The martial arts movie is an art unto itself, and whether it’s gloriously cheesy 1970s Hong Kong late-night cult favorites or big-budget post-millennial epics, there’s an enduring appeal to watching an apparently hopelessly overmatched hero use his or her crazy skills to hand a horde of villains’ asses to them. They’re also the home to some of the most remarkable direction and choreography that cinema has to offer — and, of course, they’re generally a heap of fun. Here are 25 of our favorites, ranked (subjectively, of course) in order of ascending awesomeness.
25. Shaolin Soccer (Hong Kong, 2001)
We start with a movie about a bunch of washed up ex-kung fu students who rediscover their skills by… playing soccer? Sure, why not? The visual effects and general sense of exuberant silliness make this more like watching a video game than a film, but that only makes the whole thing more entertaining.
24. Painted Skin (Hong Kong, 2008)
Kung-fu vampires! Or, at least, a decidedly vampiric girl who eats human hearts. It’s based on an ancient Chinese legend, apparently, and the supernatural elements lend another dimension to what might be an otherwise pretty conventional piece of work. (They also give an excuse for the use of wires to enable outlandish stunts, something that continues to divide kung fu film fans.)
23. Besouro (Brazil, 2009)
These days, Americans tend to know capoeira as a favorite pursuit of backpackers who own several pairs of Tevas and may well also be into fire-twirling. But in its native Brazil, capoeira emerged as a martial art created by African slaves, its combat elements concealed within a larger tradition of dance and music. This Brazilian production (also known as The Assailant) showcases capoeira’s potency as a means of self-defense and survival, tracing the story of a young fighter who sets out to avenge the death of his teacher at the hands of colonial oppressors.
22. Rumble in the Bronx (Hong Kong, 1995)
In which Jackie Chan finally cracks the American market, notwithstanding the fact that not a moment of this was actually shot anywhere near the Bronx (it was all done in Vancouver). It’s the sort of wildly entertaining romp for which Chan is rightly famous, and is possibly the only film ever to feature a hovercraft chase. (Which is awesome.)
21. The One-Armed Swordsman (Hong Kong, 1967)
One of the earliest films from Hong Kong’s famous Shaw Brothers studios, and the second to be directed by action cinema legend Chang Cheh. It lacks the polish of his later work, perhaps, but it’s a fascinating insight into the earliest days of one of martial arts cinema’s greatest talents — and it’s a whole lot of fun, too.
20. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Taiwan, 2000)
The martial arts movie that even viewers who aren’t fans of martial arts movies have seen, a fact that has contributed to it being the most successful foreign film in US history. It’s easy to see the appeal — Ang Lee’s masterpiece is beautiful, its action scenes as aesthetically appealing as they are entertaining. It paved the way for several other wuxia movies to make a splash on this side of the Pacific, and 15 years after its release, it remains as popular as ever.
19. Kung Fury (Sweden, 2015)
Miami Vice meets Transformers meets Thor meets every gloriously over-the-top 1970s kung fu movie you can imagine? Plus time-travel and Adolf Hitler? I mean, just watch the trailer! Actually, just watch the whole thing online, because it’s only 30 minutes long and it’s ridiculous and hilarious and amazing and FULL AWESOME.
18. The Shaolin Temple (Hong Kong, 1982)
One for the purists, based around the story of a young slave who is taken in by the Shaolin Temple and becomes a master of the Shaolin style of kung fu. It stars a young Jet Li, in his very first film role, and is credited for re-popularizing the Shaolin style as a basis for films.
17. Five Shaolin Masters (Hong Kong, 1974)
Conversely, this film predated the Shaolin craze, and to some extent presaged it. It’s set after the destruction of the Shaolin Temple by Qing dynasty soldiers, and traces the path of five survivors who set out to find the traitor responsible for the temple’s sacking. It’s relatively light on plot, but heavy on hardcore Shaolin action, and was followed by Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Temple (not, confusingly, the same film as the aforementioned Jet Li vehicle).
16. Kill Bill Vols 1 and 2 (USA, 2003 and 2004)
Quentin Tarantino was pretty open about these films being his ode to martial arts cinema (and in particular to 1973 Japanese classic Lady Snowblood, of which more later). He certainly absorbed the lessons of endless late nights watching kung fu movies — the films are gorgeous to look at, incredibly violent, and a whole lot of fun.
15. The Raid (Indonesia, 2011)
By contrast, there’s nothing remotely cartoonish about The Raid — no silly sound effects, no supernatural powers, no wire-assisted gravity-defying stunts. It’s dirty, gritty, claustrophobic, and really violent. As far as naturalistic fight movies go, The Raid is pretty much peerless, and the skills on display are hugely impressive, but no one would call it fun — which, of course, is probably how films about people beating the shit out of one another should be.
14. The Street Fighter (Japan, 1974)
13. Five Deadly Venoms (Hong Kong, 1978)
It’s fascinating how many old kung fu movies revolve around battles between opposing styles — is tiger style more effective than crane style? Or snake style? This classic takes such contests to the extreme, sending its protagonist in search of five warriors, each of whom practices an exotic style based on the movements of an animal. (Mortal Kombat fans will recognize Scorpion and Lizard, in particular.) The plot is kinda convoluted, but when the five masters finally start fighting one another, the fight scenes are a lot of fun.
12. Bloodsport (USA, 1988)
You may laugh, but this was Jean-Claude Van Damme’s finest moment, in the allegedly true story of American soldier Frank Dux, who journeyed to Hong Kong to fight in the kumite, a tournament that pits artists from around the world against one another in pursuit of the title of the world’s greatest fighter. Of course, the whole thing may be a complete fiction, but whatever — it’s a rollicking good story regardless. All together, now: OK, USA!
11. Iron Monkey (Hong Kong, 1993)
Latter-day Shaolin awesomeness. The perpetually underrated Donnie Yen is great in this as Wong Kei-ying, the father of the famous Wong Fei-hung — the plot is fascinating (it’s a sort of Chinese Robin Hood story), and the fights are crisp and engaging. (Just for the love of god make sure you see the Cantonese version, because the English dubbing is awful.)
10. Master of the Flying Guillotine (Taiwan, 1976)
The eponymous flying guillotine (yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like) is an impressively terrifying piece of apparatus, and it’s wielded by a nefarious assassin who’s out to avenge the death of his two disciples at the hands of the film’s hero. This is glorious B-movie fodder, with silly sound effects, low-budget gore, and questionable acting. It’s also, unfortunately, incredibly racist — there’s a Chinese actor in brownface playing an Indian fighter called “Yoga expert,” who’s accompanied by terrible Indian music whenever he’s on screen. Weirdly, the rest of the soundtrack is almost entirely comprised of songs by Neu! (which, perhaps, is where Tarantino got the idea of including them on the Kill Bill soundtrack).
9. Once Upon a Time in China (Hong Kong, 1991)
Jet Li at the peak of his powers, playing the lead role in a film loosely based on the youth of Chinese folk hero and martial arts legend Wong Fei-hung.
8. Ip Man (Hong Kong, 2008)
A biopic based (loosely) on the life story of wing chun master Yip Kai-Man, who famously trained Bruce Lee. Donnie Yen is excellent in the title role, giving a convincing performance as a fundamentally gentle man driven to ever increasing lengths of desperation, and the fights are ace, especially the early scene in which Ip Man beats a sword-wielding northern interloper with a feather duster. (The final fight scene is great, too, as much as anything because it subverts expectations of an epic battle by having the hero basically use the villainous Japanese general — who’s challenged him to fight as a sort of de facto contest between Japanese and Chinese martial arts — as a punching bag.) And speaking of Bruce Lee…
7. The Big Boss (Hong Kong, 1971)
Bruce Lee’s first major film, and the one that made him a star (to the detriment of James Tien, for whom the film was originally intended as a star vehicle). The film’s set pieces have become legendary, for good reason, and you can see why Lee stole the show — from the moment he appears on screen, his combination of brooding charisma and preternatural skills means you’re pretty much unable to take your eyes off him.
6. Drunken Master (Hong Kong, 1978)
This wasn’t Jackie Chan’s first film, but it was his introduction to the wider world, and the first glimpse of the brand of action/comedy hybrid with which he would become synonymous. The sequel (1994’s The Legend of Drunken Master) is probably better, but it’s hard to overlook this one for historical significance. (Be warned — it’s another one with awful English dubbing.)
5. Zatoichi (Japan, 2003)
Beat Takeshi writes, directs, and stars in his take on the story of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman who’s appeared in a variety of Japanese action films over the years. Blind or not, Zatoichi is a force to be reckoned with, and as such, the fight scenes are brief and to the point — after all, a samurai sword is no joke, as the film’s impressive quantity of severed limbs and appendages can attest. They’re beautifully choreographed and realized, too — especially the rightly famous rain scene, in which Zatoichi butchers a bunch of hapless thugs in the midst a torrential rainstorm.
4. Ong-Bak (Thailand, 2003)
Thailand has produced some hugely impressive martial arts films over the last decade or so, and this is one of the best. It’s the story of a well-intentioned but naive yokel who journeys to Bangkok in an attempt to retrieve the head of his village’s sacred Buddha from a bunch of gangsters. Predictably enough, the gangsters in question are less than keen to return it, resulting in a whole lot of ass-kicking (and, in a nice touch, the villain getting squished under the head of another, substantially larger Buddha — that’s karma for you).
3. Lady Snowblood (Japan, 1973)
As mentioned above, Quentin Tarantino essentially Xeroxed this for Kill Bill, and while Tarantino’s film is flashier and bigger-budget, it still pales in comparison to this Japanese masterpiece. It’s rare that you’d call a 1970s martial arts film beautiful, but the scenery and cinematography here are exactly that, and that elegance also extends to the fight scenes. (It’s all the more impressive considering that the film was shot on a tiny budget.) Meiko Kaiji is excellent in the lead role, both terrifyingly effective and oddly vulnerable as the revenge-driven daughter of a woman sent to prison for killing a rapist in self-defense.
2. Chocolate (Thailand, 2008)
A fantastic film, and a reminder that martial arts movies can be just as emotionally affecting as they are entertaining. Yanin Vismitananda plays Zen, the autistic, martial arts-obsessed daughter of an ill-starred Montague/Capulet coupling between a Yakuza boss and the girlfriend of a Thai gangster. When her mother falls ill, Zen turns debt collector, to the detriment of the catalogue of thugs who owe her mother money. The film’s choreography is impressive and creative, with exemplary use of props and settings — there’s a nod to The Big Boss‘ ice factory in the first fight scene, and they only get better from there — and Vismitananda’s performance is wonderful, her acting as impressive as her taekwondo chops. (And, of course, there’s something particularly gratifying about watching a skinny 14-year-old girl beating the shit out of groups of men several times her age.)
1. Enter the Dragon (Hong Kong, 1973)
It couldn’t be anything else, really. The great Bruce Lee’s last film, and the one that made him — posthumously — a global megastar. It features all the elements of a classic kung fu movie — a tournament, a strong and silent hero, a villain who has dishonored the art of kung fu, and some epic fight scenes. The final scene in the hall of mirrors is iconic, and rightly so, and the range of martial arts on display in general is hugely impressive. If you only see one martial arts movie, it should be this — but hey, watch the other 24 too!