The Best Martial Arts Movies on Netflix

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The 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 listed 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. There are a few gems here on Netflix streaming, largely in the wuxia and modern action subgenres … plus a sprinkling of stars like Scott Adkins and Joe Taslim.

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


The Raid: Redemption

Year: 2011
Director: Gareth Evans
Stars: Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim, Donny Alamsyah, Yayan Ruhian
Rating: R

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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. —Dom Sinacola


The Raid 2: Berendal

Year: 2014
Director: Gareth Evans
Stars: Iko Uwais, Arifin Putra, Oka Antara, Tio Pakusadewo, Alex Abbad, Julie Estelle
Rating: R

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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. —Dominic Sinacola


Bullet Train

Year: 2022
Director: David Leitch
Stars: Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada
Rating: R

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What can I say about Bullet Train? Well, Hiroyuki Sanada is in it as a sage old warrior. Despite being based on a novel by Japanese author K?tar? Isaka, Sanada’s presence feels like an analogy for the film’s relationship with Japanese culture. Sanada was the samurai that bullied and trained Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. He’s Scorpion in the most recent Mortal Kombat. He’s the Yakuza that Hawkeye kills in his global quest for justice (read: murdering non-white criminals) in Avengers: Endgame. He’s opposite Hugh Jackman in The Wolverine. Where on that iffy continuum of American films engaging with Japanese culture does Bullet Train fall? It’s a surprisingly complex question when asked of a film that is at times too clever, but lacks depth or innovation, unlike a real bullet train. A lack of innovation in and of itself isn’t a failure if the execution is spectacular, but Bullet Train uses a familiar tale of murderers clashing along intersecting storylines centered on a couple of objects to demonstrate another familiar tale: Plenty of flash and too little substance. Bullet Train will be a rewarding ride for some, but I’m not sure they should have let it leave the station. —Kevin Fox, Jr.


Shadow

Year: 2018
Director: Zhang Yimou
Stars: Chao Deng, Sun Li, Ryan Zheng, Qianyuan Wang, Xiaotong Guan, Wang Jingchung
Rating: NR

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Zhang Yimou’s latest is Shadow, a wuxia film based on the Chinese “Three Kingdoms” legend. Where Yimou’s recent filmography either favors substance over dazzle (Coming Home) or dazzle over substance (The Great Wall), Shadow does what the best of his movies do by sewing them together into one seamless package. As in Hero, as in House of Flying Daggers, the anti-gravity fight scenes are stunning to behold, but those movies put performance and action on the same plane, and Shadow deliberately separates them with a gorgeous monochrome palette, backgrounded by gray scale that lets the actors, and the copious amount of blood they spill throughout, hold its forefront. Here, in this tale of palace intrigue, Commander Yu (Deng Chao) employs a double to act in his stead (also Deng Chao)—his shadow, if you will—to seize control of a city of strategic value from invading forces against orders from his king (Zheng Kai). The film twists and turns, but through Zhang’s devoted stylization, the intricacies never overwhelm. Instead, the stylization does. —Andy Crump


The Night Comes for Us

night-comes-for-us-movie-poster.jpgYear: 2018
Director: Timo Tjahjanto
Stars: Joe Taslim, Iko Uwais, Julie Estelle, Sonny Pang
Rating: NR

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While Gareth Evans confounded fans of The Raid movies by giving them a British folk horror film (but a darn good one) this year, Timo Tjahjanto’s The Night Comes for Us scratches that Indonesian ultra-violent action itch. Furiously. Then stabs a shard of cow femur through it. Come for the violence, The Night Comes for Us bids you—and, also, stay for the violence. Finally, leave because of the violence. If that sounds grueling, don’t worry, it is. You could say it’s part of the point, but that might be projecting good intentions on a film that seems to care little for what’s paving the highway to hell. It’s got pedal to metal and headed right down the gullet of the abyss. It’s also got the best choreographed and constructed combat sequences of the year, and plenty of them, and they actually get better as the film goes along. There’s a scene where Joe Taslim’s anti-hero protagonist takes on a team inside a van, the film using the confines to compress the bone-crushing, like an action compactor. Other scenes are expansive in their controlled chaos and cartoonish blood-letting, like Streets of Rage levels, come to all-too-vivid life: the butcher shop level, the car garage level and a really cool later level where you play as a dope alternate character and take on a deadly sub-boss duo who have specialized weapons and styles and—no, seriously, this movie is a videogame. You’ll forget you weren’t playing it, so intensely will you feel a part of its brutality and so tapped out you’ll feel once you beat the final boss, who happens to be The Raid-star Iko Uwais with a box-cutter. It’s exceptionally painful and it goes on forever. Despite a storyline that’s basically just an excuse for emotional involvement (Taslim’s character is trying to protect a cute little girl from the Triad and has a lost-brotherhood bit with Uwais’s character) and, more than that, an easy way to set up action scenes on top of action scenes, there’s something about the conclusion of The Night Comes For Us that still strikes some sort of nerve of pathos, despite being mostly unearned in any traditional dramatic sense. Take it as a testament to the raw power of the visceral: A certain breed of cinematic action—as if by laws of physics—demands a reaction. —Chad Betz


Avengement

avengement-movie-poster.jpgYear: 2019
Director: Jesse V. Johnson
Stars: Scott Adkins, Craig Fairbrass, Thomas Turgoose
Rating: NR

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The second of three films directed by Jesse V. Johnson released in 2019, Avengement is as crystalline, as empirically precise, as micro-budget VOD martial arts action can aspire. With that kind of prolificacy, a journeyman director’s bound to do something right—which would be a valid assessment, were everything Johnson’s done not so undeniably solid. Thanks goes, of course, to Johnson’s muse, Vicious Beefcake Scott Adkins, a flawlessly sculpted humanoid so squarely planted in Johnson’s sweet spot—melodramatic, archly brutal action cinema with enough wit and heart to leave a bruise—a Johnson film without him as the protagonist doesn’t quite feel fully realized. Look only to Triple Threat, Avengement’s 2019 predecessor, to yearn for what could have been, mollified by a scene in which Adkins body slams a sedan going at least 40 mph. Triple Threat boasts three writers and a cavalcade of international action cinema stars, from Iko Uwais and Tony Jaa, to Tiger Chen and Michael Jai White (still in decent shape, but so outclassed by Adkins and his peers’ athleticism he seems pretty much immobile), while in Avengement Johnson works from his own script, winnowing the plot to a series of increasingly higher stakes brawls as wronged nobody Cain (Adkins) makes his bloody way through the criminal organization (led by his brother, no less) that left him to rot in prison. As is the case with Savage Dog and The Debt Collector (both on Netflix), Avengement thrives on the preternatural chemistry between director and star, the camera remarkably calm as it captures every amazing inch of Adkins in motion, beating the living shit out of each chump he encounters, Adkins just as aware of how best to stand and pose and flex to showcase his body. Charming character actors cheer from the sidelines; the plot functions so fundamentally we hardly realize we care about these characters until we’ve reached a satisfying end at their sides. Perhaps Scott Adkins is a better dramatist than we’ve come to expect from our kinetic stars anymore. Perhaps we’ve set our expectations too low. —Dom Sinacola


RRR

Year: 2022
Director: S.S. Rajamouli
Stars: Victoria Justice, Adam Demos, Luca Sardelis, Samantha Cain
Rating: TV-14

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This action-packed historical drama is the most expensive film in Indian history and already one of the biggest box office hits. N.T. Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan play two Indian revolutionaries pitted against the imperial British Raj. Released in March of 2022, RRR (Rise, Roar, Revolt) follows the two men and their very different paths to revolution. Komaram Bheem (Rao) is the champion for a rural tribe trying to rescue a stolen daughter and Alluri Sitarama Raju (Charan) is the police officer tasked with catching him when the pair form an unwitting friendship after teaming together in a daring rescue of a young boy. But this is Bollywood, so while trying to fulfill their opposing missions, they also show up arrogant British officers with a full-fledged dance off. It’s a riotously fun and twisty journey celebrating two heroes of Indian independence. —Josh Jackson


Headshot

headshot poster (Custom).jpgYear: 2017
Director: Timo Tjahjanto, Kimo Stamboel
Stars: Iko Uwais, Sunny Pang, Chelsea Islan, Julie Estelle, Zack Lee, Very Tri Yulisman, David Hendrawan
Rating: NR

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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. Odds are that you’re not tuning into Headshot for the story, of course. The good news is that the film delivers in the ass-kicking department. The better news, perhaps, is that Tjahjanto and Stamboel have outdone Gareth Evans’ The Raid 2’s bloated fusion of story and action. Headshot clocks in at only 118 minutes and spaces out narrative beats and beatings beautifully, developing the harrowing truth of Ishmael’s upbringing without either belaboring the point or denying the audience the thrill of unhinged but precisely choreographed martial arts violence. Broad swaths of the action movie canon are fist-pumping shindigs that celebrate good guys serving bad guys their just desserts. In Headshot, as in the films of Evans, the action snatches the breath out of our lungs. The end of each fight relieves us of our ratcheting anxiety. Coupling that dynamic with the emotional substance of Ishmael’s existential woe makes the film a soul-rattling, hand-wringing affair made with Tjahjanto and Stamboel’s daringly aggressive sense of craft. You’ll nearly wish that more filmmakers shot action movies the way this duo does—but your nerves probably couldn’t take it if they did.—Andy Crump

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