75. Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story
Director: Rob Cohen
The details of Bruce Lee’s life tend to be contentious, and his philosophies interpreted to serve the ends of whomever is examining them, but Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story does a good job of simply celebrating the life of the most famous martial artist of all time. Jason Scott Lee is inherently likable as Bruce, in a story that spans from his childhood to his time in the United States and breakthrough on American television in The Green Hornet. The film is unfortunately tinged with tragedy, both from Lee’s death at 32 and that of his son Brandon at 28 on the set of The Crow, only two months before its release. Nevertheless, it was received well and manages to come off as more of a loving tribute than an attempt to profiteer on Lee’s name. —J.V.
74. Dance of the Drunk Mantis
Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Sequel structure wasn’t all that well-defined in kung fu cinema, and it was sometimes difficult to tell which films were supposed to be direct references to others, especially for American audiences. Case in point: Dance of the Drunk Mantis is essentially a sequel of sorts to the classic Drunken Master, not because Jackie Chan’s character is in it but because of the returning Yuen Siu-tien, who played his master, Beggar So. Turns out, this guy ran out on his family, and he returns to find a new, adoptive son called “Foggy.” When a challenger shows up using an imposing “Drunk Mantis” style and threatens Beggar So, Foggy has to learn an entirely new style of kung fu referred to as “sickness boxing” to counter the movements of the unpredictable, drunk-style fighters. It’s a classic showcase of drunken kung fu movements , which always strike a beautiful balance between bawdy humor and delicate ballet. —J.V.
73. The Last Dragon
Director: Michael Schultz
The Last Dragon is the funniest martial arts movie you’ve likely never seen, an outrageous blend of kung fu and blaxploitation movie tropes fused into the tale of Bruce Leroy, the titular last dragon. Underappreciated in its day as a hilarious satire on multiple genres, the film has now become a bona fide cult classic, especially for the amazing villain Sho’Nuff, the self-proclaimed “Shogun of Harlem.” There’s no other way to say it: Sho’Nuff is one of the greatest film villains of all time. As a style icon and source of one-liners, few can compare. There’s absolutely nothing serious about The Last Dragon, but for students of the genre it’s a magical diversion for a movie night with friends. —J.V.
Director: Louis Leterrier
In his second go directing a script penned by futurist action maestro Luc Besson, Louis Leterrier strikes absurd gold by telling the story of a street-fighting orphan (Jet Li) who’s raised by the mob to be an attack dog. Wrapping an ageless Li’s neck with a dog collar and watching the veteran Hong Kong star medievally pound the living daylights out of one unfortunate henchman after another, Letterier casts Bob Hoskins as the mob boss behind Li’s enslavement; Hoskins, bless him, is totally devoted to the boundless evil his Irish character affords him, making Jet Li’s fight—literally—for his freedom a truly odd thing to behold. In classic Besson fashion, unrelenting fight scenes are punctuated by painful schmaltz, but what compensates for a lagging middle section—in which Li learns how to be a real person from a too-well-suited Morgan Freeman (playing a wise, old blind man…seriously)—is Li’s surprisingly touching charm as the socially awkward but physically unmatched bearer of tragic circumstances. Of course, in the wrong light, the whole thing could’ve been an offensive fluke, but the absolute commitment of everyone involved elevates Unleashed to the status of overlooked, undeniably bat-shit action classic. —D.S.
71. Clan of the White Lotus
Director: Lo Lieh
Clan of the White Lotus is pure, vintage kung fu, and excellent, archetypal film that is only bumped down the list slightly because it’s practically a remake of the earlier Executioners from Shaolin in most respects. The great Gordon Liu stars as a monk out for revenge (naturally), but it’s really the villain, Priest White Lotus, who steals the show. Portrayed by director Lo Lieh, he projects such a perfect sense of menace and sheer invincibility that Liu has to train in multiple new and inventive styles to even stand a chance. It’s a great film of progression, as the repeated battles between the two show the evolution in Liu’s technique as he attempts to assail the stone wall that is White Lotus. Visually, it looks exactly like what a novice would picture in his or her head when someone says “kung fu movie.” —J.V.
70. The Victim
Director: Sammo Hung
Kung fu movies can sometimes come off as weirdly compartmentalized between humor and really dramatic, serious action. Such is the case with Sammo Hung’s The Victim. In typical Hung fashion, he plays a comedic character named “Fatty” who indentures himself to a brave martial artist after the guy bests him in combat. Fatty is merely a sidekick/comic relief, however—his master is the film’s true protagonist, and his own story is much more melodramatic, revolving around the woman that both he and his adoptive brother, a gang leader, desire. When she commits suicide in an attempt to end the fighting and keep everyone safe, they end up in an epic, knock-down, drag-out kung fu battle that ends with a rather spectacular finishing move—a pro wrestling-style giant swing. It’s an especially gritty, hard-hitting confrontation. —J.V.
69. Last Hurrah For Chivalry
Director: John Woo
Before he was iconically known for the likes of Hard Boiled and the “gunkata” genre, director John Woo dabbled in classical kung fu and wuxia pictures. Many of the themes are the same, though—killers for hire, deception, organized crime and revelations about who is really working for whom. Here though, instead of cops and robbers it’s swordsmen and kung fu masters. Last Hurrah For Chivalry is definitely a film that leans on its stuntwork and choreography rather than any story of particular interest, but lovers of stage combat will certainly appreciate the fast and furious swordplay. The slashing sound effects are beyond ridiculous, but that’s to be expected, and the creative use of props elevates these swordfights to a sublime level. —J.V.
68. Kung Fu Hustle
Director: Stephen Chow
Stephen Chow is probably the biggest name in martial arts comedy since the days of Sammo Hung, and Kung Fu Hustle will likely remain one of his most well-regarded films both as a director and performer. Gleefully kooky, it combines occasional song and dance with extremely exaggerated kung fu parody in telling the tale of a young man who ends up overthrowing a large criminal organization, the “Deadly Axe Gang.” This is not a complex film—rather, it’s simply intended as popcorn entertainment at its most absurd. The action has no basis in reality, being closer to a real-world depiction of Looney Tune physics. The characters are broad pastiches and references to famous actors from the genre’s history abound. With comedy that teeters decidedly on the juvenile or inscrutable side, it’s a film that some will dismiss off-hand, but Chow’s style has always and will probably always be “entertain first, make sense later.” That’s what he does, and he does it better than anyone else. —J.V.
67. 2 Champions of Shaolin
Director: Chang Cheh
Another Venom Mob film by Chang Cheh, except this one comes with a Shaolin twist. It’s one of the few Venom films to star burly Lo Mang as the primary hero, although he still perishes at the end as he seemingly always does in their films. The plot revolves around two warring clans: the honorable Shaolin fighters and the deplorable Wu Tangs, who use seemingly magical throwing knives that bend the hell out of the laws of aerodynamics. A convoluted series of alliances and allegiances are forged and tested, leading to a final fight that goes full Hamlet and kills pretty much everybody. It’s bloody good fun from the Shaw Brothers with a well-balanced variety of action elements and styles that don’t run too strongly in any one direction. —J.V.
66. Mr. Vampire
Director: Ricky Lau
This flick will, within moments, have you checking your drink to be sure you haven’t been drugged. Responsible for first bringing the so-called jiangshi subgenre into vogue, Mr. Vampire is an utterly bizarre but compellingly original creation that blends a classic kung fu movie with horror and elements of ancient Chinese folklore/mythology. The vampires in question (there’s more than one) are the Eastern variety of “hopping” vamp, which move by holding their arms straight out in front of them and jumping around with little bunny hops. Oh, and you can repel them by holding your breath. The movie is a cinematic fever dream, which a few seconds of the trailer, with its flying heads and hopping vampires, should make abundantly clear. —J.V.
65. The Transporter
Director: Louis Leterrier
Before The Transporter, Jason Statham was more cockney thug than lithe action beast, but after The Transporter came the frenetic shitstorm of Crank, followed by War, which pitted him against none other than Jet Li—so we can pretty much thank Louis Leterrier for believing in Statham’s martial arts prowess enough to give him both the right playground to inhabit and the license to take it apart. Imagine him a gruffer cousin to Jean-Claude Van Damme, just as given to finding himself shirtless, but more apt to preserve his mopey loner status—at least until some beautiful upstart maiden enters his life and throws herself at him. In that sense, Statham’s Frank Martin is the ideal distillation of Eastern martial arts archetypal heroes into the glossy neons of a Western action spectacle: soundless, sexless and merciless, his physicality leaves no room for personality. Watch only the scene in which Frank tip-toes on bicycle pedals through an oil slick, roundhousing every dumb face in his impressive radius to propel body after body away on inky skids, to witness a lovable killing machine portrayed in as empirical—as perfect—a way as we can ever expect out of The Transporter’s more traditional Asian forebears. —D.S.
Director: Newt Arnold
There are tomes to be written and classes to be taught on the perplexing existence of Bloodsport, but perhaps the film is best summarized in one moment: the infamous Scream. Because in these 40 seconds or so, the heart and soul of Bloodsport is bared with little concern for taste, or purpose, or respect for the physically binding laws of reality—in this moment is a burgeoning movie star channeling his best attributes (astounding muscles; years of suppressed rage; the juxtaposition of grace and violence that is his well-oiled and cleanly shaven corporeal form) to make a go at real-live Hollywood acting. Although Bloodsport is the movie that announced Jean-Claude Van Damme and his impenetrable accent to the world—as well as serving as the crucible for (seriously) every single plot of every Van Damme movie to come—it’s also a defining film of the decade, positioning martial arts as certifiable blockbuster action cinema. Schwarzenegger and Stallone? These were beefy mooks that could believably be action stars. Van Damme set the bar higher: his body became a better and bloodier weapon than any hand-cannon that previous mumbling, ’80s box-office draws could ever wield. —D.S.
63. Sister Street Fighter
Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Sister Street Fighter is the second sequel to Sonny Chiba’s The Street Fighter, and in truth it may actually be more exciting, if not more iconic. Chiba appears in the film in a supporting role instead of as his Terry Tsurugi character from the first two films, but the actual star of the show is Sue Shiomi as Tina, a young woman searching for her missing brother, a drug agent who goes missing while investigating a criminal organization. It’s a classic team-up as Chiba and Shiomi’s characters infiltrate the organization and set up a final battle with the villain, who uses a claw weapon in seeming imitation of the villain from Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. Simply a satisfying story with a fittingly high body count, it features a wide array of martial art styles in the villain’s stable of hired killers, which make for an action-packed conclusion. —J.V.
62. Kung Fu Panda
Director: John Stevenson
Kung Fu Panda isn’t just a good movie—it’s a good kung fu movie. The title isn’t pandering, because the film truly respects its source material. Jack Black’s character may as well be Sammo Hung or Jackie Chan in one of his early roles. All of the classical elements are there—an obnoxious pupil who becomes a fighting machine. A team of (literally) animal-based martial artists with varying styles. An unbeatable, rampaging villain in the vein of the Ghost-Faced Killer from Mystery of Chessboxing. And a secret technique that the hero needs to learn in order to conquer that villain. It’s a funny, vibrant film as easily enjoyed by children as adults, and one that the adult viewers should feel no embarrassment for enjoying as much as they do. If you like classical martial arts filmmaking, Kung Fu Panda is probably the most faithful animated twist on the genre that anyone has pulled off so far. Too bad the same can’t be said of its overblown sequels. —J.V.
61. Man of Tai Chi
Director: Keanu Reeves
It’s still a phrase that lodges in the throat: “Director: Keanu Reeves.” But for anyone who left John Wick loose-limbed and exhausted due to the sheer grace of Reeves’ action chops, it should come as absolutely no surprise that the man—the one and only Neo—can direct the fuck out of a martial arts movie. With little frills, barely a plot, a Tai Chi phenom in Tiger Chen (who also served as Reeves’ teacher and, for Kill Bill, Uma Thurman’s stunt double), a strong woman character who seems smarter than all the ’roided-out dudes beating each other senseless surrounding her, and Reeves’ ever-present sonic mangling of the English language, Man of Tai Chi is pretty much exactly what the title suggests: an exhilarating, inertial obsession both with movement as art as power and with those who wield it inimitably. Testament to Reeves’s intelligence as a self-didact who just wants to do right by those folks who put their trust in him over the course of his many-decade career, Man of Tai Chi is exactly what you most hoped for when you first saw who directed it. That it’s awesome is surprising—and it’s even better for that. —D.S.
60. Kiss of the Dragon
Director: Chris Nahon
Jet Li was a Hong Kong superstar who came across the sea to America, likely with hopes of a Jackie Chan-like career trajectory in his mind. However, after a few poorly received American films such as Romeo Must Die, it became clear he probably wouldn’t be that sort of crossover star. Kiss of the Dragon brought things back down to Earth a bit, in a John Woo-style feature starring Li as a Chinese intelligence agent hunting for a drug lord in Paris. Of his American films, it probably relies the least on CGI or wirework, although some is clearly evident in what is likely the film’s most famous moment—when a pinned-down Li kicks a pool ball out of the pocket and again in mid-air to disarm a gunman. The rest of the action is fast-paced and violent, mixing gunplay and a greater than average prevalence of broken necks. —J.V.
59. The Prodigal Son
Director: Sammo Hung
Another film directed by Sammo Hung, Prodigal Son reins in the comedy for once to present a unique story about privileged children and the price of true knowledge. Yuen Biao stars as Chang, the son of a wealthy man who believes himself to be a kung fu master. However, because he lacks any real skill, his father has clandestinely been bribing all of his opponents to lose. When the ruse is revealed, Chang must join up with a traveling circus troupe and its Wing Chun-employing leader to learn true kung fu. It’s a more mature turn from Hung, who co-stars as one of Chang’s tutors, and the action choreography is expansive, free-flowing and beautiful. With that said, the guy with no eyebrows still sort of creeps me out. —J.V.
58. The Raid 2: Berendal
Director: Gareth Evans
Nearly five years in gestation, The Raid 2 feels like the exact kind of movie that Gareth Evans has always dreamed of making. Or…scratch that: this is the kind of movie that every fan of martial arts cinema has always dreamed of watching—the pure and unhindered manifestation of brutal hand-to-hand action shot with unrepentantly magnanimous scope. Where the original film exposed the world to a rapid-fire form of Indonesian martial arts called Pencak silat, The Raid 2 made that style of fighting the only key to survival in a society on the verge of total nihilism. Expanding from an occupied office building to the whole of the criminal underworld, The Raid 2 takes the surviving characters from the first film and pushes them toward a tragic and/or exhausted end. Practically every scene is the result of filmmaking bravura, but perhaps the most trenchant is one in which hero Rama (Iko Uwais), barely holding himself together after hours of fighting, walks slowly back through the now-quiet graveyard of defeated bodies he left in his wake not long before. It’s a humbling moment, that the calm after the storm is just a sad reflection on all the pain inflicted during the storm itself. Self-aware and yet unstoppable despite that, The Raid 2 is a new standard for action cinema. —D.S.
Director: Sammo Hung
Knockabout is like the perfect template of a Sammo Hung movie: Simple, crowd-pleasing, good-natured and infinitely rewatchable, like martial arts comfort food. Hung directs and co-stars as a “fat beggar,” very much in the vein of Drunken Master’s Beggar So, without the intoxication. Really, though, Knockabout is truly the Yuen Biao appreciation film—one of the “Seven Little Fortunes” that included Jackie Chan and Hung, Biao is beloved by genre fans but not nearly well known enough to the wider world, which is a real shame. Like Chan, his lithe athleticism and comedic chops make him instantly likable, but in terms of physicality he might be an even more acrobatic (if not intimidating) fighter. Here, he’s training with Hung in order to hunt down the man who killed his brother (fresh idea!), but hey, it gives us an excuse for some great training sequences featuring monkey style kung fu and the amazingly acrobatic jump rope sequence. It’s the kind of thing you never see in modern martial arts films, and this kind of pure athletic showmanship is sorely missed. —J.V.
56. Red Cliff
Director: John Woo
When we think of John Woo, we tend to think of gun ballads and Chow Yun-Fat. We’re not wired to think of large-scale portrayals of warfare, much less period dramas set during the end of the Han Dynasty. Magnolia split the film more or less in twain for its U.S. release; you won’t find the full 288-minute version on Netflix Instant, but Red Cliff feels complete even with roughly half its content rotting on the cutting floor. This is a towering film, one that’s filled with allusion and metaphor, stratagem and scheming, sentimentality and philosophy, and eye-popping battle sequences that afford Woo plenty of room to harmonize historical accuracy with the signature flourishes that make him an action maestro. —Andy Crump
55. The Invincible Armour
Director: See-Yuen Ng
The plot of The Invincible Armour is a bit on the inscrutable side, revolving around assassination and people being framed for various crimes, but none of that really matters because the majority is spent indulging in some cheesy kung fu goodness. The key technique here is “iron armour,” a method of hardening and toughening the body to shrug off blows. There’s lots of great training sequences and montages of both the heroes and villains employing these techniques, whether it’s dipping themselves in boiling water, headbutting spiked balls on chains or simply reclining onto spear points, which the trailer reminds us is “exciting and fantastic!” The fact that the villain’s single weak point turns out to be his groin makes for an especially hilarious conclusion that literally involves his junk being crushed ...TO DEATH! Accompanied by helpful visual metaphors. —J.V.
54. Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow
Director: Yuen Woo-ping
The directorial debut of influential director/choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow was also one of Jackie Chan’s first starring roles, predating his star-making turn in Drunken Master. Chan plays an orphan adopted into a kung fu school, where he is abused and beaten up by the teachers and students regularly until a beggar teaches him snake-style kung fu. He then becomes a champion/defender of the school before being roped into a plot by eagle-claw kung fu practitioners to kill off all the snake-style users. In short, it’s classic kung fu stuff, very much about battles between iconic styles—mantis-style users also show up for a fight at one point. Chan hadn’t quite gotten into his comedic period yet, and it’s fascinating to see the young performer (24 years old at the time) at his physical best, but still sitting on plenty of untapped potential. —J.V.
Director: Benny Chan
It’s pretty rare that one can look back on the history of a genre, pick out a classic style of film, and say, “Let’s lovingly recreate it as it would have been made in the modern era.” Look at horror: How well did that work for Van Helsing or The Wolfman? But Shaolin somehow manages to pull that off, a modern revitalization of the classic “Shaolin temple” film subtype. It integrates tropes, such as a man on the run begging entry into the temple, with the expected training sequences established by The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. But it also gets the best it can from its modern effects budget, and features Jackie Chan in the most sensible way one can use him in the 2010s, which is as fluid comic relief. This is the kind of premise that could have simply felt like nostalgia or a cash-grab, but is pulled off with excitement and reverence in equal measure. — —J.V.
Director: Ronny Yu
After his somewhat underwhelming Hollywood period, Jet Li returned to Hong Kong to pull off his last great historical kung fu film, Fearless. One can tell that the story of Huo Yuanjia, a martial artist who triumphed over a variety of international fighters at a time when China’s national identity was flagging, is an important one to him. Fittingly, Li imparts one of his best acting performances to the film, which tells the tale of how Yuanjia learned his skills and realizes he must stand up for his nation’s reputation. The film ends with a great, tragic fight sequence as Yuanjia takes on an honorable Japanese swordsman but is simultaneously poisoned by scheming aristocrats. The choreography is beautiful but appreciably restrained in reality, which was rare to see in a high-budget film in the years following Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. —J.V.
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Chocolate is a pretty odd premise that succeeds because the action is just so good. One might summarize it thusly: “It’s like Rain Man, except with more muy thai.” As in, the lead character is an autistic savant, except instead of counting toothpicks, her talents mostly lay in kicking people in the face. Casting is critical to its success; lead Yanin “Jeeja” Vismistananda is an ostensibly adorable waif, which makes her appear as a most unlikely butt-kicker. After a childhood spent mnemonically absorbing martial arts movies, however, she turns into a tool of vengeance unleashed upon the gangster threatening her mother. The fight scenes are over-the-top ridiculous but thankfully wireless, which makes for a stylish, exuberant film. —J.V.