We all love a good fight scene – think of the visceral combat, weighty blows, and exquisite choreography of The Matrix or Mission Impossible: Fallout. The brawls of these and other Hollywood blockbusters can trace their lineage to the legendary Martial Arts films of China, Thailand, Indonesia, and elsewhere. The Matrix, in particular, was directly inspired by Shaolin Kung Fu and Tai Chi, as noted by GQ, and the Wachowskis hired famed Hong Kong choreographer Yuen Woo-ping to coordinate its fight sequences.
For this list, we want to pay homage to the great Kung Fu, Wuxia, Muay Thai, and other Martial Art films from around the world. Films that awe us with their stunt work and their intense portrayals of hand-to-hand combat. These are the best Martial Arts movies of all time… ranked.
10. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
Following the Wachowskis, Quentin Tarantino tapped legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping to work on his Martial Arts duology, Kill Bill. The first entry, Kill Bill: Vol. 1, earns its place on this list for one scene alone: the battle at the House of Blue Leaves. A restaurant in Tokyo that becomes the site of a massive death match between our protagonist (the bride) and 88 Japanese fighters. It’s good fun, and features some of the best sword fight choreography in film history.
9. The Protector (2005)
The Protector can teach us all an important lesson – Don’t steal Tony Jaa’s elephants! In a story that will make you think John Wick meets Ong-Bak, an elephant keeper has his prized animals stolen by gangsters, and must go on the offensive to get them back. Featuring the incredible Muay Thai skills of Tony Jaa, this is one you turn on for the fight scenes!
8. Hero (2002)
Hero might best be described as high art wuxia. Its breathtaking use of colour remains unparalleled, as the film is broken into five visually distinct, colour-coded sections – black, white, red, green, and blue. Its ensemble cast includes Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Maggie Cheung and Donnie Yen, who help bring this ambitious representation of historical China to life.
7. The Raid: Redemption (2011)
The Raid: Redemption put Indonesian Martial Arts cinema on the map. Following its release in 2011, lead actor Iko Uwais became one of the country’s biggest stars, not least for his impressive physical prowess and skill in silat Martial Arts. His battles with a figure known in the film as ‘Mad Dog’ have become legendary among Martial Arts fanatics and, helped earn The Raid a highly regarded sequel in 2014.
6. Police Story (1985)
Jackie Chan’s Police Story almost transcends the genre of the Martial Arts film. With its high-speed chases, mammoth explosions, gunplay and parkour, it has more in common with Hollywood’s many action blockbusters. But, being a Jackie Chan movie, it also contains some of the most impressive hand-to-hand combat sequences in film history. Chan’s choreography is noteworthy for the way it incorporates props and death-defying stunt work as part of his fight scenes. The final brawl at a Hong Kong shopping mall is one of the best of Chan’s career!
5. Enter the Dragon (1973)
No Martial Arts retrospective would be complete without singing the praises of Bruce Lee. Perhaps the most famous Martial Artist to ever live, Lee helped bring East Asian combat sports to the West. His legacy is monumental, and Enter the Dragon is one of his greatest films. Even its setup is iconic. Working undercover, a Martial Arts expert must fight his way through a tournament to gain information on a drug lord. With brutal fights and a cast of villains that rival James Bond’s, Enter the Dragon is the best Martial Arts movie of the ’70s.
4. Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (2003)
Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior is the film that made Thai Martial Artist Tony Jaa a star. In the twenty years since its release, its Muay Thai fight choreography has, arguably, yet to be surpassed. The weight and ferocity of Jaa’s blows can be felt through the screen, and his slicing elbows and flying knees are set pieces in their own right. Don’t expect much in the way of story; instead, watch this one for what Jaa accomplishes with his fists (and feet, shins, and knees).
3. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
The most internationally-acclaimed Martial Arts movie of all time, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won Best Foreign Language Film, Best Art Direction, Best Original Score, and Best Cinematography at the 73rd Academy Awards. A beautiful, romantic Wuxia film, it helped to increase the global popularity of East Asian cinema. It’s also noteworthy for centering on three heroic female characters, making it a more inclusive project than many of the other films on this list. Newcomers to Martial Arts cinema may wish to start here.
2. Ip Man (2008)
Donnie Yen had already established himself as an actor and Martial Artist when Ip Man released in 2008; but, its success made him an international celebrity. Based on the true story of Wing Chun grandmaster, Ip Man, the film portrays events from his life during the time of the Sino-Japanese War. Under occupation from Imperial Japan, Man and his family face poverty, starvation, and persecution. Hesitant to use his Martial Art for violence, Man must fight to defend himself and his people from tyranny; even if it means battling ten black belts at once.
1. The Legend of Drunken Master (1994)
Perhaps more than any other film, The Legend of Drunken Master reminds us why Martial Arts are, well, art. There is great beauty in Jackie Chan’s fight choreography, even when he’s guzzling alcohol to increase his strength. This sequel to the lesser-known Drunken Master is less stunt-heavy than some of Chan’s other movies but, it offers up the perfect blend of action, comedy, and drunken boxing beatdowns (with a few, completely outrageous stunts thrown in for good measure). It’s a shining example of what Martial Arts movies are all about.
Do you agree with our choices?
No sub-genre provides great hand-to-hand combat the same way Martial Arts movies do. For well over 50 years, Martial Arts has been a popular style of combat to feature in action movies, with the above ten films being among the best of movies of all time.
What do you think of our choices? Does your favourite Martial Arts movie feature in our list? We’d love to hear your top ten favourite, or most impressive, movies to feature Martial Arts. Comment on our blog below or, join in with our conversation on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram today!