My Top-10 Martial Arts Films
Martial Arts films (which includes “Kung Fu movies” as well as “wuxia”) are an interesting subset of action-cinema. Made popular by Hong Kong cinema (and the likes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan) martial arts movies have inspired modern action films a great deal. I wanted to make a list of my 10 favourite Martial Arts movies.
One definitive rule for this list was that the movie itself, by definition, had to be a martial arts film and not simply include occasional elements of martial artistry. This excluded films like DareDevil, Green Hornet, The Expendables, Resident Evil: Retribution and both G.I. Joe movies despite all of them having extensive and even very elaborate fight-sequences. Another qualification for this list was that the fighting in the films themselves had to be varied and interesting. And lastly, I tried to avoid too many films starring the same actors. This was mainly to avoid the repeated appearances of Jackie Chan on the list, since I’m most familiar with his films.
People will have to forgive me for not being overly familiar with Jet Li’s filmography but I’ll give an honourable mention to Romeo Must Die which was by far the most entertaining film starring the actor I’ve seen. There’s several Jackie Chan movies deserving an honourable mention such as City Hunter, Shanghai Noon, Who Am I and the Rush Hour movies.
But enough talking, let’s finally get to the list…
This is a slightly more obscure pick for the list. The Mr. Vampire series of films follows the exploits of a unibrowed priest fighting “Chinese Hopping Corpses” or Chinese Vampires. The films have a strong camp-factor but include flashy special effects and a lot of lively energy.
What’s interesting is how these movies borrow elements of Chinese folk-lore but also find ways to make fun of them. The cast is mostly very humorous and the action is definitely geared more for slapstick and comedy than for being at all serious. I recommend this one to people who enjoy fast-paced, break-neck story telling and also like super natural things, as well to those with a sense of humour.
I wanted to include Mr. Vampire on the list simply because it’s a really good lesser known martial arts film. Admittedly, it’s not quite as powerful as some of the other entries on this list but still definitely worth a watch.
Michelle Yeoh needs no introduction these days but Wing Chun was one of the films that helped shoot her into stardom early on (along with Police Story 3: Supercop and the spin-off film Once a Cop). In this film, Yeoh is a fierce female warrior defending her home-town as well as an unlucky outcast widow. She also becomes involved with a misunderstanding involving a childhood friend who confuses the widow for Wing Chun and Wing Chun herself for a man.
The film is a wuxia/martial arts combo with a little bit of silly romantic comedy in the mix. However, it features really impressive stunt sequences and Michelle Yeoh kicks ass at every turn. This is another slightly lesser known film but I think it’s easily Yeoh’s finest single performance and her character isn’t lessened at all by the lighter romantic elements of the film.
I felt this list needed a few martial arts films with some strong female energy but Wing Chun is over-all just an awesome movie worth giving a whirl.
Stephen Chow is well-known for his bizarre comedic films. Kung Fu Hustle follows the exploits of a pair of losers, Sing and Bone, trying to win favour with the Axe Gang in muscling an appartement block. Unfortunately, the residents are surprisingly adept with martial arts which is why neither the Axe Gang nor the loser friends are able to make much progress.
The movie is both an homage and a parody of classic kung fu movies. In Chow’s typical style, the action keeps getting increasingly more and more over-the-top, to the point where characters damage buildings around them with their sheer presence. The film’s cast is also filled with memorable characters such as the dopey guy unable to finish his bath, the quarrelling but powerful landlord couple, the gay but combat-capable tailor as well as the bungling leads Sing and Bone (played by Chow and Lam Chi-sung).
As hilarious and entertaining as Kung Fu Hustle is, perhaps the over-abundance of CGI is more distracting which slightly robs a few of the later fights of their impressiveness. In addition, when it’s a Stephen Chow film, you can be sure that there’s going to be a few dark and just flat-out depressing scenes in the film (although the finale is very up-beat). It’s a bit of a mixed bag but definitely an absolute must see (as are most of Chow’s movies).
More female-energy. DOA is based on the fighting game series by the same name and follows a trio of heroines Kasumi, Tina and Christie who are invited to the tournament called Dead Or Alive. Kasumi enters in order to find her lost brother Hayate who entered previously, while avoiding assassination attempts from the ninja Ayane and being helped by her brother’s friend Hayabusa. Tina is trying to prove herself as a real fighter to put his father Bass (also in the tournament) and the obnoxious Zack in their place. Christie joins forces with a former associate Max to loot the tournament island’s riches. Unbeknownst to them all, they’re being monitored for a nefarious science project by the tournament’s patron Donovan.
DOA features fun and colourful action-scenes. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously and just like the game it’s based on features lots of fan service. The fights are top-notch, my favourites including Tina’s fights with both Bass and Zach, Hayabusa kicking the asses of Donovan’s guards, Kasumi and Ayane’s fight in the bamboo woods and the daughter of DOA’s founder Helena beating down a horde of Donovan’s cronies (with a little help from her nerdy romantic pursuer Weatherby).
DOA is just a blast, especially if you don’t take it too seriously and the fights are definitely memorable and funny. Despite the high entertainment factor, DOA’s finale is a little drawn out and its final conclusion is a smidge anti-climatic (and features some more overblown CGI). However, the rest of the film is dynamite.
I really didn’t want to include too many Bruce Lee films, but Fist of Fury definitely deserves a special mention. Set during the occupation of Shanghai, Lee plays the prize student of a martial arts school whose master has been assassinated. The culprits are a spiteful Japanese karate-school with whom Lee clashes. However, with each fight, retaliation follows and soon the kung fu school has to suffer the wrath of the Japanese while Lee goes into hiding from the law.
Fist of Fury is one of the darkest and most impressive of Lee’s films. It features many memorable battles such as Lee beating down the entire school of karatekas, a Russian boxer brought into deal with him and then there’s the final confrontation with the school’s leader. Lee also shows the most range in this film with his disguises and the only on-screen kiss he ever managed film (before his untimely death). The film keeps the tension and action high and is quite impressive for only being Lee’s second starring feature.
That said, Fist of Fury’s most glaring flaw is the fact that in its attempts to depict the oppression that the Chinese had to deal with during Shanghai’s occupation, the film itself commits to some pretty blatant racism. But if you’re willing to forgive this, Fist of Fury is film that should not be missed.
I tend to lump both Kill Bill instalments together since they are essentially one movie split into two parts. Uma Thurman portrays the Bride, whose wedding is massacred and her unborn child stolen by her jealous ex-boyfriend and boss, Bill. After recovering in the hospital and gearing up with a sword made by Hatori Hanzo, The Bride takes down each of Bill’s closest associates in one-on-one combat.
Quintin Tarantino blended several movie genres together with Kill Bill. The film has samurai and kung fu film elements, as well as some spaghetti western features and of course that cheeky Tarantino comedy and dialogue that makes every scene instantly quotable. The first half’s bloody sword fight scene is probably the most memorable, but I also really enjoyed the cramped fight in the trailer from Vol. 2.
Kill Bill’s story-telling and characters are so awesome that this list simply wouldn’t have been complete without it. However, the movie is definitely a bit on the long side (which is why it was split into two parts) and the fights are really only one of its great aspects. The movie has a lot to offer in other areas as well but I’ll leave it here as the starter of the Top-5 because it definitely deserves to be there.
Mortal Kombat sees three heroes, martial artist Liu Kang, Special Forces commando Sonya Blade and film-star Johnny Cage, travel to the island of the wizard Shang Tsung to take part in Mortal Kombat. If Tsung’s champion, the four-armed Goro wins the tournament, the Earth will become fused with the world of Outworld ruled by an evil emperor. The heroes face off against the criminal Kano, the hell ninja Scorpion and the ice ninja Sub-Zero aided by the thunder-god Raiden.
Mortal Kombat was the movie that really sold video-game movies to the general public and its held up surprisingly well, for the most part. The special effects are admittedly dated, but the awesome cinematography (from Paul W.S. Anderson) and the excellent fight choreography make this an enjoyable, fast-paced martial arts extravaganza. The physical prowess of Robin Shou (Liu Kang), Chris Casamassa (Scorpion), Francois Petit (Sub-Zero) and Keith Cooke (Reptile) is a joy to the eye.
Helped along with the imaginative set design and a pumping 90s techno soundtrack, Mortal Kombat keeps you thoroughly entertained. It definitely has some of the most memorable fight scenes of this entire list with Johnny Cage fighting Scorpion in Hell, Goro on the mountain ledge and Liu Kang taking on the insanely fast Reptile in Outworld. In fact, this movie’s only weakness is that the final fight is perhaps a little underwhelming when compared to Liu’s battles leading up to it, but even the in-between fight scenes look excellent.
I’m not saying in the very least that this is Jackie Chan’s best movie, but it definitely has the most variety and the most impressive fight sequences from any of his films. As the greedy and sly “Asian Hawk”, Jackie takes on an evil cult that wants to strong-arm him and his former band mate Alan into bringing them the remaining pieces of the Armour of God in order to rule the world. The film is filled with Jackie’s typically hilarious slapstick but also incredible physical feats and extremely memorable fight scenes.
Armour of God was also the movie that very nearly killed Jackie. While doing a simple jump from one castle wall to the next, Jackie slipped off a tree branch and landed head first on the ground, cracking his own skull. Despite this, Jackie’s love for detail and his uncompromising will to show off his physical abilities comes through and I think the movie also finds a good balance of comedy and fun action pieces to keep you interested.
The story is a little dumb and simplistic and Jackie’s supporting cast is honestly a little weak. However, with the fiery log fight, the sneaking about inside the evil monastery and, of course, the extremely surprising final confrontation, this movie has more than enough in it to keep you satisfied. There are definitely Jackie Chan movies with way better stories (Shanghai Noon & Who Am I?) but this movie will have you nailed to your seat with its fight scenes.
The mother of all martial arts tournament movies. Bruce Lee plays a kung fu master sent to the island tournament of an underworld boss called Han. Apart from trying to expose Han’s drug operation, Lee is on a quest of vengeance for the death of his younger sister. He’s also joined by a man indebted to the mob and entering for the prize money as well as a black martial arts dojo owner trying to keep his business afloat.
Enter the Dragon was easily the most polished film of Bruce Lee’s extremely short-lived career. Jim Kelly and John Saxon add a bit of flavour to the fighting but Lee really steals the show, kicking the asses of Han’s lackeys and then taking on the criminal mastermind at the end in the iconic final fight scene. Sammo Hung also takes a beating from Lee at the very start in something of a warm-up to the movie.
Enter the Dragon may not be as colourful and varied as a martial arts film as Lee’s earlier Fist of Fury, but conversely has a brilliant finale which is built up to with the incidental bouts earlier in the film. O’Hara and Bolo make for fierce opponents to the heroes and the film is also extremely stylish as well as action packed. A definite must-see.
Winners & Sinners sees a group of five misfits becoming “sworn brothers” in jail and starting a cleaning business together. The group consists of the fatherly Stanley Fung, the quirky car thief Exhaust Pipe (Richard Ng), the suave Vaseline, the protester Curly and the bumbling burglar Teapot (Sammo Hung). While out on town a briefcase containing counterfeited money and printing plates ends up in the group’s possession when a mobster’s bungling future son-in-law messes up a rendezvous. Jackie Chan also cameos as a police officer who can’t handle even a simple arrest without tons of collateral damage.
Winners & Sinners contains lots of comedic martial arts action but also genuinely impressive fight scenes (such as Jackie and Sammo thwarting a robbery at one point). The final showdown with the mobsters is the definite high-point. The vast majority of the film relies on comedic setups and slapstick and almost runs in an episodic format. Thus there’s quite a bit of a build up but it’s definitely worth the wait to see the high-flung action at the finale.
Winners & Sinners may not be the most action-packed of the films on this list, but it’s definitely the best at using its ensemble cast to the fullest extent of both their comedic and martial arts abilities. A top-notch Martial Arts film but also just generally speaking one of the best Hong Kong movies ever made.