While certain practices and disciplines of martial arts are centuries old, martial arts movies didn’t gain global popularity until the 1970s. There was this 5’8″ guy named Lee Jun-Fan born in a San Francisco Chinese hospital on November 27, 1940.
His dad, Lee Hoi-Chuen, was a notable Cantonese opera star, so exposure to film was early in Jun-Fan’s young life. Then, following some martial arts training that some female Buddhist nun created, Lee Jun-Fan thought his knowledge of the arts–both martial and theatrical–may find a home on screen.
Off to Hong Kong he went and that’s how we were introduced to the man who would be Bruce Lee. There are many reasons why Bruce Lee is regarded as supremely high as he is, and his martial arts movies are only some of those reasons. His unmistakable philosophy, unrivaled skill, and unmatched charisma in film created this genre (and arguably, sparked mixed martial arts).
Hollywood has unveiled many martial artists to us, several of the most recognizable names include Steven Seagal (Aikido), Jackie Chan (Hapkido), Michael Jai White (Goju-Ryu), Jean-Claude Van-Damme (Kickboxing, Shotokan Karate), Jet Li and Donnie Yen (Wushu), and the most macho Chuck Norris (Tang Soo Do). Yet, no more influential and powerful in this genre than Bruce Lee. With so many martial arts movies at our disposal, how many are considered “must-see” to understand and appreciate the genre?
Here are the 12 absolute must-see martial arts movies…
12. The Karate Kid (1984)
Okay, here me out. This is largely a hamhanded script with numerous tropes, but the fight choreography is real. Campy in some places, but legitimate. I’ve been to full contact tourneys and the buzz in the crowd at these things is electric.
Add to this moment of the All Valley Tournament three things:
- The romanticized plight of Daniel (Ralph Macchio) taking on the bullies from Cobra-Kai
- The choreography was on point, as it pertains to those tournaments–one hit and point!
- That song. C’mon… Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best” was awful…and kids who heard it, loved it!
Not for nothing, but the first “referee” you see in this montage is real-life 9th degree Black Belt in Tang Soo Do (yes, Chuck Norris was his teacher), Pat E. Johnson. This movie was his choreography and it’s his oversight that creates a more life-like feel. (Dude has worked with Jackie Chan, Brandon Lee, and even Lee’s daddy with a minor part in Enter the Dragon.)
The harangue of bullies, loving paternal relationship of Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) and Danielsan, the soupy romance with Ali (Elizabeth Shue), and that damn Cobra Kai. It was 100% visceral emotion and cheering on the good guy. And dojo enrollment quadrupled across the country. And who can wax a car without thinking of this film? Please. That’s an impact.
11. Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003)
Who knew Uma Thurman could wield a katana blade and kick all that ass?! It must be the Bruce Lee-inspired jump suit. Quentin Tarantino has always been a fan of martial arts movies, so he creates allusions to them in his film. (Including the one in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood where he mocks the GOAT.)
In Kill Bill, Vol. 1, we may get one of Tarantino’s bloodiest movies. As with any of his movies, the soundtrack is so choice, but the way he gives the martial arts community and lovers all that fan service was arguably his best nod to a particular genre.
The fight choreography was excellently laid out and played out. Uma comes across as a serious badass. Worth your viewing enjoyment.
10. Police Story (1985)
This was the martial arts movie solidified Jackie Chan as an action moviestar because he was already regarded highly as a martial artist. Unfortunately, America didn’t give Jackie Chan a great first impression of Hollywood pigeonholing him in various supporting roles as the “Subaru Driver” in Cannonball Run I or “Mitsubishi Engineer” in the Cannonball Run II. (Stay classy, America.)
Jackie tried coming to America, but he went back to Hong Kong and his first movie Police Story was a bonafide hit among all his fans. Among martial arts movies, this was an instant classic. Jackie Chan wrote, directed, and starred in this high-flying, action-packed film about a disgraced undercover cop and beating down some drug dealing ne’er-do-wells.
Think he’s not serious about doing his own stunts? On this film alone, he got a concussion, suffered severe burns, dislocated his pelvis, and was almost paralyzed by a shattered vertebrae. He took his career back with one movie and became a legitimate action star, even in the very country that did him wrong the first time. Watch that video and see the master in action…before Rush Hour.
9 Above the Law (1988)
From 1988 to 1996, there were few men on the planet feared more than Steven Seagal. He brought his particular discipline, Aikido, to the big screen. Before Seagal, few knew about this Japanese practice or about O-Sensei, Morihei Ueshiba, the Aikido Kaiso (founder). When Above the Law came to us, it hit the martial arts community like wildfire.
Who knew arms bent in that direction? Who understood you could reverse someone’s motion in the blink of an eye? Understanding the samurai of medieval Japan and the art of jujitsu, everyone was interested in Aikido as a result of Steven Seagal’s turning bad guys into salt water taffy.
Even though Seagal’s career went straight to DVD following Under Siege 2, Seagal’s credentials are legit. He is the first U.S. citizen to operate an Aikido dojo in Japan, where he earned his 7th dan Black Belt. The hair. The goatee. Now, the weight. Say what you will, this guy was a force in martial arts movies.
P.S. We can’t control headings of videos, so when someone says “the Indian’s store,” we’re not liable. SMH.
8. Fist of Legend (1994)
Fist of Legend was the film that brought us Li Lianje, otherwise known as Jet Li. And the man earns his nickname in his first martial arts movie. Just watch his dazzling speed as he fights this dude wearing his best M. Bison from ‘Street Fighter’ cosplay. Toward the end of this climatic face-off, Jet Li literally “whips” his tail.
Many martial arts enthusiasts may not know this is a remake of Bruce Lee’s 1972 classic Fist of Fury.
We are set at the beginning of World War I in 1914, during the Japanese occupation of China. We meet Chen Zhen (this time, Jet Li) who lives as a Chinese student in Japan, but the tragic death of his Chinese teacher drove him to come back to occupied China and seek revenge. That’s where the fun begins.
Much to the heart of martial arts movies, the choreography is realistic. Triple kicks? That’s all Jet Li causing jaws to drop and martial arts students wondering, “How’d he do that?!” Easily the most underrated film of Jet Li’s career, see this film.
7. John Wick 2 (2017)
Out of seemingly nowhere came the John Wick franchise. Yes, Keanu Reeves‘ career was wonderfully kickstarted but this is one of the best original concepts Hollywood has had the temerity to create in a long time. Each movie is a raucous, hard-R rating for its yielding gun play and brutal shootouts. The sequel involved more of the hand-to-hand combat a martial artist would enjoy.
And speaking of martial arts, Keanu Reeves is no slouch. He was trained in Wushu and Jiu Jitsu for The Matrix, but in John Wick, he learns more about BJJ and Israeli secret service practice, Krav Maga. His fight instructor was Jonathan Eusebio, known for The Bourne films, 300, and that Avengers saga.
For those who know, there is a good amount of Judo sprinkled in there as well. The fight scenes are all on point. And while not a “true” martial arts movie, there is enough to appreciate all the craft that went into this production. Amazing action and a nice potpourri of various disciplines.
P.S. Also, when someone can’t spell “museum,” we’re not liable for that either. Man!
6. Iron Monkey (1993)
This won’t be the first time you hear these names — Total badass on film and real life Donnie Yen and Hong Kong’s pre-eminent fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping. Why? Not only has he been responsible for some of the most breathtaking scenes in all martial arts movies, but he was also the guy behind the fights of The Matrix trilogy. (He also worked with Keanu Reeves on Man of Tai Chi.)
Putting Yen together with Yuen was a master stroke and their movie Iron Monkey proves it. The fighting sequences are mesmerizing and leave you thinking, “People can’t do that without CGI.” Well, these are low-budget films, so yes…yes, they can.
The Kung-Fu in this is nostalgic of those schmaltzy subtitled films that Wu-Tang brags about, but the fighting is worth of watching this movie in slow motion. Sheer brilliance for students and fans alike.
5. Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (2003)
This was the film that introduced global fans and students of the martial arts, Tony Jaa. The guy is the truth. He’s prolific in Muay Thai and Tae Kwon Do. Jaa made his name in the movie business as a stuntman, fight choreographer, and uh…a former Buddhist monk. So, yeah, his skills are that good — and like Jackie Chan, they’re all his.
This film was supposed to be a one-off movie, but since the studio (Baa-Ram-Ewe) and director (Prachya Pinkaew) noticed its high popularity, it spawned two sequels. You can almost feel the power behind Jaa’s action. Watch it with the volume up. You’ll see.
4. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001)
If you know any narrow-minded misogynistic dinosaur who believes “Girls can’t fight,” watch this scene of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This is one of the most celebrated martial arts movies of all time because it was critically acclaimed as well.
Ang Lee created a masterpiece that is both visually stunning and evocative. The cinematography was acclaimed as much as its fight choreography. This movie emphasized the relationships of the characters before their skills. Yuen Woo-ping, the heralded martial arts choreographer, helped create what is known as “Wire Fu” (i.e., fighting in the trees that looks more like sky dancing). That is not at all ironic considering Michelle Yeoh was not a martial arts student; she’s been a ballet dancer since age 4.
There is a distinct reason a martial arts film won four Oscars and nominated for five others, it was so much more than a martial arts movie; it was a masterpiece of movie-making.
3. Ip Man (2008)
The Matrix. Lord of the Rings. The Godfather. The Original Star Wars. Cinephiles know these as great trilogies. Add martial arts fans and students to the list and instantly, Wilson Yip’s quintessential trilogy, Ip Man will come to mind. Recently, they added a fourth installment with Donnie Yen and Scott Adkins (who would make an incredible Batman), but for years, those first three is all we had. And they were amazing.
Yen portrays easily the most mythic force in martial arts history, Ip Man. He is one of the earliest masters of Wing Chun Kuen and Bruce Lee’s first mentor and teacher. These movies won’t keep up with the others in terms of acting prowess or method, but for pure form and motion, this was beautiful — specifically, the original.
If you get caught up in the details of Ip Man’s timeline or even the Japanese wartime overtaking of the FoShan province in China, you’ll miss the charm of the arts on display. It was style versus style — first, for the honor of the city then, the honor of his country. Donnie Yen is perfect as Ip Man, known for his humility, grace, and quiet domination of the art he works so diligently to perfect.
Wing Chun is one of the disciplines that own up to the name “Martial Art.” It is about precision with power, not in spite of it. All the while, your pulse never goes above 80. If Yen looks familiar to nerds, he should. That’s Chirrut Imwe of Rogue One. And yes, in real life, Yen is that fast and that good!
2. Hero (2002)
Directed by the austere visionary Zhang Yimou, Hero is literally poetry in motion. At the time of its release, it was the most expensive Chinese film ever made ($35 million). Jet Li plays a defense officer known as ‘Nameless’ was takes us through his journey with the King of Qin of killing three warriors in the arts.
Some people have considered the display of some martial arts (like Wushu in China) more ballet, less fighting. Hero is a colorful vista of what martial arts would look like embodying feeling or emotion. It is truly a beautiful martial arts movie to watch. And Jet Li is fantastic. Here he is fighting Donnie Yen and taking him to school. Breathtaking weaponry work and skill.
1. Enter the Dragon (1973)
When you’re Bruce Lee, your best movie with best any list in the martial arts movies genre. This was bridge into America martial arts needed because it spanned Chinese ideology and American cinema. From the beginning of the rolling credits, the long line of mimics set to the left. This is the film that began the U.S. love affair with martial arts movies.
In this tournament fight scene with Lee facing his nemesis O’Hara (played by Lee’s friend, Chuck Norris‘ student, and Tang Soo Do world champion Bob Wall), we see Senpai’s illustrious speed and complex technique. He was his own fight choreographer. Oh, there is a key side kick that actually connected and “[Lee] hit me like a mule…he could have killed me.”
This movie was released only six days after Bruce Lee died of cerebral oedema. It was the very first martial arts film produced by a major Hollywood studio (Warner Bros. Pictures/Concord Productions). Although modern fight choreography has more flair and motion pictures have better cameras and tech, nothing matches the raw aspect to weaving in and out of someone else’s style like we see in Enter the Dragon.
Shoot, the stunt guys in this movie are world-renowned martial artists — Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung) and Lee rewrote the script because it needed more philosophical appeal. He directed the film’s first brawl because it didn’t embody “form without form” as was the way in Jeet Kune Do. The guy could knock out his chubby opponent in seconds, but he chose to make him submit with a Kimura (the MMA-favorite named after Japandese Judoka master, Masahiko Kimura).
Bruce Lee was a teacher’s teacher. He is the virtuoso above all, not for his flair, but his finesse. Watch those moves carefully, and you’ll see his influence upon most martial arts movies you have ever seen.