The Best Martial Arts Movies on Amazon Prime

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The Best Martial Arts Movies on Amazon Prime

Here’s something you probably didn’t know: Amazon Prime subscribers have access to one of the deepest archives of classic kung fu movies you’ll find anywhere.

And here’s why you probably didn’t know: Because the ability to “browse” on Amazon Prime is hopelessly broken, as we’ve previously examined in detail.

Only the thing is, with martial arts movies it’s even worse than usual. At least if you’re trying to browse for the best horror movies on Amazon Prime, it’s as simple as clicking on “horror” before you begin wading through all the dross, searching for hidden gems.

Which is why with martial arts flicks, we’ve done all the searching for you! So enjoy: Here’s a list of the best martial arts flicks streaming now on Amazon Prime, packed with all the Gordon Liu and Cheng Cheh goodness that any kung fu fan could desire.


miami connection poster (Custom).jpg 30. Miami Connection
Year: 1987
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 Kim pretending he knows how to play guitar. —Jim Vorel


myster-chessboxing-movie-poster.jpg 29. Mystery of Chessboxing, aka Ninja Checkmate
Year: 1979
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, and the film for their track “Da Mystery of Chessboxin.” —Jim Vorel


dance of the drunk mantis poster (Custom).jpg 28. Dance of the Drunk Mantis
Year: 1979
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 bewitching balance between bawdy humor and delicate ballet. —Jim Vorel


clan of the white lotus poster (Custom).jpg 27. Clan of the White Lotus
Year: 1980
Director: Lo Lieh
Clan of the White Lotus is unadulterated, vintage kung fu, an excellent, archetypal film that’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 pristine 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.” —Jim Vorel


bloodsport poster (Custom).jpg 26. Bloodsport
Year: 1988
Director: Newt Arnold
There are tomes to be written and classes to be taught on the perplexing existence of Bloodsport—purportedly our current President’s favorite movie, if one were to fast-forward through the talking parts, directed by an adult man named Newt—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. —Dom Sinacola


sister street fighter poster (Custom).jpg 25. Sister Street Fighter
Year: 1974
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 drug agent brother, gone 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 wields a claw weapon in seeming imitation of the villain from Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. A satisfying story with a fittingly high body count, Sister Street Fighter features a wide array of martial art styles in the villain’s stable of hired killers, which make for an action-packed conclusion. —Jim Vorel


prodigal son poster (Custom).jpg 24. The Prodigal Son
Year: 1981
Director: Sammo Hung
Though directed by Sammo Hung, Prodigal Son reins in the comedyto present a unique story about privileged children and the price of 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 gorgeous. With that said, the guy with no eyebrows still sort of creeps me out. —Jim Vorel


knockabout poster (Custom).jpg 23. Knockabout
Year: 1979
Director: Sammo Hung
Knockabout is the perfect template for a Sammo Hung movie: Simple, crowd-pleasing, good-natured and infinitely rewatchable. 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 phenomenal training montages featuring monkey style kung fu and the amazingly acrobatic jump rope sequence. —Jim Vorel


the invincible armour poster (Custom).jpg 22. The Invincible Armour
Year: 1977
Director: See-Yuen Ng
The plot of The Invincible Armour is on the inscrutable side, revolving around assassination and people being framed for various crimes, but none of that really matters when the majority of the film indulges in plenty of cheesy kung fu goodness. The key fighting technique here is “iron armour,” a method of hardening and toughening the body to shrug off blows. Lots of skillful training sequences and montages features both the heroes and villains employing these techniques, whether it’s dipping themselves in boiling water, headbutting spiked balls on chains or 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. —Jim Vorel


fearless poster (Custom).jpg 21. Fearless
Year: 2006
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 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. As a result, Fearless is one of the better historical kung fu biopics to come out in the past 15 years. —Jim Vorel


executioners from shaolin poster (Custom).jpg 20. Executioners From Shaolin
Year: 1977
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 baddies in the history of the genre, a crucial element of the martial art cinema lore. Bonus: Gordon Liu appears as a hardcore monk in the beginning of the film who sacrifices himself against a small army of fighters to help his Shaolin brothers escape. —Jim Vorel


five fingers of death poster (Custom).jpg 19. Five Fingers of Death
Year: 1972
Director: Chang-hwa Chung
Enter the Dragon is often the martial arts film cited as kickstarting the kung fu craze in America, but in reality it was Five Fingers of Death a year earlier that was 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. —Jim Vorel


legendary weapons of china poster (Custom).jpg 18. Legendary Weapons of China
Year: 1982
Director: Lau Kar-leung
Though a bit of a storytelling Gordian knot, Legendary Weapons of China’s interconnected plots makes for tons of colorful characters and combat. Its main narrative revolves around a group of “spiritual boxers,” martial artists attempting to train their bodies to resist the bullets of Western imperialist guns, committed also to hunting down former members of the group who have since admitted that stopping a bullet by flexing your abs probably isn’t possible. The film’s real attraction is the incredible array of styles: Ti Tan the impenetrable monk played by Gordon Liu, Maoshan “magic boxers” and more. 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 few others of its ilk. Lau Kar-leung features 18 different weapons in total, 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 magnificent. —Jim Vorel


the duel 1971 poster (Custom).jpg 17. The Duel
Year: 1971
Director: Chang Cheh
In the U.S., this early Chang Cheh feature was known as Duel of the Iron Fist; 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 time, 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, so for a 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’s character alone kills nearly 100 people in this freaking movie. —Jim Vorel


come drink with me poster (Custom).jpg 16. Come Drink With Me
Year: 1966
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. —Dom Sinacola


fist of fury poster (Custom).jpg 15. Fist of Fury, aka The Chinese Connection
Year: 1972
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 in which he breaks a sign reading “no Chinese and no dogs” in the local park. Fist of Fury marks Bruce Lee’s true arrival, fully formed as an action legend, and if there’s a precise moment when the audience can witness that happen, it’s the iconic dojo fight: Chen shows up at the Japanese training facility to absolutely go to town on everyone inside. Just how iconic would Bruce Lee become? Pretty much every piece of clothing Lee wore in any film became a symbol of martial arts badassery 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. —Jim Vorel


mad monkey kung fu poster (Custom).jpg 14. Mad Monkey Kung Fu
Year: 1979
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 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 stellar training sequences. Eventually, he must use his new style of monkey kung fu to seek out a local brothel owner holding a young woman hostage. Hsiao Ho is wonderfully expressive in the role, and his acrobatics in particular are top-notch, as he plays the part of the long-suffering, then overconfident, then humbled student believably. —Jim Vorel


the street fighter poster (Custom).jpg 13. The Street Fighter
Year: 1974
Director: Shigehiro Ozawa
Trivia time: 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 to get to that “R”—though it 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. 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 in The Street Fighter, but man does he just have the look. The rage and intensity in his face goes a long way—an accordingly, multiple sequels followed. —Jim Vorel


magnificent butcher poster (Custom).jpg 12. Magnificent Butcher
Year: 1979
Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Magnificent Butcher has the slapstick and bawdy humor that one usually expects from a Sammo Hung vehicle, but it also knows how to be deadly serious at the same time. 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 indelible physical performance. The calligraphy scene in particular is legendary: A rival master challenges 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 (Hung), 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 one-of-a-kind portly performer’s acrobatics. —Jim Vorel


warriors two poster (Custom).jpg 11. Warriors Two
Year: 1978
Director: Sammo Hung
Wing Chun is an 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, who has appeared in numerous kung fu roles and continues to perform to this day. He’s affectionately known to fans as “Beardy,” but this happens to be one of the uncommon roles where he’s quite beardless. —Jim Vorel


wheels on meals poster (Custom).jpg 10. Wheels on Meals
Year: 1984
Director: Sammo Hung
Wheels on Meals is a silly, silly movie, but damn is the action amazing. As far as trios go, it’s harder to get better than Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung, although Hung’s role in this one is minimal. Rather, it all comes down to some incredible fight scenes featuring Chan and Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, a real-life American kickboxing champion who makes the perfect dance partner for Chan in several high-octane brawls. Their final confrontation isn’t just a thrilling scene, it might be the best one-on-one fight scene of Chan’s career—and Benny the Jet is just as good as Chan. In fact, it’s the Jet who pulls off one of the coolest fight scene feats I’ve ever seen, the supposedly unintentional (and unfaked) “candle kick,” where a missed spin kick generates such force that it blows out all of the lit candles on a candelabra several feet away. You really have to see it to believe it. Oh, and Wheels on Meals also features a story about a kidnapped girl. —Jim Vorel


martial club poster (Custom).jpg 9. Martial Club
Year: 1981
Director: Lau Kar-leung
Martial Club opens with a pretty damn weird sequence of Lau Kar-leung instructing the audience on the finer points of “lion dancing.” Soldier on through it and you’ll find two of the more creative fights in the annals of kung fu films in this modest, low-budget throwback story. The first is an all-out brawl in a theater between multiple schools that sends bodies flying in all directions. The second is iconic, as Gordon Liu takes on Wang Lung Wei in a truly unique location: the ultra-cramped alleyway between two buildings. As the fight progresses and the two drive deeper into the alley, space becomes tighter and tighter until they only have a few feet in which to conduct combat. It completely changes the aesthetic of a traditional kung fu battle, and the choreography evolves with it, making for one of the most memorable one-on-one fight scenes in classic Hong Kong cinema. —Jim Vorel


heroes of the east poster (Custom).jpg 8. Heroes of the East, aka Shaolin Challenges Ninja
Year: 1978
Director: Lau Kar-Leung
Gordon Liu is our hero in the classic Heroes of the East, but it’s not quite the Gordon Liu we’re used to. The Gordon in this movie is a dick: His character, Ho Tao, marries a Japanese woman (Yuka Mizuno) and tries to convert her to more “ladylike” martial arts before offending all the prominent martial artists in her country and ending up in a series of duels with them. The film is unconventional in portraying the Japanese not as outright villains but as aggrieved, honorable fighters, leading to a fascinating contrast in styles, and fights that pit balanced elements of combat against one another—for example, Chinese drunken boxing vs. Sino-Okinawan karate, or Japanese weapons such as the sai against Chinese butterfly swords. It’s fun, classic stuff, and a story that doesn’t feel like it’s been told a million times before. Personal favorite: Ho Tao takes on a ninja-looking dude wielding “the Japanese crab technique.” It involves a lot of scuttling side-to-side and will probably make you chuckle. —Jim Vorel


one armed swordsman poster (Custom).jpg 7. One-Armed Swordsman
Year: 1967
Director: Chang Cheh
One-Armed Swordsman is as influential to the genre as any martial arts film can get, (along with The Chinese Boxer, which also starred Jimmy Wang), but for wuxia, this is like the ur-film, the one that defined so many of the stylistic conventions for decades to come—check the dangerous, brooding anti-hero and the swordplay/limb-hacking action sequences. So, so many films were made in the following years about one-armed fighters, and Chang Cheh’s classic was behind it all. Which can make it seem a little cliché-laden today, but it’s still a charming film to watch, and a classic story never truly goes out of style. I especially like the villains’ “sword lock” devices that can catch a blade and hold it in position. —Jim Vorel


kid with the golden arm poster (Custom).jpg 6. Kid With the Golden Arm
Year: 1979
Director: Chang Cheh
Another Venom Mob film from Chang Cheh, and one of the best, somewhat mixing up the brand’s usual casting by putting the beefy Lo Mang as the titular “Kid With the Golden Arm,” the film’s primary antagonist and not the hero as one might expect. It was a shift for Lo Mang, who usually played characters who were sort of powerful, likable galoots, but he shines by giving what is likely his best performance in a story about a gang of outlaws who plot to intercept a large shipment of gold. The heroes are a team of familiar Chang Cheh faces assembled to stop Golden Arm and his gang: ever-present hero Kuo Chui is a drunken master, joined by some fighters specializing in sword and axe combat. Honestly, Kid With the Golden Arm isn’t particularly complex or even all that original, but it’s pure, unadulterated old-school kung fu fun. —Jim Vorel


8 diagram pole fighter poster (Custom).jpg 5. The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter
Year: 1983
Director: Lau Kar-leung
If there is one Shaw Brothers kung fu film with which to ever start, let The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter be it. An epitome of brisk, unadorned Hong Kong martial arts pulp, the film stars a steely-eyed Gordon Liu as a lauded general who must abandon his rage to become a monk—at least until it comes time to avenge his family’s murder at the hands of another traitorous general. No trope goes untouched, from one warrior’s lapse into insanity, to the whole film’s lapse into ever-mounting madness—a bloody spree of what-ifs carry 8 Diagram Pole Fighter to its vague and body-littered conclusion. Because revenge will never bring your murdered loved ones back to life, right? Still, there’s no harm in trying, and if that means you need to turn a bale of bamboo poles into a makeshift bamboo-pole-shooting cannon, then so be it. And if that also means that you need to graphically rip out your enemies’ teeth by making them chomp down on those same bamboo poles and then forcefully rip the whole package from unwilling jaws, then so be that, too. And god forbid you’ll be required to cleave off a nipple of two. This is just what happens when you mess with a monk dead-set on breaking his vows. —Dom Sinacola


five element ninjas poster (Custom).jpg 4. Five Element Ninjas, aka Chinese Super Ninjas
Year: 1982
Director: Chang Cheh
This was Cheh’s swan song with the Shaw Brothers—tastes were changing and leaving the costumed period pieces behind—but man, it’s a doozy. Responding to the out-there stylistic choices of the time, the director apparently wanted to outdo everyone, producing one of the most ludicrously awesome kung fu films ever made. This is the essence of Saturday morning kung fu theater in America, but if you only saw it that way, it’s doing the film a disservice, because you’re likely to miss out on the surprising and sometimes comical gore of the fight scenes. The story revolves around a few young fighters seeking vengeance against a ninja clan that massacred their classmates, but the villains are really the highlights. Each group of ninjas has their own absurd costumes and ridiculous quirks: Gold ninjas blind their enemies with shields; water ninjas wear snorkels and pull opponents underwater to drown them; fire ninjas use smoke shields to hide and move; wood ninjas pose as trees and wield claws to slash and tear. And finally, the supremely goofy Earth ninjas are somehow able to tunnel through solid soil like freaking earthworms and explode out of the ground with an almighty bang. Five Element Ninjas is as crazy as this genre gets, but you’ve got to love it for its entertaining excesses. —Jim Vorel


crippled-avengers-movie-poster.jpg 3. Crippled Avengers
Year: 1978
Director: Chang Cheh
In a time when exploitation cinema seemed the standard for cheap movie houses the world over, no martial arts flick got much better than this Shaw Brothers staple, which eventually adopted the much more PC title, Return of the 5 Deadly Venoms. The blind one, the deaf mute, the one without legs and the brain-damaged “idiot”: Together, they make an unstoppable force of vengeance against the local martial arts master who crippled them, as well as his son, who ironically lost his arms at a young age, and so sports dart-shooting cast-iron facsimiles. In other words, Crippled Avengers plays it cool, allowing our disfigured heroes few but important victories for most of the film, building up to its final 25-minute series of fight scenes, in which a blind man, a deaf mute, a man with iron prosthetic legs and an acrobatic “idiot” combine their individual strengths to defeat a kung fu master with, basically, robot arms. Movies like this give us reasons to get up in the morning. —Dom Sinacola


36th-chamber-movie-poster.jpg 2. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
Year: 1978
Director: Lau Kar-leung
This is why any kung fu fan will always love Gordon Liu. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is as classic as it gets: the definitive Shaolin movie, without a doubt, and the source of Liu’s nickname, “Master Killer.” He plays San Te, a young student wounded when his school is culled by the Manchu government, so he flees to the refuge of the Shaolin temple. After toiling as a laborer, he finally earns the right to learn kung fu, which begins the film’s famous training sequences. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is the rare film where those training sequences actually outshine its traditional fights, because they’re just so beautiful, fluid and inventive. In each of the 36 chambers, San Te must toil to discipline his body, mind, reflexes and will. They make up the whole center of the film, and are unforgettable, bearing an iconic gravitas, imbuing kung fu with a great dignity. Because true kung fu can only be attained through the greatest of sacrifice. —Jim Vorel


5-deadly-venoms-movie-poster.jpg 1. Five Deadly Venoms
Year: 1978
Director: Chang Cheh
This is what vintage kung fu—and martial arts cinema, with it—is all about. The mythology alone is exquisite: Five Deadly Venoms is the first Venom Mob film, and gave each of them a name for the rest of their careers. There’s the blinding speed of The Centipede, the trickery and guile of The Snake, the stinging kicks of The Scorpion, the wall-climbing and gravity-defying acrobatics of The Lizard and the nigh-invincibility of The Toad, along with the so-called “hybrid venom” protagonist, who is a novice in all of the styles. It’s a film typical of both Chang Cheh and the Shaw Brothers—high budget, great costumes, beautiful sets and stylish action. Is it on the cheesy side? Sure, but how many great martial arts films are completely dour? Five Deadly Venoms is emblematic of an entire era of Hong Kong cinema, of the joy such filmmakers took in delivering beautiful choreography and timeless stories of good vs. evil. —Jim Vorel

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