Critically acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s 2002 wuxia epic Hero is easily the most artistic and visually striking martial arts movie made to date. From fight sequences that skirt between heavy action and surreal fantasy to the color-coded vignette structure of the narrative, there’s a lot to like. Set during the Warring States period, Jet Li plays a nameless warrior in a tale based on Jing Ke’s assassination attempt on the King of Qin in 227 BC. Sitting in the king’s throne room a set number of paces away, the nameless warrior and the king trade stories of the downfall of conspirators that the warrior has pursued. With each convincing story, Li’s character is allowed so many more paces closer to the king. My personal favorite scene? A toss up between the opening fight in the rain or the stunningly beautiful fight on the lake. Martial arts aside, Hero has some of the best cinematography to be seen in any film.
4. Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior
While Hero is the much prettier film, Ong Bak has the better showcase of raw, brutal martial arts. 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 crazy stunts (all performed by Jaa himself) and hard-hitting action. Featuring a total lack of both wire-fu and CGI of any sort, Ong Bak is incredibly impressive to watch. 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, but the film is so unashamed of what it is that you can’t help but smile and resign yourself to being blown away by some of the most impressive displays of martial arts and physicality in general to come out in the last 10 years or so.
3. Fist of Legend
Jet Li’s 1994 Fist of Legend was a remake of Bruce Lee’s highly influential 1972 film Fist of Fury. While Fury helped shift away from weapons-based Kung Fu movies to bare-handed fighting (setting the stage for the “Golden Era” of Kung Fu films), it was very low budget and hasn’t aged particularly well, especially compared to the next entry on the list. Li’s excellent remake ended up being highly influential in it’s own right: The Wachowski Brothers were impressed enough to hire the choreographer (Yuen Woo-Ping) to handle the fight choreography for The Matrix. Fist of Legend features one of the best dojo-busting scenes of all time, where Jet Li engages a whole room of attackers, and a host of particularly inventive elements such as Li’s incorporation of modern boxing/kickboxing while fighting an old classmate. Li plays Chen Zhen, a Chinese student studying at Kyoto University during the Japanese occupation of China who returns to the mainland suspecting foul play when he hears that his master died after allegedly losing a fight against a local Japanese martial artist.
2. Enter the Dragon
Game of Death might have registered the iconic yellow jumpsuit in the cultural imagination, but Enter the Dragon is easily Bruce Lee’s best and most polished film. Released in 1973, _Enter the Dragon was the first Chinese martial arts film to be produced by a Hollywood studio (with an accompanying Hollywood budget) and it shows. Lee was given a large degree of creative control over the project, revising much of the script and writing and directing the entire Shaolin opening sequence. One of the best things about this film are the equally strong performances from John Saxon as the gambling playboy Roper and Jim Kelly as the afro-adorned, incredibly smooth Williams. Together with Lee’s undercover agent (named “Lee,” of course), the trio are nothing short of captivating, especially in each of their wildly different interactions with the menacing Bond-villian-esque Han, whose private island hosts the deadly martial-arts tournament that makes up the film’s centerpiece. If you’ve somehow never seen this, track down a copy for Jim Kelly’s Williams alone, one of the most entertaining characters to appear in any martial-arts film.
1. Magnificent Butcher
Originally released in 1979 as Lin Shi Rong, Magnificent Butcher was a labor of love from some of the best martial-arts crew in the business. The portly Sammo Hung delivers his most engaging performance as the bumbling but talented and well-meaning Lam Sai Wing in this Yuen-Woo-ping directed film. There’s so much done right in this movie I don’t even know where to begin. We’ll start here. In that scene, Wing’s master, folk hero Wong Fei Hung defends himself from the ornery competing local master Master Ko in an incredibly inventive and energetic martial arts/caligraphy scene that can only be described as unique. Magnificent Butcher has everything: surprisingly clever physical comedy, mistaken identity, long lost siblings, two tragic murders, one of the most compelling and satisfying revenge sequences ever filmed, and non-stop displays of old school, incredibly athletic, technical martial arts as two schools collide. If you have any interest in martial arts films at all, it’s an absolute must watch—a true hidden gem.