donnie Yen takes over from Jet Li in this sequel to Fist of Legend, from the same writer/director Gordon Chan. It’s heavily criticised for its confusing and sloppy plot but the action scenes are some of the best I’ve ever seen. They combine the character of Chen Zhen with elements of Batman to make him a vigilante who’s standing up to Japanese oppression just after returning from the First World War.
Yen also choreographs the combat which uses Mixed Martial Arts as a nod to the fighting style Bruce Lee created called Jeet Kune Do, as they use the same principles. He also adopts the costume of Kato from The Green Hornet, a part played by Bruce in the ‘60s TV show. The whole movie is a tribute to him, as he originally played the character of Zhen in his prolific movie Fist of Fury. The climax is also a mirroring of its infamous scene, in which he challenges a whole Japanese dojo. The master of the dojo now is even the son of the master from the original event. It’s all a bit on-the-nose but the action is just so thrilling and enjoyable. I also want to give a special mention to the amazing war scene at the start of the movie.
9. Clan of the White Lotus (1980)
This is the first Shaw Brothers movie on my list that stars Gordon Liu (aka Chia-Hui Liu) from Director Lieh Lo. Shaw Brothers Studio was a powerhouse factory for martial movies in the ‘70s and early ‘80s that was based in Hong Kong. Liu was their best actor and attained legendary status for his performances for them in countless projects. You’ll recognise the villain from this movie from Kill Bill Vol.2. Quentin Tarantino not only brought the character of Pei Mei back but got Lieu to play him in a genius bit of role-reversal, as he’s the protagonist here in CotWL. Lieu also played the leader of O-Ren Ishii’s Crazy 88 gang in Kill Bill Vol.1. Tarantino’s a big fan of the Shaw Brothers movies. They were one of the main inspirations (along with Lady Snowblood) for Kill Bill and he even had the studio’s logo come up in the intro to Vol.1.
It’s easy to see why when you watch this cool, stylish and entertaining paragon of their output. (On a side note, in case you’re wondering, Kill Bill isn’t on this list because the majority of the combat is carried out with samurai swords in Japan; therefore, I consider it a samurai film and they deserve their own list.) Liu plays Hung Wen-Ting, a Shaolin monk who’s desperately trying to seek revenge on Priest White Lotus (also played by Lo) for killing all of his allies. It’s easier said than done though, as the Priest is the Darth Vader of this world. The choreography uses multiple Chinese styles, is graceful and complex. Seeing Wen-Ting’s numerous attempts and how his skills evolve over the course of the story is as intriguing as it is captivating. Also, his use of needles and acupuncture is an ingenious technique that would also be utilised by Jet Li in Kiss of the Dragon.
8. Ong-bak (2003)
This movie was an introductory showcase for the actor Tony Jaa. Emerging around the same time as Donnie Yen, he was heralded as the next big thing. Although his work in this movie is very innovative, it seems that he was unable to break through to the mainstream in the same way Yen has. This is such a shame because what he brought to the table was so fresh and exciting. Jaa’s fighting style is Muay Thai, a brutal form of kickboxing that uses a lot of elbows and knees. Paired with his incredible athleticism, his performance is one of the most impressive debuts in the genre’s history.
The story is simple and follows Jaa’s character Ting from his small, rural village to the big city of Bangkok to recover a sacred idol that was stolen. This leads him into the seedy underworld and brings him face to face with the worst criminals around. The plot is basic but there’s something delightful about a country boy coming to town and being able to wipe the floor with guys who think they’re real badasses. Jaa would go on to be in the excellent Warrior King and also have parts in the xXx sequel and Fast and Furious 7. Ong-bak is still his greatest achievement though and it seems unlikely he will surpass his explosive debut.
7. Enter the Dragon (1973)
This is the most recognised martial arts movie ever, it put Bruce Lee on the map and made him a famous, international, household name just after his untimely death. It’s influence is immeasurable on not just film but pop culture in general. Bruce became an icon as a result of his fierce, mesmerising moves and über-cool performance. He had a huge impact on TV shows, video games, comic books, manga and anime. The movie also brought in a lot of other talent such as karate black belt John Saxon, karate champion Jim Kelly and the prolific Sammo Hung. Jackie Chan also provided some stunt work for the film and had a small part as well.
The film came out in the peak of the ‘70s, mixed martial arts with blaxploitation flicks, James Bond and had a funky jazz score. This proved a winning formula as the African-American community has always had a keen interest in martial arts and Jim Kelly would go on to star in many more blaxploitation crossover movies. Bruce, having honed his skills in multiple projects in Honk Kong, was at the top of his game and very comfortable there. His charisma was apparent and infectious. The movie was a critical and commercial smash hit. It was commended for its diversity and is widely considered to be one of the best action movies ever made.
6. Fist of Legend (1994)
This is a remake by the legendary Jet Li of Bruce Lee’s classic Fist of Fury. Li picked up the baton from Gordon Liu in the mid-’80s , really came into his own in the ‘90s and this is his finest movie from that period. The story is the blueprint for countless martial arts movies over the years, that of the Chinese dealing with the oppression of the Japanese. At various points in history, Japan has infiltrated China. In this case, it’s at the beginning of the First World War when the Imperial Japanese Army was stationed in Shanghai. They persecuted the Chinese and also appropriated a lot of their culture, but mainly their martial arts.
Japan developed their own rigid, formulaic versions of these styles that became Shotokan Karate and Kempo. The Chinese righteously used their movies to highlight this injustice and show how inferior Japanese fighting skills are compared to their own. This film was choreographed by the masterful Yuen Woo-Ping and it’s because of this film that the Wachowskis recruited him to work on The Matrix. Li’s performance is tight, dynamic and powerful. He has a humble quality that conceals his amazing skill and makes him one of the all-time greats.
5. The Raid 2 (2014)
This is a true, modern classic. The first Raid movie came out of nowhere in 2011 and blew everyone away with its simple yet effective plot of a SWAT team trying to infiltrate a tower block occupied by a ruthless gang. It was an Indonesian production that showcased the fighting style Pencak Silat but was directed by Welshman Gareth Evans. It was one of the best action movies I’d seen in years at the time and it was an even bigger surprise that the sequel was just as good, if not better. The narrative of this movie takes things to another level and out into the criminal underworld of Jakarta. The protagonist, Rama, played by the awesome Iko Uwais, goes undercover in the mob to weed out police corruption.
I believe the sequel is superior as the first installment is essentially a large bottle episode. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and is a great way to overcome the many challenges of a limited budget. However, it meant that the plot was based more around hiding and trying to escape the tower block after the team is ambushed and culled shortly after entering. The sequel isn’t restricted at all, is more adventurous and the stakes are higher. The second Raid movie has drawn some criticism for its intense violence but I don’t feel that it’s ever gratuitous. The choreography is bloody, brutal but also absorbing and very savvy.
4. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)
Have you ever wondered what it would take to become a Shaolin Master? Well this movie will provide you with the answer in an entertaining way. This is the second Shaw Brothers movie on my list starring Gordon Liu and Lieh Lo. It follows Liu’s character San Te as he flees his home to avoid execution from the oppressive Manchu government. Finding refuge in the Shaolin Temple, he begins years of intense training to develop the skills to fight injustice. Not many martial arts movies have ever spent the majority of their narrative exploring the making of a talented martial artist and this story tells it well, highlighting the inner journey of discovery as much as the physical.
This movie will make you appreciate the kind of dedication and discipline that’s required to perform in this genre. Obviously the actors haven’t been through this extreme, painful type of training but the key principles are still relevant. However, Shaolin monks do dedicate their lives as such and this is an admirable and fascinating phenomenon indeed. The diverse skills on display, the handling of various weapons and styles is what makes this movie so engaging. This is Liu at his best, with his confident, exquisite moves that made him the top performer of this era. It’s considered to be one of the best martial arts movies ever and was a turning point in the genre for all involved.
3. Ip Man 4: The Finale (2019)
The Ip Man series, starring Donnie Yen, is based on the real life Wing Chun Master of the same name; he was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing this particular martial art to the world. He’s the reason I take classes in it every week, in an academy where his portrait hangs on the wall and we bow in respect to him at the beginning and end of each lesson. His most famous student is Bruce Lee himself and he has also been incorporated well into these movies as a character. I’ve only seen it once as it was just recently in cinemas and some would probably argue that the first two instalments are superior but my initial reaction is to lean towards this final chapter.
The substantial story sees Ip Man travel to the US to try and find a school for his son and encounter the difficulties with integration that Chinese people are struggling with there in the ’70s. Bruce fits in nicely to this narrative as he was at the forefront of this issue, trying to bridge a gap between the two cultures. The choreography, as in all the films in this series is intricate and solid. Yen is the current leading actor of the genre, also enjoying mainstream success in movies such as Star Wars: Rogue One, Blade II, Hero and the upcoming live action remake of Mulan.
2. Fearless (2006)
This movie is a prequel of sorts to Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury (I’m sure you’re getting tired of hearing this movie mentioned so much but you’ll see why it is shortly) and tells the story of the fictional Chen Zhen’s master Huo Yuanjia, played by Jet Li. Yuanjia was a real martial artist who challenged foreign fighters in highly publicized events. He restored pride and nationalism to China at a time when Western imperialism and Japanese oppression were eroding the country in the final years of the Qing Dynasty. The story covers most of Yuanjia’s life in an epic way and by the end of it, you really feel as if you’ve lived it with him.
This is something that’s usually sorely missing from martial arts movies, a deep, substantial, biographical story. Yuen Woo-Ping is once again on choreography duties and puts together some incredible, CG-light fights that rely on practical ability. Li’s on top form at this point in his career and delivers one of his best performances with perfect moves that are dominant and robust. His authoritative work in this movie involves multiple weapons, including a three-section staff in the climactic sequence that Gordon Liu’s character invents in The 36th Chamber; a clear nod to the actor from which he took over as the genre’s leading performer.
Before we move on to my number one recommendation, here are a few honorable mentions, as it’s hard to select just ten:
Five Elements Ninjas (1982): This thrilling and engrossing Shaw Brothers movie is the best example of Chinese martial arts facing off against Japanese ninjutsu available.
The Matrix (1999): The infamous Wachowski’s masterpiece that appropriated the Hong Kong action style for Western audiences to amazing effect.
Kung Fu Hustle (2004): If you did want a kung fu comedy, this is the best you’ll find; written, directed and starring the talented Stephen Chow.
1. Fist of Fury (1972)
This movie has everything anyone could want from a martial arts movie. It has the greatest ever performer in Bruce Lee, in the story that would become the blueprint for many of the best movies that would follow in the genre. It has some of the best combat choreography and possibly the most infamous scene from any martial arts movie ever, where he takes on an entire Japanese dojo. I don’t know what else you could ask for. It’s my favourite film of Bruce’s because it retains all the culture that the fighting styles originated from, unlike the usual go-to Enter the Dragon; which I love but was watered down with blaxploitation and spy themes to make it more appealing to Western audiences.
In my opinion, foreign movies should never be altered or adapted for another country; this includes dubbing and even title changes. All Western audiences but especially the United Stares are most guilty in this respect. Imagine if Parasite was dubbed and edited in a different way to make it more digestible, it would have ruined the film. Fist of Fury is the best martial arts movie because it was a Chinese production, that’s where it was set and it had no interference. After this project, Bruce would travel West for his next outing in Way of the Dragon, that he would shoot himself in Italy. This is the reason Fist of Fury has had numerous sequels, a prequel, has been remade, and then it’s remake has had sequels; three of these featuring earlier in this list.
All of the genre’s biggest performers that followed Bruce have been involved in one of these projects or paid clear tributes to him, including Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow. Lee’s charisma and ability are undeniable and in this setting, his savvy, innovative, cha cha-inspired moves are showcased best and are the most compelling. Not only this but the impact this movie had on action cinema in general and what he did to shape it for all the years that followed right up to the current day is immeasurable. There’s a reason why superheroes in current movies had to learn martial arts to be able to fight properly, it’s because of these movies and more specifically, the influence of Bruce.