Part One: Favorite Movie Martial Artists

In anticipation of Into the Badlands, coming to AMC this Sunday, lets talk:

I’ve been watching Martial arts movies since I was a kid. Sitting with my brothers on  Saturday afternoons,  watching Chinese people fake kick each other, with bad English dubbing. Yeah, I watched all of them: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, The Five Deadly Venoms. The Flying Guillotine, Drunken Master, Eight Diagram Pole Fighter and of course, anything with Bruce Lee in it.

The plots were often ridiculous, but occasionally profound, and surprisingly, one could learn a lot about Chinese culture and history. For example, at twelve years old, I knew nothing about the enmity between China and Japan. In The Chinese Connection, there’s a scene when Bruce Lee’s character tears down a sign outside of a Martial Arts school that reads “No Dogs or Chinese Allowed”. My mother had discussed segregation with me, so on that level, I knew that the sign was wrong, I just didn’t know why, but I wondered why the Japanese and the Chinese hated each other in Lee’s movies. (I wouldn’t find out why until I researched the topic myself. For certain, it was never mentioned in any of my high school history classes.) Watching Chinese action movies was also the first time it occurred to me that racism and bigotry was a global phenomenon. That the situation between Whites and Blacks in America was not an  entirely unique phenomenon and that other cultures we’re dealing with similar issues.

But most of the time, the movies were just fun and funny. Afterwards, my brothers and I would decide who got to play the iconic White Haired Villain, (as the oldest, this role often fell to me), then pretend to beat each other up with fake punches, in an attempt to prove whose Kung Fu was better, or try to reproduce those dubbed voices, as we  protected our teacher’s honor or avenged our murdered fathers. Since we were  forbidden to actually hit each other, all our fights were always fake, anyway.

During the eighties, we discovered Japanese Ninja movies and dutifully set about procuring  throwing stars, and tearing up our mother’s walls by  throwing them all over the place. (We, of course, were never allowed to throw them at each other because they were actually sharp. Its all but impossible for kids to get these things now and I wonder whose bright idea it was, to sell them to kids at the local Chinese shop, for a dollar each. Incidentally, I got really good at throwing them. Holla  atcha Blackgirl Ninja, who is not actually allowed to hit you.)

Watching a good Martial Arts movie is like watching a ballet or a ballroom Mambo. The levels of speed, power and grace are found nowhere else in Action cinema. For every Baryshnikov or Gregory Hines, there’s an Action movie equivalent, who is a joy to watch.

These are my favorites, in no particular order:

Chow Yun Fat:

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The “Fatboy” first came to my attention in the movie The Killer, more than two decades ago and followed by other “gun fu” movies like Hardboiled. I haven’t seen everything he’s done, and I’d kind of forgotten about Chow Yun Fat, as a martial artist, after he started making American films. But he came back on my radar after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I loved the character of Li Mu Bai, and I particularly liked his graceful and intelligent fighting style. There’s no wasted movement and despite how lethal the character seems, the style is surprisingly meditative to watch.

Bruce Lee:


Who doesn’t know about Bruce Lee, and what affect he had on the American public, back in the day? A surprising number of Black Americans were influenced by and admired his drive, wit and philosophy, even now. For many Black people, Lee’s philosophy was our first introduction to thinking critically about race on a global scale, about movies, Hollywood, and how all of it related to the martial arts. Bruce  was also an incredible presence on screen, as well. His speed and fierceness, often informed by his righteous indignation against the bad guys, was simply awesome to watch. Watching a Bruce Lee film is just a highly emotional experience for many of us.

Tony Jaa:

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I’d read about Tony in some martial arts magazine, long before I saw his first movie, The Protector. He reminds me of a much grimmer version of Jacke Chan. Like Jacke, everything you see him do onscreen, is actually him, not a stunt person and not CG, which makes his movies all the more fun, but not especially funny.

Donnie Yen: 

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The first time I saw Yen was in Once Upon a Time in China, fighting Jet li with bamboo poles. I just had to know who that guy was and I’ve been following his career ever since. I haven’t seen everything he’s done, but I’m working on it. My favorite movies with Donnie are Ip Man and Iron Monkey. Donnie takes his roles very seriously. He looks sharp, fast and totally committed to kicking his opponents ass.

Gordon Liu:

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Liu was one of the actors I grew up watching, having seen most of his films, with no idea that I was watching a legend. The first time I saw him was in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which I saw many times as a child and, at least in my house, we spoofed pretty often. It was the first time I had any idea that Shaolin was even real. Up to that time, Kung Fu was just something people did in movies, and The Shaolin Temple was not a real place. For me, Gordon Liu was my Shaolin rep.

Jackie Chan:

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One of my all time favorite martial artists, I’ve seen nearly every movie he’s ever starred in and even I few I shouldn’t ever have watched, as not all of them are good movies. Every now and then Jackie likes to do a serious and grim character, but I prefer his affable, goofy characters. If you’ve never seen a martial arts movie before, I would suggest starting with Jackie Chan’s Legend of Drunken Master (to be reviewed in part three of my little series).

Toshiro Mifune:

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I wasn’t introduced to Mifune until I was an adult. In fact I hadn’t watched very many Samurai films at all, beyond Shogun, which he also starred in. What do you want to guess was the first film I saw him in? That’s right. Seven Samurai! I was really surprised I enjoyed it as much as I did because I was prepared to be bored. Mifune shines in this movie. He is surprisingly funny, possibly insane, but very likable, talented and loyal to his friends. Since then, I’ve  seen him in many roles but I always come back to Seven Samurai as my favorite.

Sonny Chiba:

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Our mother would not allow me to watch The Streetfighter the first time it played on TV. She said I was too young, after she watched it first. I wasn’t allowed to see it until I was about 14 or 15, and I get why. She had no problem with us watching Bruce Lee movies, but Sonny Chiba ain’t Bruce Lee.  He doesn’t try to be handsome, charming, witty, funny, none of that. This man is seriously grim and his attacks brutal. He doesn’t try to be pretty or graceful. He’s sort of like a human pit bull. I never get tired of watching Chiba’s movies but I do have to be in the right mood. These are not happy, lighthearted  films and I love that.

Michelle Yeoh:

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As much as I love Summer Glau, my heart belongs to Michelle first. Michelle, who is sometimes called Kwan in Thailand, also has a dancer’s past. The first time I saw her was in Wing Chun, which is still one of my favorite movies with a female lead. Chinese action movies didn’t seem to have the same kinds of issues with having female action stars that Hollywood did. Michelle is very quick and graceful on screen, she doesn’t try to overpower her male co-stars, she prefers to outwit them, and  can hold her own with any of them. If you want a good idea of just how far she’s willing to go, then watch her first movie with Jacke Chan titled Police Story.

Jet Li: 

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I’m not sure there are enough words to express how much I love watching Jet Li’s movies. The movies may occasionally be awful, but he never makes a bad move in them. It’s my understanding that he is an actual martial artist,  having won several Wu Shu tournaments in China, and that he got his name, Jet, from being so fast. He has a brave, bold, fighting style, occasionally funny, witty,  fast, graceful and always fully committed. I’m always up to watch a Jet Li movie. From Once Upon a Time in China, to Fist of Legend, to Forbidden Kingdom, Jet always  brings his “A” game.

Honorable Mentions:

Zhang Ziyi

Cheng Pei Pei

Anita Mui


I am not a martial artist or a purist of  action cinema. I listed these artists by the names which I first encountered them, and the movies by the titles, under which, I first watched them. I’m merely an enthusiastic observer of martial arts movies. I know a lot of the tropes and can recognize differnet styles when I see them,  (Japanese vs. Chinese,  or Tiger vs Crane or Monkey, for example) but only from movies and documentaries. I’ve never been to a tournament, I don’t know anyone in that life, and I’d like to keep it that way. There’s movies and  there’s real life, and I’m not trying to conflate the two, or act like I’m an expert.

If you’re a purist who has a beef with any of the things I’ve said, you’re gonna have to take it to your own blog, because you won’t get a platform here. If you have a correction, on some point of order, however, then it’s okay to inform me in the comments.

And feel free to encourage me to post more on this because you’re gonna get it anyway.😃