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