Fighting, whether sanctioned or no-holds-barred, is without a doubt the oldest form of competition that mankind has ever engaged in. At times, it has been a necessary tool of survival—kill or be killed—and that proved an extremely effective motivation and crucible for enhancing mankind’s fighting prowess. Technology rapidly came into play and has been seen out to its inevitable conclusion, which removes man from the equation almost entirely. Today, robotic drones are poised to do much of our fighting for us—whether we ultimately end up in a Robot Jox scenario where wars are decided by giant mech battles is a valid (and awesome) question.
And yet, despite all of our sophistication and technology, we still fight by hand as well. Some is driven by necessity. Others fight professionally, and have only continued to expand the complete picture of what a fighter is. Look at the exponential growth in sophistication from the early days of mixed martial arts to how the sport has become in 2015, going from big guys winging punches at one another to a beautiful, scientific system of mixed grappling and striking styles. The audience has never been bigger, because on some level, we love fighting, if only because it reminds us of our most primal roots that have long been shelved and put aside by civilization.
And nowhere is appreciation for the beauty of fighting more apparent than in the wide, storied genre of martial arts cinema. Violence is the selling point of these films, but seeing as that violence is achieved through trickery, stunt work and movie magic, it’s not truly the audience’s bloodlust that drives the industry. It’s an appreciation for the beauty of violence, a reminder of the exceptional abilities derived through training and a celebration of ancient, classical storytelling, in the vein of “Avenge me!” No genre reveres classic themes as this one does, because at their root they speak to us like cinematic comfort food, and they provide excuses for what people have really wanted to see all along: The action.
And so, let us celebrate the martial arts genre from its top to its bottom, old and new. Epic and modest. Comedic and tragic. Grave and absurd, all represented in equal measure. These films contain many wondrous sights: Monks training their bodies to repel bullets. Men with prosthetic iron hands shooting poison darts. Flying heads. Incredibly silly ninja costumes. It’s all here.
But please note, don’t look for Seven Samurai, Yojimbo or The Sword of Doom here. Although they’re all great films, we wanted this list to focus squarely on our conception of “martial arts cinema,” which has little in common with a great samurai drama by Akira Kurosawa. These films are action-packed fighting spectacles, but above all, they’re just plain fun.
100. Ninja Terminator
Director: Godfrey Ho
This is a list of the 100 greatest martial arts films of all time, but at the tail end, let us make a small space for those flicks that are enjoyable but unquestionably of extremely low quality. And oh my, Ninja Terminator is certainly that. Perhaps the single most infamous film in the legendarily cheap career of Hong Kong z-film auteur Godfrey Ho, it displays most of his trademarks—primarily footage from multiple, unrelated movies spliced together to create a sort of “movie loaf” of unrelated fight scenes and nonsensical dubbing. Half of the movie revolves around American actor Richard Harrison seeking a cheap plastic statue that grants super ninja powers, while an unrelated plot features one of screendom’s great badass heroes, “Jaguar Wong,” vs. some guy in a bizarre blonde wig. At this point, you may be thinking “It will make more sense when I’m actually watching,” but you would be fatally wrong. All in all, though, Ninja Terminator is hilariously mangled viewing. —Jim Vorel
99. Battle Wizard
Director: Hsueh Li Pao
By the end of the ’70s, Hong Kong kung fu cinema had reached the apex of its classical period and began to fork paths wildly, hurtling down a road of ever-increasing decadence and, finally, absurdity. One of the main offshoots were films in the vein of Battle Wizard, which combined a hodgepodge of Eastern and Western mysticism and magic into stories that otherwise resemble classic period piece kung fu films. The result is like throwing several movies in a blender and just hitting “puree”—flying wizards hurling lightning bolts, ghosts, monsters vs. the flying fists of proud kung fu warriors. The only way to truly understand is to just witness a few minutes of a film like Battle Wizard. Is that a kung fu-fighting guy in a gorilla suit? Yep. A fire-breathing wizard with extendable wooden chicken legs? Sure. A man swallowing a glowing frog whole? Of course. This is Battle Wizard, fool. —J.V.
98. Ninja III: The Domination
Director: Sam Firstenberg
You will quickly suss out that a lot of the “fun-bad” movies at the bottom of the list are ninja-centric: This is not a coincidence. In the 1980s, ninjas came into the vogue as bad movie villains du jour in both American and cheap z-grade Chinese cinema, even though the depiction had pretty much nothing to do with historical ninjitsu. On the positive side, it gave us Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. On the negative, the likes of Ninja III: The Domination, but few of these films are as campily bad as this one. The story revolves around an aerobics instructor (all women in ’80s films are aerobics instructors) who is possessed by the spirit of an evil ninja who can only be defeated in one-on-one ninja combat. Soon, swords are levitating, exorcisms are happening, and a hapless executive just trying to have a nice round of golf finds himself hunted by bloodthirsty golf ninjas. —J.V.
97. Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Certainly one of the weirdest co-studio crossovers to come out of the ’70s, Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is the product of veteran Hong Kong kung fu factory The Shaw Brothers teaming up with Hammer Studios, the makers of classic British ’50s and ’60s Frankenstein and Dracula films. In fact, this is actually the final Hammer “Dracula” in their long series, and the only one to (thank god) not star Christopher Lee as the count. Instead, the inane story is about Dracula traveling to rural China, where he takes control of a coven of seven Chinese vampires with desiccated, beef jerky faces. A 61-year-old Peter Cushing returns to the series as heroic Van Helsing to give one more go of it, but because his brittle bones weren’t capable of much more than standing at that point, he’s also backed up by a family of kung-fu brothers with cheap tin-foil weaponry. This led to the film’s hilarious American title: The Seven Brothers and Their One Sister Meet Dracula. Catchy! —J.V.
96. Miami Connection
Director: Richard Park
Late ’80s? Check. Motorcycle-riding taekwondo synth rock bands? Check. Ninja drug smuggler gangs? That’s a big check. Miami Connection is one of the most deliriously entertaining and inexplicable films to ever disappear for a few decades before being rediscovered, as it blissfully was by The Alamo Drafthouse in the late 2000s. This alternatingly sincere and conceited vanity project was a labor of love from Y.K. Kim, a taekwondo proponent and motivational speaker who really seemed to believe that his film about positivity, music and severed limbs would help clean up the streets. It most assuredly failed at this, but on the plus side it gave us incredible, genuinely catchy songs like Friends Forever and the spectacle of Y.K. Kim pretending he knows how to play guitar. —J.V.
95. Crippled Masters
Director: Joe Law
“Martial arts” is a sprawling, overarching film genre that encompasses several large offshoots and dozens of very niche micro-genres. How niche? Well, niche enough to support the term “cripsploitation” for movies like Crippled Masters. Unlike other films of the period that often portrayed otherwise able-bodied actors as handicapped fighters, however, Crippled Masters stars two genuinely handicapped people—a man with no arms and a man with no legs. They both play kung fu students who are crippled by their cruel master and train for years before seeking their revenge. I won’t lie to you—it’s a genuinely disturbing flick to watch at times, but there’s some legit physical talent on display. And to answer the obvious question: Yes, the guy with no legs eventually sits on the shoulders of the guy with no arms to form a Voltron-like super fighter. Obviously. -—J.V.
94. Undisputed 2
Director: Isaac Florentine
Ah, direct-to-video martial arts. Few genres are so direct in appeasing their fan-base: There’s no attempted subterfuge about who the audience is here. The men who watch these flicks aren’t watching for the story; they’re watching for the action, and action is the bar by which they’re all judged. In this, Undisputed 2 delivers thanks to its dual stars, Michael Jai White and Scott Adkins. The story is a half-serious attempt at sequelizing the 2002 Wesley Snipes/Ving Rhames prison boxing movie, but in reality this is simply name appropriation by a director who wanted to make a flashy martial arts flick. Michael Jai White plays a boxer fighting for his freedom, but once again: Doesn’t matter. You know what does matter? Spin-kicks. Spin-kicks and broken legs and slow-motion spin-kicks. —J.V.
93. Undisputed 3
Director: Isaac Florentine
As it turns out, the breakout character of Undisputed 2 is actually the Russian villain Boyka, who here takes on the hero role. This sequel makes even less of an attempt to hide its desire to simply be a collection of individual fight scenes, and that actually makes for an even more entertaining exercise in film violence. It features that greatest of martial arts structuring devices: The tournament. Ever since Enter the Dragon, it’s been the premiere way of showcasing random fights without having to muck around with plot, and that’s what this film is all about. The tournament gives Boyka a variety of fighters with different styles to contend against, and we continue to be rewarded with the Undisputed series’ primary export: Absurdly impractical and undeniably beautiful spin-kicks. —J.V.
92. Enter the Ninja
Director: Menahem Golan
Have you ever seen someone dress as a ninja for Halloween? Or any ninja costume in general? If so, you pretty much have Enter the Ninja to thank. This is a genuinely terrible film, but a hugely influential and entertaining one as well. It is, in short, the film that firmly established most of the iconic ninja tropes in the West—the stereotypical black, masked outfits, the throwing stars, the katanas. Also notable as perhaps the first of the “This guy’s white, he can’t be a true ninja!” films, which would be copied incessantly for years. It’s also notable for introducing Sho Kosugi to an American audience, the guy who would go on to become the iconic ninja in nearly a dozen other films. Enter the Ninja might well be one of the most imitated films of the entire 1980s. —J.V.
91. Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain
Director: Tsui Hark
One thing no one can fault Tsui Hark for is his boundless ambition, which is why, next to Stephen Chow, Hark’s contributions to the canon of martial arts films are some of its biggest and most confusingly bloated. Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain may be the ballsiest of all of the Hong Kong director’s epic feats, an attempt to wed the action flicks of his home with the kind of big budget fantasy pieces beloved by Western audiences in the ’80s, and later made ubiquitous by directors like Jim Henson and Wolfgang Peterson. Although practically incomprehensible at times, Zu takes a standard mythological story—that of gods who inhabit a mountain fortress-like home and, in the process of defending that home from a benevolent enemy, take in a wayward but stubbornly idealistic mortal—and stuffs it with enough special effects to choke even the most dedicated workhorse of a fan. Gelatinous skull spirits and metal wing capes and weird asteroids where wiggly souls are reborn: best to let it just happen. That Tsui Hark also tapped into the core of what makes the goofiest martial arts films tick is something that, more than 30 years later, is still a testament to a director who made a film more veteran directors wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot, bamboo, 8-diagram-nurtured pole. —Dom Sinacola
90. American Ninja
Director: Sam Firstenberg
This is what happens when American audiences see Enter the Ninja and ask “Could the ninja be more American? And can we do away with the dubbing?” Still produced by Golan-Globus, it takes the ninja story and gives it a corny American twist—our hero is now Private Joe Armstrong, who “chooses to enlist in the U.S. Army rather than go to prison and finds himself fighting off ninjas on a base in the Philippines.” Ask any Filipino—those islands are rife with ninja. You can’t swing a nunchuck in the Philippines without hitting a ninja, I’m telling you. It was followed by four sequels and an unrelated movie called American Samurai from the same director because hey, why the hell not. You’re gonna want to showcase Michael Dudikoff as much as you can—“HE POSSESS GREAT SKILLS,” after all. —J.V.
89. Only The Strong
Director: Sheldon Lettich
Many of the films so far have been profoundly ’80s, but Only the Strong is the early ’90s. It feels like the Full House of martial arts films, chock full of positivity, smiling, day-glo colors and life-lessons galore. Showcasing the dance-infused Brazilian martial art of capoeira, it stars future Iron Chef chairman Mark Dacascos as a soldier-turned-teacher who must clean up an exceedingly rowdy class of inner-city ne’er do wells by teaching them self-worth and occasionally by punching them in the face. It’s like an after-school special collided with a kung fu movie. The incredibly oily, metrosexual villain Silverio is particularly memorable—I love that the thing to send him into a rage in the final battle is having part of his luxurious, flowing hair cut off by a sword swipe. Thank god Mark’s students are there to sing a catchy tune and fill him with fighting spirit! —J.V.
88. Mystery of Chessboxing, aka Ninja Checkmate
Director: Joseph Kuo
Classic Hong Kong kung fu in style but somewhat unusual in its delivery, Mystery of Chessboxing is the sort of film that was churned out of China in the ’70s, many of which are now forgotten. A protagonist seeking revenge for his slain father is the stuff of kung fu cliché, but the flick does manage to stand out for a couple of reasons. First is the odd form of kung fu that the hero learns, which takes its cues from the movements of Xiangqi, also called Chinese chess. Second (and most importantly) is the film’s villain, the epically titled “Ghost-Faced Killer,” who hunts his targets before throwing down a decorative “ghost-faced killing plate” and dispatching them with his trademark Five Elements style. The name is of course the inspiration for Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah, who also appears on their kung fu song “Da Mystery of Chessboxin.” —J.V.
87. Hard To Kill
Director: Bruce Malmuth
Apparently 1990 was the year big puffy guys practicing karate won over the hearts of America. A massive box office success, but an equally massive critical failure, Hard To Kill basically solidified Steven Seagal as an inexplicable Hollywood goldmine. How this came about is perhaps one of cinema’s greatest modern mysteries, because watching Steven Seagal slowly fight bad guys, pretend he’s in a coma, pretend he’s waking from a coma, pretend he’s training through two separate montages, pretend he’s a buff, sexy Lothario through two separate love scenes (two uncomfortably handsy love scenes), and then, in a legitimately disturbing final scene, wherein Mega Creep Seagal derives sinister pleasure out of hunting down the Senator who murdered his wife, pretends that he is literally hard to kill, a specter of a man haunting evildoers’ dreams. There is absolutely nothing impressive about Steven Seagal as an actor, let alone as a martial artist—there is only weirdness. Relentless, excessive weirdness. And yet—watchability. And the closest we’ll ever get to seeing Seagal without a shirt. And one-liners. So many one-liners. —D.S.
86. Tai Chi Zero
Director: Stephen Fung
A 3D spectacle down to its fat nuts and bolts, Tai Chi Zero recognizes no bounds, no lines, and no walls preventing it from being anything—and everything—it wants to be. A breathless mess of steampunk, underground comics, slapstick, farce, historical romance, and top hats, all duct-taped to a restless skeleton of fantasy cinema, Tai Chi Zero has its precisely placed thumbs in pretty much every proverbial pie. A proper heir to Stephen Chow’s broadly imagined kung fu world, Fung is a filmmaker who seems limitless in potential. Stay tuned: his Kickboxer reboot emerges later this year. There’s no doubt he’ll kill it. —D.S.
85. Shaolin Soccer
Director: Stephen Chow
Set in an alternate universe where the Three Stooges were down-on-their-luck monks and kung fu nothing more than a silly distraction from more lucrative adult matters, Shaolin Soccer somehow—between impromptu dance numbers, confusing body dynamics, self-help homilies, a whole lot of hilarious screaming, and an utter commitment to CGI—tells a warm-hearted tale about how martial arts is so much more than a way to kick your enemies in the face really hard. It’s a way of life. As such, Stephen Chow shines, suffusing every shot and every bit of visual minutiae with the unbridled excitement of both those who make action flicks and those who adoringly watch them. Though he’d later go on to perfect his madcap brand of big-budget, beat-em-up fantasy, Shaolin Soccer is nearly perfect as an example of a martial arts film that seems to exist on its own space-time continuum. —D.S.
84. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Director: Steve Barron
Akin more to a creeping chambara flick or a meditative piece of kung-fu canon than cash-grabbing kids’ fodder, the first live-action attempt at a Ninja Turtles movie now seems—after decades of reboots and big-budget spectacles geared at children but tailored to functionally no one (as any movie Michael Bay produces typically is)—a movie worthy of its workmanlike martial arts action. Once you get past the explicitly turtle-based finishing moves (like the shell-smushing knock-outs) and the Domino’s Pizza plugs, what’s left is a brooding narrative and surprisingly extended, unadorned fight scenes. Although Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is still staunchly a product of its time (featuring a young, greasy Sam Rockwell as “Head Thug,” no less), it’s also a handsome, even appealingly gritty film, shot with sepia filters and samurai silhouettes, and threaded throughout by the kinds of panoramic melees that all these years later M. Night Shyamalan attempted with The Last Airbender and then failed. Look especially to the brawl in April’s family’s antique shop to witness how four grown men in turtle costumes—that have gotta weigh a ton—combatting a bunch of ninjas can best serve director Barron’s unexpected talent at flushing out visual space in order to make a dead premise feel—seriously—lived in. Plus, this marks the only time you’ll ever find Corey Feldman on a list like this. —D.S.
83. Sword Stained With Royal Blood
Director: Chang Cheh
This is the first film on the list both directed by prolific kung fu auteur Chang Cheh and starring the Venom Mob, but there will be several more. The Venom Mob were a group of Shaw Brothers martial artists who rose to fame in the late ’70s and became some of the biggest stars in their business for several years. Sword Stained With Royal Blood is one of their minor classics, but displays many of the classic trademarks, with beautifully choreographed action sequences, wonderful athleticism and a mix of different physical styles. The story is a bit of a sprawling coming-of-age tale about an exiled young boy who must train in kung fu and one day confront his father’s betrayers—classic kung fu stuff. Expect flying swords and acrobatics galore. —J.V.
82. The Bride With White Hair
Director: Ronny Yu
As much romance as martial arts, The Bride With White Hair is nonetheless filled with ultra-stylized, gory, head-scratching mayhem. In some sense, it has a Romeo and Juliet tinge of doomed lovers, if those lovers had the ability to fly and attack people with prehensile hair. The title character is a young woman who undergoes a terrible transformation when rejected by her lover, using her newfound powers to seek out those who have wronged her. The whole thing is shot in a very gauzy style with cold colors and odd, unnatural lighting that makes it feel like an especially vivid nightmare. It’s a film that waffles between silly melodrama and even sillier action at the drop of a hat, which is something one can often find in the wuxia martial arts subgenre where this at least partially resides. It’s difficult to define, but wuxia films typically feature this sort of mix of historical swashbuckling and romance over the training and fistfights of other martial arts movies. —J.V.
Director: Kurt Wimmer
In Equilibrium, Taye Diggs plays a future fascist law enforcement officer named Brandt, and near the climax of the film, Brandt gets his face cut off. That’s his whole face, impeccably separated from his head, hair- to jaw-line. This follows a kind of lightning-quick, future samurai sword fight in which Christian Bale’s character, the heroically named John Preston, has singlehandedly massacred his way, gun in one hand and sword in the other, through one law enforcement officer after another, determined to wrench humanity from the binds of a totalitarian state that has outlawed—you guessed it—feelings. Much like Taye Diggs’ face, Equilibrium is quite pretty in its action, very symmetrical. But also like his face, the fact that I just gave away a meaty part of the climax should be easily disconnected from whether or not you should still watch Equilibrium. You should: it’s all as simultaneously bonkers and well-mannered as the moment in which Taye Diggs’ face slides off the front of his head like salami from a meat slicer. —D.S.
80. The Karate Kid
Director: John G. Avildsen
Ralph Macchio’s crane-legged Karate Kid would become an icon of the ’80s, as would Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi, the sensei who trains the bullied Daniel LaRusso in martial arts. Although many of the scenes can feel a little worn and trope-laden, that’s mostly due to how much the film has been copied in the years since its release. It was the sort of feature that defined karate to an entire generation of young kids and must have inspired countless dojo openings and yellow belt ceremonies. It also features one of the great villains of ’80s cinema in the merciless Cobra Kai coach, Sensei John Kreese: “Sweep the leg, Johnny.” —Josh Jackson
Director: Mark DiSalle and David Worth
Like an unofficial sequel to 1988’s Bloodsport—but more a refining than a new adventure for that movie’s Frank Dux (Jean-Claude Van Damme)—Kickboxer is meatier, meaner, and sweatier than its comparatively tame predecessor. In the course of two years, Van Damme had starred in four action films, his less dependable two (Black Eagle and the confounding Cyborg) sandwiched between a pair of nearly identical films that pretty much soldered Van Damme’s fully-formed cinematic persona to his blocky, unblemished, well-bred Belgian forehead. It could be said that every Van Damme movie is pretty much one Van Damme movie, but Kickboxer claims that this idea isn’t such a bad one. If time is just a flat circle, let us relish the moment that Van Damme’s mutantly macho Kurt Sloane high-kicks the smarmy grin off the face of psychotic rapist Tong Po (Michel Qissi)—over and over and over again, as if it were only the first time. —D.S.
78. The Cave of Silken Web
Director: Ho Meng Hua
The “martial arts” genre has room for all kinds—serious and light-hearted, mature and family friendly. The Cave of Silken Web is technically supposed to be the latter, but wow, is it surreal to watch. A take on the famous “Journey to the West” story (which will come up again on this list), it’s about a monk on a long journey with his protectors, who include a pig man and the “Monkey King,” who looks pretty much as you would expect. The villains are spider demons who take the guise of attractive women and scheme to achieve eternal life by eating the pure flesh of the monk. There’s even a musical number by the spider women about how they can’t wait to eat this guy—pretty damn weird stuff, but oddly compelling. Like many other Shaw Brothers films of the period, the production values are actually pretty high and the color photography really pops. —J.V.
77. Best of the Best
Director: Bob Radler
A hilariously sincere American cheese-fest, Best of the Best is essentially Cool Runnings, except the stakes are a life-and-death martial arts tournament against that evil foreign superpower we all love so much: Korea. It’s a story about an American team of martial artists thrown together from the dregs of society—“they’re a ragtag bunch of misfits!” There’s the street fighter from Detroit, the guy who’s a cowboy for some reason, the grizzled veteran/widower, and, of course, the young kid seeking vengeance for the death of his brother at the hand of the Korean leader, who, I shit you not, wears an eyepatch while fighting. The ending in particular is pure schmaltz: Rather than give in to hate and kill his opponent in the ring, our hero lets Team Korea win to keep his honor. And then the Koreans apologize, hand the Americans their medals, and everyone hugs it out. With James Earl Jones as the coach who yells stuff! —J.V.
76. Dragon Lord
Director: Jackie Chan
By 1982, Jackie Chan was fairly well known to Hong Kong audiences as an ascendant performer who, along with the likes of Sammo Hung, was introducing a new dimension of comedic martial arts films. An absolutely superior athlete and stunt coordinator, he had already starred in more traditional kung fu comedies such as the original Drunken Master, and was now experimenting with expanding his stunt action sequences in a period setting. The fanatical director brought an insane work ethic to projects such as Dragon Lord, which quite honestly features one of the more silly, childlike premises in the genre’s history: Chan’s character gets mixed up with a bunch of thugs after the kite he’s flying accidentally gets away from him and lands in their headquarters. It’s absolutely absurd, but the stunt work is Chan at his hyperkinetic best. —J.V.