Here’s a list of my top favorite Martial Arts movies. I have so many favorites, and there are so many good films, that I had to lay down some ground rules. Most of these movies were released after 1980 and they had to have prominent martial arts action or a character. I tried not to include the same actor too many times and threw in a mix of Korean, Japanese, and Chinese films, but American action films were not included because that’s another list entirely.
There are also a bunch of movies that made the second-tier list, not because of their quality, but because they simply didn’t make it into the top ten. Those movies are listed under Honorable Mentions. There are very few animated movies on this list because I don’t usually watch a lot of anime, let alone martial arts anime, and usually only watch something after it’s been turned into a live-action film, (like Bleach and Samurai X).
You will find that when I list movies and shows, I often don’t rank them from best to worst or favorite to least favorite, or by number rankings either. The reason I don’t do that is because that’s simply not how my mind works. I don’t usually compare and contrast things by number or least to best. For me, the designation of best and worst is kind of generic. These are movies I like. These are some movies I don’t like, which doesn’t mean I’m comparing the worth of one film against another, because it’s not about whether a film is good or bad. Just whether I liked it or not.
Fist of Legend
This is Jet Li’s homage to the original Chinese Connection which starred Bruce Lee. It’s a great-looking movie, which differs from the original in that there is more of an emphasis on the romantic angle between the lead character, who is Chinese, and a young Japanese woman he met at school. The fight scenes are plentiful, inventive, occasionally playful, brutal, and very well done, as expected from the choreographer of The Matrix, Yuen Woo Ping.
One of the things which make for a great martial arts film isn’t just having fight scenes, but the variety of styles and themes in the fights. Contrast the fight scene between Chen Zen and his father in law, where the father in law rather reluctantly fights for his daughter’s honor, not because he dislikes her husband, but because he believes that’s what he’s supposed to do as her father, and the final fight scene of the film which is a long and brutal takedown of the Japanese bullies who killed Chen Zen’s teacher. That fight is about revenge, while one of the first fights in the movie is the articulation of Chen Zen’s character.
This movie focuses less on the racism of the Japanese, and more on the perseverance, and honorable character of Chen Zen, in the face of such long odds.
This is the original on which Fist of Legend is based, and was the movie that got me thinking about racism, and the clash of other cultures, in a really big way. I remember watching this movie on some idle Saturday afternoon, and I specifically remember the scene where Chen Zen, kicks down a sign in front of a building that said, “No dogs or Chinese allowed!” Even at that young age (I was definitely under ten at the time) I knew racism when I saw it, and I grew curious about the enmity I kept observing in Chinese martial arts movies, against the Japanese.
Up to that point, we had only ever discussed Blackness and its relationship to white supremacy in our house, and being a child, it never occurred to me that other groups of people were going through, had been through, things that were similar to what Black people in America had gone through. It wasn’t until I was researching the Japanese participation in WW2, that I came across a book called The Rape of Nanking, about the invasion of China by the Imperial Japanese Army. It is quite possibly one of the most horrific things I’ve ever read, rivaling any number of massacres committed on American soil, and I would not have known to ask the questions that lead me to know about it if it weren’t for this movie.
This is one of the more emotional martial arts films to be released in the past five years. When most people think of such films they usually focus on the excitement of the fight scenes, and that’s a valid approach because that’s what the fight scenes are for, but from time to time a movie gets made that really pushes the emotional buttons and The Swordsman just worked for me.
A partly blind swordsman lives in the mountains with his daughter, while she chafes at the restrictions of their lifestyle, and is desperate to buy medicine to cure his blindness. When she is kidnapped by corrupt Imperial guards while visiting the city, the swordsman must come out of hiding to find and protect her.
What’s interesting about this movie is that most of the plot must be figured out by the viewer, because none of the details are openly stated, and are instead shown. As a viewer, you have to pay attention to who the characters are, their motivations, and their statements. The action scenes make a point, the music is touching and beautiful, and the cinematography is captivating.
And yeah, it’s got some great fight scenes, too.
Rise Of The Legend
This is one of my all-time favorite Chinese Action films, not because it’s especially deep, but because the fight scenes are so varied and exciting. I think I mentioned before that the best fight scenes always seem to take place in inclement weather. I think the directors do this to enhance the conflict, show that the blows are actually connecting and because flying water looks very dynamic. This movie is so good, so exciting, that the first time I saw it, I barely paid attention to the plot, which gave me the excuse to watch it multiple times, (not that I need an excuse to keep watching a good movie.)
This is another one of a bajillion movies about the early life of Wong Fei Hung, who was a famous martial artist, doctor, and folk hero in late 19th century China, (sort of like the Chinese version of John Henry, only with more movies – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wong_Fei-hung#Legacy .) This particular film is about the time he was adopted into a gang, (with the gangleader being played by none other than the great Sammo Hung), and chronicles the legend of his defeat of thirty dockworkers while using nothing but a bo staff.
Eddie Peng is a great choice as Wong Fei Hung. No, he’s not in Jet Li’s league but he is acceptable. There’s also a short cameo from Tony Leung. The cinematography is gorgeous, but I could have done without a couple of the musical choices.
Kung Fu Hustle
This movie is always going to be the funniest martial arts movie in existence. Stephen Chow just pulled out all the stops. If you like hard luck stories, redemption arcs, Looney Tunes, gangsters, and female empowerment, then this is your movie.
A wannabe gangster keeps trying to make his name with The Axe Gang by attempting to victimize the down-on-their-luck people of Pig Sty Alley, which I am told was based on a real place in China. In order to bring the surprisingly martially talented people of Pig Sty to heel, The Axe Gang keeps calling on worst and worst assassins, until all of this culminates in a knockdown, drag-out, three-way fight between the now super-powered wannabe, his toad-like nemesis, The Beast, and the leftovers of the Axe Gang.
The special effects are hilarious, the soundtrack is kicking, and the movie is surprisingly heartwarming because at its center, is the theme of forgiving people’s past mistakes, and the unrequited love story of a little boy who tried to impress a girl by learning kung fu, who eventually becomes the man he was meant to be, and worthy of her regard.
If you loved Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon for its visuals then you will love this movie. It is, quite frankly, one of the most gorgeous martial arts films ever made, starring two of my all-time favorite actors Zhang Ziyi, and Tony Leung. Now Tony is not new to starring in gorgeous-looking films. Check out Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love, and Chungking Express. I absolutely love this movie which, just like Crouching Tiger, is a mashup of an Action film and a Romance.
The movie is based on the life story of Ip Man, of whom about a million movies have been made including several movies starring Donnie Yen. In this film, the lead character is contested by several martial arts masters for the title of Grandmaster after the former retires. The retiree’s daughter disagrees, believing that Ip Man is unworthy and so challenges him herself, and she wins, but the two of them part on good terms and the movie chronicles their friendship over the following decades, including their promised rematch. (If you’ve been watching the Ip Man films, this story occurs before the events of the first movie.)
As martial arts movies go, and in keeping with a film by Wong Kar Wai, the film has some great action scenes but is generally quieter, and more philosophical than other such films. There is of course the obligatory fight scene in the rain that is required of any good Chinese Action movie, but there are also long stretches of characters discussing the philosophy of fighting, and I found those just as interesting as the action scenes. Despite the rainy scene at the beginning of the film being visually perfect, my favorite is the train scene, where Ziyi Zhang’s character (Gong Er) fights her archenemy (the man who killed her father).
Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman
This is one of the quirkier movies on this list, and it stars one of my favorite Japanese weirdos, Takeshi Kitano, who has a very interesting sense of humor. I like this one because all of the sword fights are very exciting. It takes more than a few minutes to get started, but once it kicks into gear it doesn’t let up. The plot is easy to understand despite having a fairly large cast, and it has everything, horror, tragedy, action, and a little humor, which rises out of some of the characters just being oddballs.
The plot involves farmers being menaced by some town gangsters, the lone gunman archetype in the form of a blind masseuse, and a couple of vengeance-minded traveling Geisha, one of whom is transgender. You wouldn’t think this was a plot that made for a lot of humor but it works. There are even a couple of musical numbers thrown in as well, which is not something I was expecting the first time I saw this, but which makes perfect sense given Kitano’s backstory as a comedian and TV show host. Please stick around till the end credits when you will be treated to a dance number given by the full cast of the film.
Iron Monkey is one of my favorite Donnie Yen movies. It’s a Robin Hood-type story involving daring escapes, corrupt government officials, kids in danger, medical life-saving, all the basics of a good Kung Fu story really. Oh, did I mention this is yet another in a very long list of Wong Fei Hung movies, which neither I nor the Chinese moviegoer ever seem to get tired of?
The Iron Monkey is basically a small-town doctor who has taken it upon himself to become a vigilante, stealing money from the rich and useless governor of the region and giving the money away to the poor. Most of the plot consists of the governor coming up with schemes to capture this menace who keeps stealing his riches. Meanwhile, a very young Fei Hung is visiting the region with his father and they get caught up in the governor’s schemes. Due to his incompetence in capturing the Iron Monkey, the capital sends an even more corrupt replacement official, dangerous flunkies in tow, who becomes the Final Boss fight of the film.
Rurouni Kenshin Quadrilogy
At some point, I am going to have to have a long discussion about this set of films, all of whom are connected. This is more than a franchise. It’s really just one long film ala Lord of the Rings, but what stands out about it are the fight scenes, which are inventive, brutal, and gorgeous. This set of films is based on the Manga Samurai X, which tells the story of Himura Kenshin, a Meiji Era Japanese swordsman who has taken a vow to never kill again. Naturally, you can guess that he will be tempted to kill at every opportunity thereafter, as the events of his past, when he was known as the Battosai (The Man Killer) literally come back to haunt him.
There’s a lot to unpack about these movies. There are a lot of themes and popular tropes about personal vows, love and romance, loyalty, politics, betrayal, and found family. I have not watched the last two movies in this series, which are currently available on Netflix, and chronicle the lead character’s origin story.
Legend of Drunken Master 2
I did a brief post about this film a couple years back and talked about why it was one of my favorites. Jackie Chan starred in the first, original, Drunken Master in 1978, and that movie was a lot of fun, but this movie really is an improvement on it with some extra themes involving family loyalty and Western colonization, that give it a level of depth that the first movie lacked. Stick around for the last nearly thirty-minute long fight scene between Jackie Chan and various martial arts minions, and some great stunt work, and drunken boxing.
Into the Badlands (TV Series)
Ip Man Quadrilogy starring Donnie Yen
The Raid: Redemption
Hero/Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon/ House of Flying Daggers
Sword of the Stranger (Anime)