50. Executioners From Shaolin
Director: Lau Kar-leung
If you remember the story of Pai Mei, the white lotus, that David Carradine tells to Uma Thurman around the campfire in Kill Bill, then you essentially know the story of this film. Tarantino’s double-film is filled to the brim with references to classic kung fu cinema, not least of which is Gordon Liu’s Pai Mei character, who is an absolutely iconic villain in Executioners from Shaolin. A true monster, he butchers the monks of the Shaolin Temple with his nigh-invincibility, and is only brought down eventually by characters who have trained for decades specifically to find his few vulnerabilities. Pai Mei’s mastery of his bodily functions, referred to as “internal kung fu,” make him one of the most imposing villains in the history of the genre, and make this film a classic element of the genre’s lore. Bonus: Gordon Liu appears as a badass monk in the beginning who sacrifices himself against a small army of fighters to help his Shaolin brothers escape. —J.V.
49. 3 Evil Masters, aka The Master
Director: Chin-Ku Lu
This is a film that feels a bit smaller in scope that some of the other Shaw Bros. epics on the list, with a smaller overall cast of characters and a bit less pageantry, but the story and action are both wonderful. The plot concerns a kung fu school being taken over by the titular three evil masters, each of whom has weird, distinctive stylistic flourishes. The protagonist is your typical young pupil who needs to learn a variety of techniques if he’s going to set things right at the school. A variety of dependable, familiar performers appear, particularly Chen Kuan Tai, who has a great early scene where he fights all three of the evil masters at once. I particularly love the guy in green, who uses his long braid of hair as a whip throughout the fight. Dude smashes through a table with his hair! Watch that clip and simply appreciate the long, uninterrupted take that begins at 3:30, it’s a thing of beauty. —J.V.
48. Kill Zone – SPL
Director: Wilson Yip
“SPL” stands for San Po Lang, three characters from Chinese astrology that, depending on their alignment in the heavens, can foretell both good and evil tidings. So proceeds Kill Zone, a prototypical Hong Kong crime flick that, like any salient martial arts hybrid post-2000, devolves into the shady moral gray of umpteen different action genres to prove a point about the malleable nature of our modern moral compass. Namely: all signs point to nothing—no hope, no love, no redemption; violence only begets more violence, and every action has an equal but opposite reaction. It’s no major revelation plot-wise, but when director Yip pulls in veteran Sammo Hung to, despite the girth of age, weave circles of devastation around thugs half his age, everything feels exactly as it should. Then, cue Donnie Yen, who will later play the definitive Ip Man, here a whirlwind of limbs in a brutal knife vs. baton alley fight. In its final moments, Kill Zone’s scorched earth policy leaves only the innocent alive; maybe this is how every martial arts movie should end. —D.S.
47. Way of the Dragon, aka Return of the Dragon
Director: Bruce Lee
Way of the Dragon stands as the only film that Bruce Lee ever finished directorial duties on, passing away before he could complete The Game of Death or the co-credit he might have shared on Enter the Dragon. It stands, therefore, as perhaps the most accurate and complete piece of work that Lee personally envisioned, a story about a Hong Kong fighter who travels to Rome in order to protect a family restaurant being threatened by the mob. As one would expect, it has some great fights, but nobody has quite the same presence on camera as Lee. If there’s one thing most viewers would take away from this one today, it’s the fact that this film contains one of the holy grails of martial arts battles: Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris, the final opponent, which takes place among the ruins of the Roman Colosseum. That classic fight is no doubt worth the price of admission alone—just feel the tension as both of them warm up and crack their knuckles before the battle begins. —J.V.
46. Five Fingers of Death
Director: Chang-hwa Chung
Enter the Dragon is often the martial arts film cited as being the start of the kung fu craze in America, but in reality it was Five Fingers of Death that kickstarted the genre in the U.S. a year earlier as an unexpected drive-in hit. As such, the dubbed version at least is a little more naive in its presentation and attitude toward the martial arts, treated with a sort of aloof, mystic reverence. At it’s core though, there’s an excellent story here, starring the great Lo Lieh as a young pupil who shuffles between masters as he attempts to learn the necessary skills to defeat a local tyrant and win the hand of the girl he loves. It proved extremely influential—once again, Kill Bill borrows elements here, in particular its instantly recognizable battle music, which was itself lifted from the 1967 TV series Ironside. Perhaps most importantly, films like this one paved the way for martial arts cinema to soon explode into crossover popularity in the U.S., with Bruce Lee as the standard-bearer. —J.V.
45. Flash Point
Director: Wilson Yip
Flash Point could probably have gotten away with spending its whole running time simmering through its central cat-and-mouse crime yarn, so long as it still ended with Donnie Yen and Collin Chou beating the tar out of each other. Theirs is a brawl for the ages, a knock-down, drag-out scrap between two titans of the martial arts genre that holds back nothing in the brutality department. Luckily for us, Wilson Yip makes the rest of Flash Point just as propulsive and exciting as its climax, but the film’s real draw lies in seeing its two biggest stars lock horns in one cataclysmic struggle.—A.C.
44. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons
Director: Stephen Chow and Derek Kwok
Every list of this nature needs a lot of Chow. Although the Hong Kong director’s Western breakthrough, the bonkers Shaolin Soccer, gives you a good idea of what’s on the director’s mind, the even bonkers-ier Journey to the West is a better place to start. Monumentally popular in China, breaking all-time box office records (even beating out Transformers 4, so you know this shit means business), Journey is based on a Chinese literary classic of the same name, but saturated with Chow’s now infamous wit, slapstick and barely containable glee at the possibility of fantasy filmmaking. Every scene is an elaborate tour de force of stunts and battles and exaggerated athleticism—just like every scene in every film of his to come before—but Journey takes that extra step to imbue its traditional genre tropes with grotesquerie and phantasmagorical imagination, transforming a pretty basic story about one monk’s path to enlightenment into Terry Gilliam’s wet dream, replete with pig monsters and monkey spirits and steampunk and practically everything in between. So much more than a martial arts flick, this feels like a super-gifted filmmaker doing exactly what he was born to do. —D.S.
43. The Big Boss, aka Fists of Fury
Director: Lo Wei
This is where it all started for a young man named Bruce Lee, his first starring vehicle in a Hong Kong action movie. Set in contemporary time, this isn’t some Shaolin temple period piece but a pretty grimy, modern crime movie that just happens to feature some martial arts. James Tien was ostensibly supposed to be the film’s star power, but it was clear that Bruce Lee had a magnetism that made him lightning in a bottle—you can’t look away when he’s on screen. The action isn’t quite fully developed, but you can just see the raw, seething potential in him, both as an actor and the most famous martial artist who’s ever lived. The film is more than a little goofy and its low-budgetness can make it a little bit tougher to watch today, but it’s worthwhile to see the birth of the legend. —J.V.
42. The Brave Archer
Director: Chang Cheh
The Brave Archer is a true martial arts epic by Chang Cheh and the Shaws, taking full advantage of a large budget and access to expansive, lavish sets. Long and sprawling, it’s pretty hard to sum up in only a few sentences, but suffice to say it centers around a young man played by the great Alexander Fu Sheng who searches for several parts of a mystical kung fu manual while also competing against another suitor for the affections of a woman he has loved his whole life. There are dozens of characters, and the film feels a bit like a “best-of” genre piece, with many recognizable faces who pass through and play bit parts. Probably best-suited to viewers who are well-steeped in the kung fu genre in particular, it’s an iconic adventure film that spawned multiple sequels before the tragic death of Fu Sheng in a car crash at only 28 years old. He was truly a talent taken before his time, but The Brave Archer stands as a testament to his skills as a performer. —J.V.
41. The Matrix
Director: Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
There is not much to say about the film that made cyberpunk not stupid, or that made Keanu Reeves a respectable figure of American kung fu, or that finally made martial arts films a seriously hot commodity outside of Asia. The Matrix is—next to the Wu-Tang Clan—what proved to a new generation that martial arts films were worth their scrutiny, and in that reputation is bred college classes, heroes’ journeys, and impossible expectations for special effects. While there are plenty better, there is no movie in the canon of martial arts films bigger than The Matrix, and even today we still have this film to thank for so much of what we love about modern kinetic cinema. This is our red pill; everything else is an illusion of greatness and everything else is an allusion to what the Wachowskis accomplished. —D.S.
40. Legendary Weapons of China
Director: Lau Kar-leung
This film is a bit of a storytelling Gordian knot, but all of the interconnected plots means tons of colorful characters and combat. The main plot revolves around a group of “spiritual boxers” martial artists attempting to train their bodies to resist the bullets of Western imperialist guns. These villains are also hunting down former members of the group who have since admitted that stopping a bullet by flexing your abs probably isn’t possible. The real attraction is the incredible array of styles: Ti Tan the impenetrable monk played by Gordon Liu, Maoshan “magic boxers” and more. And as if that’s not enough, you also have the reason for the title: This film highlights the styles and uses of traditional Chinese weaponry better than any other on the list. There’s 18 different weapons in total that are featured, many during the epic final scene where the hero and villain cycle through all of the legendary weapons as they probe the strengths and weaknesses of each bit of armament. It’s one of the only scenes of its kind, and it’s magnificent. —J.V.
39. Dragon Gate Inn
Director: King Hu
An influential film that one might call the birth of the modern wuxia epic, Dragon Gate Inn was actually made in Taiwan, despite being set in historical China. It’s a story of family, as several orphaned children of a deposed general are on the run from a band of hired killers. As they flee for the country’s borders, a trap is waiting for them at the Dragon Gate Inn. But when a brother-sister team of martial artist allies arrive, they help even the odds for the refugees. The action is stylish and heavy on the swordplay. I’ve always been amused by this scene in particular, when a bevy of four swordsman try to overwhelm the old master by running around him in a circle in order to disorient him. —J.V.
38. Wing Chun
Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Michelle Yeoh would become well-known six years later with the release of cross-cultural smash hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but she was a star in martial arts cinema from the 1980s onward, and Wing Chun is one of the best overall star vehicles for her great physical (and comedic) talents. Tonally, it’s sort of an unusual film, as much romantic comedy as it is martial arts movie, but without sacrificing the gravitas of the action sequences. It manages to be both charming, as the story of a country woman protecting her village, and a thrilling collection of set-pieces largely practical in their special effects. It’s hard not to fall in love a little bit with Yeoh by the end—she’s as beautiful as she is talented. —J.V.
37. Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky
Director: Lam Nai-choi
Adapted from a Japanese manga and one of the few films on this list that should definitely not be watched in its original language, Riki-Oh is a hallucinatory smorgasbord of flying viscera and exploding bone fragments—either a deadpan attempt to translate gratuitous comic book violence to the screen, and thereby comment on the kind of jading culture perpetuated by martial arts media, or just a movie made by a seriously crazy person. My bet’s on the latter, and only that, because there is palpable, irrepressible glee in the punching open of an obese man’s stomach, or the vice-like obliterating of another man’s skull, or how, when another fighter blocks Ricky’s jab, that poor guy’s fist splinters into a fine red mist spritzed between shards of ulna. It is all—all of it—just totally fucking insane: watch with your friends, laugh with your friends, cheer with your friends when, at the very end, Ricky—spoiler alert—through the sheer power of his inhuman awesomeness, punches down a 30-foot concrete wall. Because that happens. —D.S.
36. The Duel
Director: Chang Cheh
In the U.S., this early Chang Cheh feature was known as Duel of the Iron Fist, and although badass-sounding, it’s blatantly inaccurate, as the amount of traditional kung fu in this film is on the light side. Rather, The Duel is something more unique, a moody and well-acted crime drama that still has tons of bloody martial arts action sequences, many of them being knife fights. The film features perhaps the two biggest stars of the day, Ti Lung and David Chiang, as the participants in the titular duel, and this was a pretty big deal. Both had typically played heroes in the past, and both had been paired together as allies. For the Chinese audience, seeing the two of them finally come to blows in a duel to the death was a bit like watching Macho Man Randy Savage turn against Hulk Hogan and break up the Mega Powers. David Chiang alone kills nearly 100 people in this freaking movie. —J.V.
35. Come Drink With Me
Director: King Hu (with Sammo Hung)
With a female protagonist (Cheng Pei-pei) at the head of an army of warrior women and the Shaw Brothers’ stamp early on in the production company’s run, Come Drink With Me not only broke the wuxia mold, it practically created it. Without the film, there would have been no Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino has even been rumored for years to have a remake in his docket); in fact, without this film’s meager success in the U.S., later bolstered by the Weinstein Brothers commitment to bringing martial arts classics to cult-inclined Western audiences, there are few other films of its ilk that would have ever been embraced outside of China and Hong Kong. Achingly tender in moments, with fight scenes that more resemble sophisticated, choreographed dance than realistic brawls, the influence of Come Drink With Me can’t be overstated. Even if you’ve never seen it, when you think of martial arts film, you think of something akin to this. —D.S.
34. Swordsman 2
Director: Ching Siu-tung
Colorful, complex and engaging, Swordsman 2 is a great star vehicle for a young Jet Li and perhaps the best Chinese wuxia movie of the ’90s in the classical sense. It’s a sweeping historical drama with a rather confusing plot, but suffice to say there are multiple clans vying for possession of a scroll—total macguffin stuff, really. It’s a great excuse to get a bunch of martial artists together and let them have at it in really dramatic, superpowered, ham-handed ways: I love when the ninjas show up and attack the camp at night by hurling both throwing stars and SACKS FULL OF SCORPIONS at their opponents. There’s tons of flashy swordplay as you would expect in a great wuxia film, and lots of wire-aided fight scene craziness. Martial arts fans tend to praise films almost exclusively for realism and real acrobatics, but Swordsman 2 is a great example of the mystical artistry that good wire-work does bring to the film when used to set a visual aesthetic properly. —J.V.
33. Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
After a decade-long trend toward ever more prominent wire work and special effects, Tony Jaa’s 2003 Thai star vehicle Ong-Bak was a return to insane stunts (all performed by Jaa himself) and hard-hitting action. Featuring an utter lack of both wire-fu and CGI, Ong-Bak is a jaw-dropping viewing experience. Although the story is little more than an excuse to trek across Thailand (both Bangkok and the countryside) in a constant stream of crazy chase sequences and even crazier fights, the film is so unashamed of being exactly what it is and nothing more that one can’t help but smile and fully resign to being blown away by some of the most impressive displays of martial arts—and physicality in general—to hit the screen in the new millennium. —K. Alexander Smith
32. The Raid: Redemption
Director: Gareth Evans
When future generations look back upon the beginning of the 21st century and seek a way to understand the claustrophobia and fear that defined so much of our popular media of the time, let them look upon The Raid and weep. Essentially one extended action set-piece, paced with super-human precision to both incite and then maximally exploit one’s heightened dopamine levels, The Raid leaves no headspace for hesitation—once you’re in, you’re at its mercy, and the film’s only relief awaits at the top of an apartment block ruled by one of Jakarta’s scrappiest, psychopathic-iest crime bosses. The Raid is what martial arts cinema looks like in our young century: bleak, dystopian and hyper-violent. This is brutality at its barest. —D.S.
31. Fist of Fury, aka The Chinese Connection
Director: Lo Wei
Bruce Lee’s second feature is a definite upgrade over the rawness of The Big Boss, sporting a bigger budget, better production and a story more important to Lee’s values. His character, Chen Zhen, becomes a Chinese folk hero when he stands up to the invading Japanese occupiers—especially in the classic scene where he breaks a sign permitting “no Chinese and no dogs” in the local park. This is the film where Bruce Lee truly arrived in a fully formed state, and if there’s a precise moment when that happens, it’s the classic dojo fight where Chen shows up at the Japanese training facility and absolutely goes to town on everyone inside. It’s iconic, like so many Bruce Lee moments. Do you know how you can tell just how iconic he is? Literally every piece of clothing he wore in a film has become a visual symbol for decades to come, whether it’s a simple white shirt, or this film’s navy blue suit, or of course the yellow tracksuit from The Game of Death. That’s how you know the guy is a legend. —J.V.
30. Mad Monkey Kung Fu
Director: Lau Kar-leung
Another Lau Kar-leung classic for the Shaw Brothers, Mad Monkey Kung Fu is just an inherently likable film that deftly balances feats of athleticism with broad humor. Hsiao Ho, a martial artist who does not get the recognition that he deserves, stars as a young street urchin and thief who is taken in by a street entertainer who performs alongside a trained monkey. He learns kung fu from his new teacher, and combines it with the monkey’s movements in some great training sequences. Eventually, he must use his new style of monkey kung fu to seek out a local brothel owner who is holding a young woman hostage. Hsiao Ho is wonderfully expressive in the role, and his acrobatics in particular are top-notch. He plays the part of the long-suffering, then overconfident, then humbled student perfectly. —J.V.
29. The Street Fighter
Director: Shigehiro Ozawa
Trivia blurb: The Street Fighter was the first film to ever receive an X-rating in the U.S. strictly for violence—a full 16 minutes had to be cut out to get an R-rating. Damn! This is the film that made a star of Sonny Chiba, who you will again recognize as the wizened sword-maker Hattori Hanzo in Kill Bill. He plays a truly unique protagonist in this film, an anti-hero who is far more “anti” than hero, most of the time. A hired killer, his character, Terry Tsurugi, has pretty much nothing that one would call a “moral code,” but the audience is moved into his favor when the villains who are trying to employ him instead decide to have him rubbed out. Truth be told, Chiba isn’t the most compelling actor in the world here, but man does he just have the look. The rage and intensity in his face goes a long way, and they got mileage out of it for multiple sequels. You can’t deny that the film is a classic. —J.V.
28. Magnificent Butcher
Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Magnificent Butcher has the slapstick and bawdy humor that one usually expects from a Sammo Hung star vehicle, but it also knows how to be deadly serious at the same time, which makes it rather unique. Hung stars as a literal butcher who has learned the ways of kung fu from folk hero Wong Fei-hung, played here by the truly magnificent Kwan Tak-hing, who was 74 at the time but puts on an incredible physical performance. The calligraphy scene in particular is legendary—a rival master comes in to challenge Wong Fei-hung, who defends himself with skill and humor while simultaneously completing a piece of calligraphy It’s in an awe-inspiring display. Butcher Wing, meanwhile, reunites with his long-lost brother and must help him rescue his kidnapped wife. The film may feature Sammo Hung’s best overall one-on-one fight scene against Lee Hoi San, really showcasing the portly performer’s acrobatics. Sammo Hung really was one-of-a-kind. —J.V.
27. Warriors Two
Director: Sammo Hung
Wing chun is a very influential style of martial arts when it comes to film, but it might be surprising for martial arts fans to know that true, traditional wing chun is actually quite rare on screen. Warriors Two, a modest, straightforward story of a young man training in martial arts to protect a town, is one of those few films well-regarded as featuring quite a lot of authentic wing chun, in the style which master Ip Man would have taught to a young Bruce Lee. It’s a small-scale film featuring director Sammo Hung in a supporting role, but the stars of the show are Casanova Wong as the hero and especially his master, Bryan Leung. Leung, who has appeared in numerous kung fu roles and continues to perform to this day, is affectionately known to fans as “Beardy,” but this happens to be one of the rare roles where he’s quite beardless. —J.V.
26. Rumble in the Bronx
Director: Stanley Tong
Here’s a weird factoid: Jackie Chan was 41 years old in 1995, when Rumble in the Bronx succeeded in making him an American film star. He’d already been a star in China for more than a decade, but can you think of any other martial artists who turn into a big deal for the first time after their 40th birthdays? The irrepressibly youthful Chan plays a Hong Kong cop who comes to New York for a wedding and gets sucked into a criminal underworld. It wasn’t Chan’s first American film, but it was the one that finally synthesized the trademark Chan dynamic: Fast pace, lots of physical comedy and death-defying stunt work. Don’t look for compelling acting here, because Rumble in the Bronx is as cheesy as they come. Do look for classic stunts, like Chan leaping off a building and onto a fire escape with no wires or nets. Or the epic fight in the villain’s headquarters and its hilarious use of props, especially refrigerators. —J.V.