We’re currently witnesses to the cinematic coming-of-age of superheroes. Action movies have been redefined by splendid VFX and incorporation of futuristic technological concepts in films. And while I do enjoy the all-guns-blazing extravaganza which has become the motif of action, a part of me does miss the dearth of balls-to-the wall action of martial arts films which became global phenomena until the decade of 2000s. Films involving martial arts combats have a pulsating energy and physicality to them. For instance, while all of Tarantino’s films feature a gargantuan amount of violence, few would disagree with me if I say that the ‘Kill Bill’ films are his most exhilarating fares as far as pure, veritable bloodshed is concerned.
But for better or worse, Tarantino‘s duology is Hollywood’s only representative on this list. The earliest accounts of martial arts rose to prominence from Central and Eastern Asia (Sun Tzu’s now-famous memoir ‘Art Of War’ is said to be the one of the oldest pieces of literature describing martial strategies). Thus, martial arts in cinema has forever been a métier of Asian film stables, of which a lion’s share emerge from the Hong Kong industry, courtesy of Kung Fu legends like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Recent times have also seen a resurgence of wuxia films, which involve elements of history and fantasy, such as Ang Lee‘s internationally lauded masterpiece ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’.
Here is the list of top martial arts movies ever made that pack the most spectacular knockout punches of all. Hiyah! You can also watch some of these best martial arts movies on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime. The list also includes best Karate movies.
15. Iron Monkey (1993)
This tale of authoritative corruption and a rebellion against it focuses on the lives Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung and his father Wong Kei-ying, as they seek to search for a rebellious Chinese Robin Hood christened Iron Monkey, who is actually a physician named Yang Tianchun. But eventually, Kei Ying and Iron Monkey unite to fight an evil larger than their differences, along with Miss Orchid, an accomplice of the Monkey. The film pits two well-rounded badass characters in Wong Kei-ying and Iron Monkey against each other to achieve fireworks, which further heightens the tempo once they unite. This was also the film which catapulted Donnie Yeng, who would later make the acclaimed ‘Ip Man’ trliogy, to superstardom.
Best Fight Sequence: The climactic fight – Evil Shaolin Monks Vs Our trio of heroes
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14. The Raid: Redemption (2011)
While our previous entry has a plot which centers around fights, this Indonesian film swaps a plot for an uninhibited fight fest. It focuses on an elite SWAT team who infiltrate the lair of a ruthless mobster, but are trapped on the seventh floor when a lookout spots them. What follows is a barrage of combats replete with ample twists and turns. While some lines and some motifs do borrow the action film cliches and almost all the cast are more of stuntmen than actors, the high-tempo scuffles drown all the other noise out. This film has everything from hand-to-hand combat and lightening-fast knife fights to some all-guns-blazing action orchestrated with tenacity. Looks lie one hell of a video game level and easily one of the best martial arts movies of the recent times.
Best Fight Sequence: Pretty much the whole film post the team getting trapped, but this one is a highlight.
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13. Ip Man Film Series (2008 – Present)
Yip Man isn’t just a Chinese folk hero; he is referred to as the Grandmaster. Rightfully so, as he trained the insurmountable Bruce Lee in the art of Wing Chun. Surprisingly, few films exist chronicling his life’s work, with our current entry being the most acclaimed and adored. The films recount a fabled version of Ip’s story from the 1930s in Foshan right to his arrival in Hong Kong and acceptance of Bruce Lee as a disciple through three films made to date, a fourth one being in the works. Donnie Yen stars as Ip Man in a performance of a lifetime, as he imbibes every trait of the great teacher with finesse. Despite some shaky historical depictions, throbbing action choreography by veteran action maestro Sammo Hung and a theme of introspection rarely seen in today’s action cinema cement the series’ spot on this list.
Best Fight Sequence: Just one particular scene cannot possibly be picked, so here is a montage.
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12. Once Upon A Time in China (1991)
As far as film franchises go, few eclipse the popularity of our previous entry in Asia, and our current entry started one of them. Now considered an icon, a relatively unknown Jet Li rose to superstardom with his portrayal of Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung (whose father is one of the primary protagonists in our No. 15 entry). The film resonates the themes of pre-communist Chinese nationalism being overwhelmed by Western forces (a popular topic in 90s Chinese cinema) with a captivating plot raising a question of whether “bullets can be fought with kung fu”. Director Tsui Hark, regarded as one of the masters of Asian cinematography, is at the peak of his creative genius as he creates a film which spawned a sprawling series of culturally significant films. Although the later parts taper off into mediocrity, they take nothing away from the brilliance of the inception.
Best Fight Sequence: This acrobatic ladder fight near the climax of the film.
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11. Kill Bill – Vol. 1 (2003) & Vol. 2 (2004)
Quentin Tarantino is one director who never shies away from gushing about his inspiration from other films. “I steal from every movie ever made” he once famously said. The maverick auteur’s love for Asian cinema is blatantly evident from the aesthetics of his films as well his ferocious attempts to bring long-lost Asian classics to the American markets. But nothing in his kitty s a truer homage to classic swashbuckling martial arts folklore than this exquisite two-part bloodfest. A tale of a katana-wielding woman’s insatiable thirst for revenge against her former comrades of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, ‘Kill Bill’ ekes out a stylish, elaborate and thoroughly pumping paean to Martia Arts Cinema while bringing forth Tarantino’s ingenious filmmaking flair, making it worthy of being counted amongst the exemplary films it seeks to emulate.
Best Fight Sequence: The bride’s single-handed massacre of the feared ‘Crazy 88’.
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10. One-Armed Swordsman (1967)
Before Martin Scorsese redefined the role of the violent antihero character, Director Chang Cheh and actor Jimmy Wang, who would both be irreplaceable part of Chinese cinema (Chang Cheh has another entry ahead), made an epic about the fable of Golden Sword school and how a former pupil, who gets one of his arms chopped off copes with the loss and saves the school by mastering one-armed swordplay. This film eventually became the first in the celebrated One-Armed Swordsman trilogy. As it is an early work in the genre, the film lays less focus on exquisite action choreography and focuses more on character metamorphosis. One of the rare action films which get the viewer emotionally attached to its characters.
Best Fight Sequence: The final fight.
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9. Hero (2002)
Jet Li has had an illustrious career spanning almost 3 decades as an action superstar, and this 2002 wuxia gem is a crown feather in his cap. Li portrays a nameless hero recounting the story of how he slew three notorious warriors – Long Sky, Flying Snow, and Broken Sword – who were the greatest enemies of King Qin of China. One of the most expensive projects to ever emerge from China, the film boasts of stunning symbolic imagery, a titillatingly vibrant colour palette., a rich Chinese folk background score and surrealistic battle sequences which draw one into the wind-swept realm of ancient China. Jet Li is a tour de force as Nameless, supported by a towering supporting cast of Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung and Donnie Yen as the three famed warriors. A formidable feast of a film.
Best Fight Sequence: This stark black-and-white bout between Jet Li (Nameless) and Donnie Yen (Long Sky) in the chess courtyard.
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8. A Touch Of Zen (1971)
King Hu’s ‘A Touch Of Zen’ is ‘The Godfather’ of the wuxia genre. The story is of Ku, an unambitious artist, who gets tangled in the struggle for survival of Yang, who is on the run from Imperial Nobles. At over 3 hours long, this mammoth entry is as thoughtful as it is cinematic. Along with the then never-seen-before cinematography, editing, and special effects in Asian cinema, the film places strong thematic focus on Buddhism. Substantial use of symbolism throughout the film, such as the motif of spiderwebs to depict the sinister government, and images of nature, the sun and lens flares to depict the purity of religion, give the film a lyrical quality. The abstract open-ended finale is another worthy artistic flourish. A visual battle poem.
Best Fight Sequence: This fight in the bamboo forest.
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7. The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin (1978)
This revenge drama has attained legendary status amongst Kung Fu fanatics for depicting with devout fervour the grueling training undergone by a student of the famed school of Buddhism. It tells the tale of a man driven by anger and the thirst to become the greatest proponent of Kung Fu who reaches the temple and despite initial rejection for being a layman (Kung Fu was once an art only allowed to a select few), soon masters all 35 chambers teaching aspects of the craft. He then realises his true purpose and proceeds to spark a rebellion against the foreign invaders, thus opening 36th Chamber for commoners to master Kung Fu. Based on a true story of the rebel San Te, the film’s strong imagery of the rebellion and the hero Gordon Liu’s strong turn of character buoyed obviously by envious action choreography, raises this film a notch or two above the run-of-the-mill Kung Fu flick.
Best Fight Sequence: Gordon Liu’s annihilation of a bunch of soldiers as San Te.
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6. Five Deadly Venoms (1978)
This massive cult classic features some of the most innovative and unique Kung Fu ever captured on celluloid. The dying master of the Poison clan instructs his final pupil to end five former pupils gone evil specialising in their own lethal form of combat – the Centipede, the Snake, the Scorpion, the Lizard, and the Toad. The film actually stars a martial arts group known as Venom Mob who worked for the Shaw brothers studio and were expert proponents of their respective animal styles. The film incorporates elements of horror and mystery genres into the classic action fare to create a formidable pentacle of villains who define the film. The memorable nature of the film is evident from the multitude of references made to it across pop culture to date (the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad in ‘Kill Bill’ is inspired from the Five Venoms)
Best Fight Sequence: This scene where four of the five venoms are in action.
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5. Fist Of Fury (1972)
Look alive Bruce Lee fans, your hero’s first entry is here! Bruce Lee stormed into Hong Kong cinema with ‘The Big Boss’ (1971) but with ‘Fist Of Fury’ (also known as ‘The Chinese Connection’) Lee upped the ante (and the bodycount!) The story of a pupil’s vengeance for his master’s death, the film the quintessential Kung Fu film as far as the plot goes, but Bruce Lee’s lightning-fast moves elevate the film to a stratosphere. The true joy of this film is to watch Lee improvise and choreograph martial arts with his fluid moves and also excel at his dramatic scenes, such as the tender love between him and Nora Miao and a poignant scene at his teacher’s grave. The archetypal Kung Fu flick, but with a lot of heart and a lot of Lee!
Best Fight Sequence: Classic Lee in this climactic fight.
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4. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
There has rarely been an Asian film as universally watched and acclaimed as Ang Lee’s moving saga of a gifted young warrior Yu’s adventures with a fabled sword named Green Destiny stolen from a legendary warrior named Li Mubai, who himself wants to leave the violence behind and is in search of a pupil. The film is a sheer treat to the sore eye, with grace oozing out of its eye-popping action, majestic locations, an elegiac, arresting score and accomplished actors who fit their characters to a T. With its rich symbolism and ample moments of tastefully built suspense (this for instance) and its handling of so many subtle, subtextual themes bestow quite some rewatch value upon this film. A film which will be considered an all-time classic in the future.
Best Fight Sequence: This joust between Yu and Shu Lien where the Green Destiny overpowers everything Shu Lien has.
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3. The Legend Of The Drunken Master (1994)
As Hong Kong cinema was dealing with Bruce Lee’s untimely departure from this world, a new star with a new way made his way into the spotlight. He fumbled, fell, toppled but ended up beating the goons anyway. It was the awesome Jackie Chan. His film ‘Drunken Master’ (1978) established the ironic genre of comedic Kung Fu for the decades to come. That unbeatable comic timing reached its absolute peak in the sequel to the very film and thus makes it to this list. Chan is in his element as Wong Fei-hung, the mischievous master of a form of martial arts known as “drunken boxing.” He is fighting (or wobbling onto) Imperialist powers tying to steal powerful Chinese artifacts. He is perhaps the greatest stuntsman of all time and he pulls all stoppers in trying his luck here, leading to a riotous result. The very best ‘Kung Fu Comedy’ has to offer.
Best Fight Sequence: The climax where Chan is the most drunk (and thus most powerful!)
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2. Enter The Dragon (1973)
Bruce’s final complete film before his untimely demise is a fine showcase of how much more he could have given this world. Right from his piercing stare to his unmatched martial arts prowess, everything Lee does in the role of a mole in the tournament run by an evil overlord Han is gripping. Again, the plot is simplistic, but Lee’s hawkish precision and leopard-like speed is electric to watch. He creates one memorable fight scene after another till the viewer begins to pant. Even legends Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung both have bit roles. The film will make you want to punch walls for days to come. The definitive Bruce Lee film. The definitive Kung Fu film.
Best Fight Sequence: This hallucinatory fight between Lee and his nemesis Han in the Hall Of Mirrors
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1. Seven Samurai (1957)
What could possibly top the finest film of Bruce Lee? Akira Kurosawa‘s pathbreaking film about seven masterless samurai in the 16th century Japan hired by the villagers to protect them against dacoits is perhaps the first movie about an assembled team. The film is beyond martial arts, beyond action, beyond Japanese culture even. It is a humane tale of characters as richly developed as a rare steak, with room for characters which would later become staples of multiple genres. Although there is a fair bit of action in the film, unlike the rest of this list, it isn’t full of chops and punches. But every scene is a reminder of a reference made in a modern action film to the originality of Kurosawa. ‘Seven Samurai’ is perhaps the greatest action film of all time.
Best Fight Sequence: A fairly inconsequential trait as far as this film is concerned, but if I had to pick one, the climactic battle when 4 bandits attack the village is quite a fight.
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