Unlike one-hit wonder Carl Douglas from whom I’m borrowing this list title, great martial arts movie stars and fight choreographers (particularly those from the fertile film-ground of Hong Kong) have contributed a lot to Western cinema.
Whether or not you’re a fan of the martial arts genre of movies, just about every modern action movie with fast paced, tightly choreographed fight scenes—either bare handed or with guns a-blazin’—owes something to techniques developed on the other side of the planet. Without that great Eastern influence, we’d have more of this and less of this, though occasionally the two come together and lead to strange abominations like 1994’s Undefeatable or the string of rip-off McDojos that sprang up nationwide in the wake of The Karate Kid (It’s ok, ghost of Pat Morita, I know it’s not your fault).
But instead of dwelling on those less than stellar examples of cultural exchange or that infamous Indiana Jones scene, check out this list of the 10 Best Martial Arts Movies.
10. Kung Fu Panda
I knew either DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda or Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle had to sit at the 10 spot. Both movies punctuate their light-hearted, comedic tone with surprisingly poignant moments and both are almost nonstop homages to a giant list of truly classic Kung Fu films, often scene by scene. In the end, I had to give it to Kung Fu Panda as the more tightly constructed film, though really, they both might as well share this spot with the sheer amount of love for the genre that comes through when watching either film. Jack Black voices Po’s (totally awesome) journey from bumbling martial arts fanboy to unlikely hero with such sincerity that it’s hard not to get swept along, especially given the equally strong performances by Dustin Hoffman as the perpetually exasperated Master Shifu and Ian McShane as the menacing Tai Lung.
9. Drunken Master II
1994’s Drunken Master II (released in the US as The Legend of Drunken Master) is Jackie Chan’s best movie by far—it has everything that makes him uniquely awesome as a martial-arts movie star and each of his prime elements (fluidity of motion/technique, comedic timing, sheer athleticism) is showcased better than in any of his other films, including the original 1978 Drunken Master (starring a much younger Jackie Chan). Chan stars as Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung who utilizes his Zui Quan (Drunken Boxing) skills to stop the corrupt British consul who is illegally exporting Chinese artifacts out of the country. While nearly all the action sequences are impressive and memorable, the final fight is a real show-stopper.
8. Master of the Flying Guillotine
I don’t understand how anyone could not be excited after watching that ridiculous trailer for this incredibly ridiculous but absolutely awesome Wuxia classic written/directed by and starring Jimmy Wang. Master of the Flying Guillotine, released in 1976, is a sequel to Wang’s 1971 film One Armed boxer. Here, the blind master of two characters killed in that first film is out for revenge against the one armed protagonist, bringing along his weapon of choice, the completely over-the-top “flying guillotine.” If that short description alone isn’t enough to get you going, the film also features an excellent tournament opening showcasing a wide range of fighting styles from all across Asia. This zany film’s influence cannot be overstated: bits of the soundtrack have been sampled by the Wu Tang Clan, it’s a favorite of Quintin Tarantino (he used the villain’s theme for the appearance of O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill along with the hero’s technique of hiding on the ceiling), and the flying guillotine was even parodied on The Boondocks.
7. Kill Bill Volume 1
Speaking of Tarantino, 2003’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 was both a great movie and a great martial-arts movie that, similarly to Kung Fu Panda/Hustle, paid homage to a ton of classic martial-arts flicks (both Chinese and Japanese) to make a really visceral, offbeat cinema experience unlike any other (well, at least until Vol. 2 came out). Scenes like the incredibly gory but artistic tea house battle with the Crazy 88 or the intensely claustrophobic kitchen showdown are excellent examples of everything that makes a martial arts movie great and when combined with Tarantino’s usual hallmarks, the results are truly transcendent.
6. Ip Man
2008’s Ip Man was finally the moment when the truly excellent but never fairly regarded Donnie Yen came into his own, playing a loosely biographical version of the legendary grandmaster of Wing Chung and teacher of a number of future martial arts masters, one of whom was Bruce Lee. The film takes place in 1930s Foshan (a city famous for martial arts in southern/central China), where the unassuming wing chung master tries to weather the 1937 Japanese invasion and occupation of China peacefully, but is eventually forced into action. Crazy, limb-breaking, face-pulverizing action. This semi-historical film succeeds gloriously both as cinema and as martial arts fan-bait.