Today marks the anniversary of master martial artist Bruce Lee’s death, 41 years ago. One of the most influential artists of all time, Lee helped to transform the representation of Asians in American cinema and brought mainstream popularity to chopsocky films in the States. Lee remains the undisputed king of screen fighting, his prowess demonstrated in countless films. We’re honoring his memory today by revisiting some of cinema’s greatest martial arts movies — ten essential flicks that action aficionados and Kung Fu fans love.
An adaptation of Bruce Lee’s 1972 film of the same name (aka The Chinese Connection) — both films are widely regarded as Kung Fu masterpieces — Fist of Legend is a fitting tribute, but manages to improve on a couple of things (including that pesky xenophobia in the original film). The story is essentially the same: Jet Li’s Chen Zhen is a Chinese student abroad in Japan during the 1930s. He learns of his master’s death, slain by a rival at a Japanese martial arts school, and returns home to uncover what happened. The period setting and romantic subplot (star-crossed lovers) offers a little something extra between the ass-kicking. Fist of Legend doesn’t win points for storytelling (or acting for that matter — Kung Fu fans struggle with Li’s ultra reserved nature), but you won’t be watching it for that reason anyway. Li’s work is absolutely incredible, aided by legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (The Matrix). Thankfully the wire fu is almost non-existent. Without the relentless CGI typical in Li’s later work, you can really gain a true appreciation for his agility.
Tony Jaa’s breakout film introduced audiences to the ancient Muay Thai style, Muay Boran. Jaa spent four years training for the role of a skilled fighter from Ban Nong Pradu who ventures to Bangkok’s underworld so he can retrieve his village’s sacred, stolen statue. It’s another threadbare narrative, but the story offers Jaa an increasingly gritty landscape on which to pummel his opponents. There are no wires or effects — just crazy stunts, violent assaults, and awe-worthy athleticism. For action film fans new to martial arts cinema, this might be a good place to start.
This Kung Fu classic from the Shaw Brothers features the most popular depiction of 18th-century Shaolin hero San Te, who trained under the general Zhi Shan. Gordon Liu (aka Liu Chia-Hui) plays the title character — a role that made him a cult cinema icon (he saw a career resurgence with Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films). Liu seeks revenge for the murder of his family and friends, and arrives at a Shaolin temple to become a martial arts warrior. He is put through a series of grueling tests in order to master the 35 chambers (35 different disciplines). The training sequences are a vivid highlight of the film. For those who like a little philosophy with their Fu, 36 Chambers will resonate.
The Shaw Brothers’ groundbreaking 1967 wuxia film was the first movie to gross $1 million at the Hong Kong box office. It spawned a series of sequels and imitators, ushering in a new era of martial arts films that focused on a realism that would grow bloodier with the times (emphasis on swordplay and hacked limbs). Dynamic cinematography (one of the earliest to feature handheld camerawork) and use of space make for lively fight sequences. The story is integral to the action, but we’ll let you uncover that for yourself. Oh, and if you’re looking for a modern-day version of One-Armed Swordsman, try the fantastic 1995 Tsui Hark film The Blade. It’s basically a moodier remake.
The great stunt choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (who also directs the film) teams up with frequent collaborator Donnie Yen for what amounts to a Kung Fu Robin Hood story. If for no other reason, see it for baby-faced Yen and Iron Monkey Yu Rongguang battling bad guy Hin Hung (a hammy Yen Shi-Kwan). The scene finds them balancing on top of poles, looming over a menacing fire. A little wire fu goes a long way sometimes, and Iron Monkey is a fan favorite.
Watching Jackie Chan performing his morning workout routine in the opening of the 1984 Hong Kong comedy Wheels on Meals will make yours look pathetic by comparison. The film’s most famous fight scene finds Jackie facing off against Benny “the Jet” Urquidez. In one of the greatest moves in martial arts cinema, Urquidez performs a spin-kick that actually extinguishes a row of candles. It doesn’t get more badass than that. The chemistry between real-life friends Jackie, star and director Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao is not to be missed. Any film featuring the trio is one to watch.
Donnie Yen has stated that SPL was a career strongpoint, and the actor is definitely at the top of his game fighting Wu Jing (knife versus police baton) and Sammo Hung (who was already in his fifties here, but doesn’t miss a beat) in several bone-crunching scenes. This modern classic stars Simon Yam as a cop ready to retire, but determined to bring down a ruthless kingpin (Hung) — even if he has to play dirty. Yen stars as his successor who is reluctantly pulled into the scheme. The film’s complex choreography and hard-hitting moves are impressive.
A lot of actors played 19th-century Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung, a martial arts master who used his skills for good (on par with America’s gunslingers), but this might be Jet Li’s best role. Featuring low-angle shots galore, the amazing climactic ladder fight scene is a fine example of creative wire work and use of props. There’s also a serious thread about cultural assimilation that instills some emotional gravitas.
If you only know Jackie Chan from his American flicks like Rush Hour, then you don’t know what you’re missing. Drunken Master II is vintage Jackie — always the clown, but fast and furious. His jumps, kicks, and punches showcase his natural athletic and acrobatic ability. The plot, about a martial artist who tries to honor his pacifist’s father’s wishes while confronting British Embassy officials who are stealing valuable Chinese artifacts, provides plenty of comedic moments, moving us right into the action. The 20-minute climactic showdown is legendary. Jackie goes against real-life bodyguard Ken Lo in an abandoned factory. The actor is lit on fire twice and falls into burning coals. Yep.
During China’s Boxer Rebellion in the 19th century, Boxer fighters believed they were immune to the effects of modern weapons, including firearms. Liu Chia-Liang spins a tale based on this piece of history in 1982’s Legendary Weapons of China. He also stars in the film, fighting brother Liu Chia-Yung during the movie’s most impressive scene that boasts top-notch choreography and some of the best weapons work ever put to screen.
Legendary director King Hu’s 1966 film Come Drink with Me is a seminal wuxia film that inspired modern-day hits like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Cheng Pei-pei (who would be cast as the villainous Jade Fox in Lee’s 2000 film) stars as Golden Swallow — a woman (yes, a woman!) disguised as a man (hardly), sent to rescue her government official brother from a group of thugs. The innovative camerawork and stylized choreography transformed the way audiences would view martial arts — here, it appeared more as an art form or dance (influenced by Peking opera). Cheng Pei-pei battling a group of men with her twin short swords is one of Hong Kong cinema’s most iconic images.
This 1983 film, featuring some incredible swordplay, marks the directorial debut of Ching Siu Tung, who pioneered the use of wire work in the wuxia genre and is famous for his choreography in films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers.