Say what you want about the whiz bang visuals concocted in Hollywood with computer-generated imagery, but some of the most amazing things we’ve ever seen on the silver screen have come via martial arts. From Bruce Lee’s pinpoint mastery of nunchucks to Jackie Chan’s insane acrobatic abilities, the best stunts in classic kung fu flicks mesmerize and hypnotize.
The crazy choreographed action is of course reason #1 for loving martial arts movies, but it’s not the only reason. The history, humor, oddball characters, and in older films, the cheese; the so-bad-it’s-good dubbed dialogue; it all adds up to a niche genre that can sometimes make for a perfect piece of Saturday afternoon entertainment.
Trying to determine the 25 best kung fu/martial arts movies of all time was no easy task. What era deserves the most respect? How heavy do you go on Shaw Brothers productions? Does The Matrix count? After a few verbal sparring sessions, we arrived at the following 25, but to avoid any further bloodshed, we decided to list them in no particular order.
The Big Boss (Fists of Fury)
Director: Lo Wei
Purchase: Amazon DVD
Bruce Lee’s first role in a Hong Kong action movie wasn’t supposed to be a big as it was. The Big Boss was written for James Tien, but Lee’s natural skills and charisma forced director Lo Wei’s to shift gears. A decidedly low budget and gritty picture, several scenes had to be cut due to their graphic nature. The end result lacks more polish than usual, but Lee’s magnetism helps make up for it.
Writing, directing, and starring in Police Story, Jackie Chan really aired it out in this return to classic Hong Kong action. Following his disappointing first foray into American films, Chan plays a disgraced cop who goes undercover to clear his name and kick some drug dealer ass. Chan orchestrates some awesome stunt work, with the climactic fight shopping mall scene reigning supreme. The film turned out to be Chan’s favorite, and it’s easily one of ours too.
Once Upon a Time in China
Jet Li’s star started rising fast when he starred as Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung in this sprawling film that reignited the Hong Kong action genre. Li masterfully uses not only his fists and feet, but an array of props, from umbrellas to ladders and even a bullet (sans gun) to wreak havoc on the enemy. With killer choreography and a strong streak of comedy running through it, Once Upon a Time in China fully satisfies.
The pioneer of the wuxia or anti-hero martial arts films, One-Armed Swordsman established a subgenre, one stuffed with plenty of style, blades, blood, and limb removal services. Jimmy Wang is most magnificent as Fang Kang, showing sometimes two arms are just not necessary for shish-kebabing your enemies.
Thai martial arts guru Tony Jaa’s undeniable skills are flat-out spectacular in in Ong-Bak, which would be a forgettable movie if its action scenes weren’t so jaw-dropping. In taking on the Thai underworld to retrieve a stolen statue head, Jaa shows off a truckload of inventive and moves, with more furious action than any human really should ever ask for in a movie.
Fist of Fury (The Chinese Connection)
Director: Lo Wei
Purchase: Amazon DVD
Bruce Lee’s second film featured the rising star as a man who fights for the honor of the Chinese while avenging his instructor’s death. Lee’s poetic form of ass-kicking is on full display, including taking out an entire Japanese dojo, and it’s even more impressive knowing he choreographed all of it.
Five Deadly Venoms
One of the all-time cult classic films in any genre, Five Deadly Venoms is the kind of movie we think of when we yearn for those Saturday afternoon kung fu flicks filled with flying kicks and loads of cheesy dubbed dialogue. A great story stuffed with plot twists and awesome choreography make this a must-see.
The Prodigal Son
Director: Sammo Hung
Purchase: Amazon DVD
A great mix of action and comedy, The Prodigal Son features a hearty serving of close-quarters Wing Chun fighting while telling the story of Leung Chang, the son of a wealthy man who is half-heartedly studying kung fu. The great Sammo Hung directs and co-stars here, with Yun Biao and Lam Ching-ying turning in some awesome fight performances.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
The great Ang Lee (Hulk, Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain) directed this international sensation that went on to become the highest-grossing foreign-language film in US history. The dazzling mid-air choreography and intricate fight scenes even wowed even the most jaded critics, as the film’s fairy tale feel racked up numerous awards and a permanent spot on the short list of greatest action movies of all time.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
One of the true classics of the genre, The 36h Chamber of Shaolin tells the tale of a student whose parents are killed by Manchu invaders before he undergoes transformative martial arts training inside the legendary Shaolin Temple. One of the great revenge tales, the film features an immortal fight scene involving spears, lanterns, and one man beating back an army of goons. A Wu-Tang Clan favorite, and one of ours.
The Legend of Drunken Master (Drunken Master 2)
Featuring probably the finest of Jackie Chan’s performances, The Legend of Drunken Master deftly combines his legendary acrobatic skills with his charming comedic chops. The final fight, with Chan taking on the kick-crazy Ken Lo, is a fire-blowing, hot coal-sliding, worm-rolling must-see masterpiece.
The Way of the Dragon
Bruce Lee showed he was more than just a physical performer in The Way of the Dragon, his only completed directorial effort; he also showed he could bring wit, as well as his natural charm to the screen. Watching Lee grab a handful of Chuck Norris chest hair in the Roman Coliseum while a kitten looks on, is… well… what else can you call that besides cinema gold?
The highly underrated Donnie Yen plays the role of Yip Man, the real-life grandmaster of Chinese martial art Wing Chun and mentor to Bruce Lee. Set during the Japanese invasion and occupation of China in the late-1930s, Ip Man boats a compelling, history-rich story to go along with some devastatingly furious fight scenes.
The Raid: Redemption
After seeing The Raid, we knew the bar had been significantly raised for action movies. Director Gareth Evans delivers an adrenaline-soaked, hyper-violent adventure stuffed inside a dingy Jakarta apartment building. There’s not much of a plot, but you really don’t have time to notice that, as the breathtaking and inventive action scenes grab you by the neck and refuses to let go.
With tons of innovative action and ample squirts of humor, Iron Monkey tells another tale of Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung and his father, Wong Kei-ying, as they take on a Robin Hood-style thief. What the film’s story lacks gets made up for with some of the better martial arts battles of the 20th century.
Kill Bill Vol. 1
A famously huge fan of kung fu movies, Quentin Tarantino paid homage to the genre with four hours of visually striking bloody beat downs. It was footage that he loved so much, he had to split it up into two movies. We honestly can’t remember a thing about the plot, but we’ll never forget the surprisingly vicious stylings of one yellow jumpsuit-clad Uma Thurman.
Legendary Weapons of China
The plot may be a bit on the convoluted side, but this Shaw Bros. gem delivers perhaps the best weapons fighting in martial arts cinema history. From the rope dart to the monk’s spade, pretty much every instrument of destruction gets a go here, with a lengthy final battle scene between real-life brothers that doesn’t disappoint.
Master of the Flying Guillotine
One of the finest examples of the Hong Kong martial arts movies of the ’70s, Master of the Flying Guillotine piles on the action, cheese, and absurdity to a degree you can’t help but love. With the one-armed boxer, blind flying guillotine master, and a yoga master whose arms can extend 10-feet long, there’s no shortage of crazy characters to keep you entertained.
Fist of Legend
Director: Gordon Chan
Purchase: Amazon DVD
With star Jet Li and director Gordon Chan putting their spins on the Bruce Lee classic, Fist of Fury, this remake manages to up the intensity quite nicely. Choreographer Yuen Woo-ping does a masterful job of mapping out the lightning quick Li’s moves, and his work won over the Wachowskis, who hired him to do the same for The Matrix.
Crippled Avengers (Return of the Five Deadly Venoms)
Director: Chang Cheh
Purchase: Amazon DVD
This Shaw Bros. classic throws the kitchen sink at you, with a ragtag team of blind, deaf, legless, and brain-damaged warriors seeking vengeance against the tyrant who crippled them. Politically correct this is not. The crazy set pieces, creative fights, and dart-shooting arms make this one of our favorites.
Come Drink with Me
Regarded as one of the finest Hong Kong films ever, Come Drink with Me was ahead of its time (1966), featuring a fierce female protagonist (Cheng Pei-pei) on a quest to rescue a governor’s son. With its ballet-like choreography and fantasy elements, it’s easy to see how the film inspired Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon decades later.
Director Zhang Yimou spared no expense with Hero, crafting a gorgeous revenge-centered epic, with Jet Li starring as a nameless soldier. Based on the story of Jing Ke’s assassination attempt on the King of Qin in 227 BC, this visually stunning award-winner boasts both a strong plot and some damn fine martial arts action. At the time it was the most expensive Chinese movie ever made ($35 million), and it definitely looks the part.
The Karate Kid
Our guilty pleasure pick. Originally, in our much younger, more pliable days, The Karate Kid won us over with its underdog story and charming performances by Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio. Today, we’ll admit it sweeps our legs thanks to the 80s music and feel-good nostalgia that comes along with it. We still can’t wax a car without thinking of Mr. Miyagi.
The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter
Another gem from the prolific Shaw Bros. Studios, The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter features frenetic action, strong characters, and excellent direction by Lau Kar-leung. Despite the tragic death of Alexander Fu Sheng before the film wrapped up, the final showdown is still a thing of brutal beauty.
Enter the Dragon
Enter the Dragon 1973 Robert Clouse & Bruce Lee
Released just six days after Bruce Lee’s death, Enter the Dragon cemented his reputation as the supreme master of martial arts movies. It was the first martial arts film produced by a major Hollywood studio, and Lee even rewrote most of the script, as well as directed the film’s first brawl. The all-star lineup (Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao) of stuntmen only further enhances the legend of this one.
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