The 10 Best Martial Arts Movies on Netflix

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The 10 Best Martial Arts Movies on Netflix

“Martial arts” is a pretty broad qualifier, as far as film genres go—we’re talking samurai (chambara) films and pulpy kung-fu dubs, modern historical epics and blockbuster videogame fodder alike. Which is why we’ve found the best of the best streaming on Netflix and have ranked them here, all with the hope that you’ll like what you see and really seek out some deep-cut classics when you next peruse your local indie film store.

With that said … since the last time we compiled this list in 2015, Netflix has seemingly gone out of its way to purge practically every classic martial arts film from its streaming library, but don’t worry—they replaced them with the likes of Lady Bloodfight and My Wife is a Gangster 3. Yes, those are real movie titles, and yes, they are indeed streaming on Netflix right now. It’s bad news if you were a fan of old-school kung fu, as the Shaw Brothers-type films were purged badly—we’ve also lost the likes of the original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and even Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. They’ve been replaced by a lot of low-budget, Scott Adkins-headlined modern actioners in the vein of the Undisputed series, which leaves us asking absurd questions like “Does Lethal Weapon 4 count because of the Jet Li scenes?” But still, there are a few gems here on Netflix streaming, largely in the wuxia and modern action subgenres … plus a whole lot of Donnie Yen.

Here are the 10 best martial arts movies streaming on Netflix right now.


kung fu panda poster (Custom).jpg 10. Kung Fu Panda
Year: 2008
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. —Jim Vorel


the final master poster (Custom).jpg 9. The Final Master
Year: 2016
Director: Haofeng Xu
Haofeng Xu’s The Final Master is a methodically paced, contemplative martial arts period piece that, while it can’t match Wong Kar-Wei’s The Grandmaster (which Xu co-wrote) in sheer visual splendor, at least still looks pretty darn good as a visual spectacle. It’s the tale of a wing chun master, not unlike the ongoing obsession with Ip Man, who travels to a new city and wishes to establish a school of his own to keep the art form alive, but must first train a student to take on a series of challenges from rival schools. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the same basic structure forms the crux of the first half of Ip Man 2, also on this list. The Final Master, however, aspires to be a deeper film, even if it never quite gets there. It counterpoints the sorrow and emotional scars of the protagonist’s long-suffering wife with the hero’s all-consuming passion to keep his martial art alive—it’s almost as the audience is supposed to consider the art form itself more important than any of the characters. But if you want to see some scintillating knives and edged weapon combat, The Final Master certainly has it in spades. —Jim Vorel


kung fu killer poster (Custom).jpg 8. Kung Fu Killer
Year: 2014
Director: Teddy Chan
Despite the messy neck-slittings, face-knucklings and bone-splinterings, Kung Fu Killer (née Kung Fu Jungle) shows a lot of respect. Not for body parts or for the basic laws of physics, but for the cinematic bloodline it so gleefully splits open and spills all over the hyper-neon streets of present-day Hong Kong. Director Teddy Chan knows his way around a brutal fight scene for sure, and he makes it clear from even the film’s first moments—when action legend Donnie Yen confesses a murder to two duty cops, played by Hong Kong film stalwarts Steve Chan (sound) and stuntman Wong Wai-fai—that his return to directing after five years will be totally in thrall to the filmmaking dynasties that raised him. —Dom Sinacola


ip man 2 poster (Custom).jpg 7. Ip Man 2
Year: 2010
Director: Wilson Yip
The unexpected pathos of 2008’s original Ip Man from director Wilson Yip isn’t so easy to replicate, but this sequel does what good sequels must: Ups the ante in the action department and more than justifies its own existence. Fleeing the Japanese control of his home city, this film sees Ip and his family immigrating to Hong Kong, where he attempts to set up a school to pass on his deadly wing chun techniques. However, his right to do so is challenged by a rival teacher, played delightfully by a late-career Sammo Hung in one of his better semi-serious roles. The film then sort of veers into Rocky IV territory by introducing a ruthless foreign boxer who Ip must defeat to avenge his newfound friend, and it all leads to exactly the “If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!” finale you’d expect. Still, the balletic action sequences are even crazier than in the first film, as Ip’s signature pitter-patter of lightning fast strikes are a joy to watch as he wrecks entire squads of goons in a crowded marketplace. Suffice it to say, this is one you’re watching for the choreography and natural talents of Donnie Yen, rather than the story. —Jim Vorel


assassin-movie-poster.jpg 6. The Assassin
Year: 2015
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is a gorgeous creation, a martial arts movie that willfully withholds and subverts the primary pleasures of the genre to get at something more beautiful, mysterious and timeless. One doesn’t watch The Assassin so much as fall under its sway. The Taiwanese director’s first film since 2007’s Flight of the Red Balloon, The Assassin takes us back to ninth-century China as the Tang dynasty is beginning to unravel. Shu Qi plays Nie Yinniang, whom (we learn in an opening crawl) was abducted by a nun when she was only 10 and trained in martial arts. Years later, Nie has been ordered to return to her homeland to assassinate Tian (Chang Chen), a warlord to whom she had been promised in marriage as a child. The Assassin’s story is somewhat simplistic but, as depicted by Hou, also incredibly complicated, with scenes of throne-room intrigue littering the film’s first half. If the plot machinations are hard to follow, frequent Hou cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing makes it all look arresting. With scenes often taking place indoors at night, The Assassin can feel almost dreamlike, an impression heightened by the fact that the filmmaker often places in between his camera and the actors thin, billowing curtains, which create the sensation that we’re watching half-remembered incidents or eavesdropping on top-secret meetings. The martial arts film has similarities to the Western, and The Assassin could be seen in some ways as Hou’s version of an Unforgiven, in which narrative tenets and character types are in service to a higher purpose, a more audacious form of art. The violence isn’t the point of The Assassin: The words and action that lead to violence are. Consequently, The Assassin strips away any notion of escapism: Fight scenes are just another form of politics in Hou’s movie. The film is so immaculately constructed—Hou has worked on The Assassin for years—that it’s all of a piece, a diamond that inspires awe and gasps. —Tim Grierson


call of heroes poster (Custom).jpg 5. Call of Heroes
Year: 2016
Director: Benny Chan
Call of Heroes, despite sounding suspiciously like the name of a mobile game you’d be pumping endless cash into for no good reason, is actually one of the better historical martial arts throwbacks in recent memory. Structuring itself for all intents and purposes like a classic Shaw Brothers chop-socky, it positions the valorous rural townspeople against the big, bad, corrupt government officials who kill because they’re 100% composed of psychopaths in their ranks. Still, there are some deeper hints of Sergio Leone and especially Akira Kurosawa on display here as well, as well as some truly off-the-wall practical effects. It’s a potent fusion of modern Hong Kong-Chinese blockbuster filmmaking with the kind of old-school stuntwork that students of the genre crave. It might feel familiar to something you’d have seen out of Shaw or Golden Harvest in the ‘70s, but in the eyes of many fans, that would be a good thing. —Jim Vorel


35_13assassins_NetflixList.jpg 4. 13 Assassins
Year: 2011
Director: Takashi Miike
An adaptation of Seven Samurai more in spirit than in tone and plot, Miike’s 13 Assassins is a sprawling blood bath of mythic proportions—so, in other words, nothing new for the Japanese auteur. What Miike later expounded upon with his faithful adaptation of Masaki Kobayashi’s Hara-kiri (also available on Netflix streaming) he began here, translating classic chamabara films into neo-realistic accounts of a gritty, painful time for Japanese culture, making historical epics literally eviscerating experiences. Long and grueling, 13 Assassins could easily be Miike’s best film—a high honor coming from such a multifaceted and unsettling filmmaker—but the film is worth watching if only for the moment when the phrase “TOTAL MASSACRE” makes its reappearance. Just … goose bumps. —Dom Sinacola


kill zone 2 poster (Custom).jpg 3. Kill Zone 2, aka SPL II: A Time for Consequences
Year: 2016
Director: Cheang Pou-soi
The first thing to note about Kill Zone 2 is that Kill Zone 2 isn’t its actual title. Its actual title is SPL II: A Time for Consequences, in which “SPL” spells out to “Sha Po Lang,” a collective Chinese phrase that refers to a trio of stars used in methods of fortune telling. “Sha” signifies power, “Po” destruction, “Lang” lust—but you’d think that at least one of them would translate roughly to something along the lines of “Tony Jaa and Wu Jing kick your ass.” Kill Zone 2 isn’t about astrology, it’s about two in-shape, highly skilled martial artists teaming up to crack skulls, snap limbs and pummel leukemia. The second thing to note about Kill Zone 2 is that it’s a sequel in name only to 2005’s Kill Zone—Cheang Pou Soi’s follow up to Wilson Yip’s original is its own picture, a sprawling action thriller split into three separate but interconnected plotlines. As such, its very foundation is built on coincidences, which add excess density to an already dense narrative. But Cheang keeps the threads straight, which is as impressive a feat as any of his film’s stunts. In fact, Kill Zone 2 impresses all around. —Andy Crump


headshot poster (Custom).jpg 2. Headshot
Year: 2017
Director: Timo Tjahjanto, Kimo Stamboel
Anyone familiar with the tropes of this kind of flick can pretty easily guess that Ishmael (Iko Uwais) is a veritable killing machine, a man bred to wreck any poor bastard fool enough to tangle with him. The film takes his backstory beyond the edges of obviousness, though, eventually landing somewhere in the same neighborhood as movies like Louis Leterier’s Unleashed (a.k.a. Danny the Dog), where childhood innocence is tied to adult barbarity. Headshot is surprisingly melancholic, an actioner built to break hearts as easily as Uwais breaks bones, characters paying for the crimes of their past with their lives in the present. In several instances, innocent people end up paying, too: Lee’s thugs hijack a bus on its way to Jakarta, intending on finding Ishmael. When they realize he isn’t aboard, they murder the other passengers and burn the evidence, which just adds to Ishmael’s moral onus. —Andy Crump


ip-man.jpg 1. Ip Man
Year: 2008
Director: Wilson Yip
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 Chun 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 master tries to weather the 1937 Japanese invasion and occupation of China peacefully, but is eventually forced into action—limb-shattering, face-pulverizing action. This semi-historical film succeeds gloriously: both as cinematic triumph and as martial arts fan-bait. —K. Alexander Smith

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