The Man with the Iron Fists is Wu-Tang Clan rapper-turned-actor/director RZA’s love letter to the martial arts movies – but he’s not the only hardcore fan of the genre out there. Martial arts films were a bridge between different cultures long before international cinema gained the sort of foothold it has today in the U.S., and there are plenty of people who can claim a kick-ass fight scene as an indelible part of their memory.
In honor of all that Man with the Iron Fists celebrates, we’ve gone back through the archives to pick out 12 martial arts movie fight sequences that earned a place in our hearts – whether it was the impressive fight choreography, the sheer scale of the battle, or simply because it featured some iconic martial arts stars throwing down against one another.
Check out 12 great martial arts movie fights (listed in no particular order):
Neo vs. Agent Smith (The Matrix)
Admittedly, it’s hard to find a Hollywood film that can match the level of fight choreography being put out by the Asian film industry – but The Matrix was definitely one of the them – thanks in no small part to the influence of legendary fight choreographer/director Woo-ping Yuen, whose work appears numerous times in this list.
Aside from actors like Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving impressing us with their level of martial arts ability – and some clever little touches to the choreography (throat jab FTW!) - the climatic battle between hacker-turned-hero, Neo (Reeves) and the nefarious program Agent Smith (Weaving) included something that only the best cinematic duels do: great dialogue and character development.
Hearing “Mr. Anderson” utter the line “My name… is NEO!” before putting the finishing touches on that Agent Smith beatdown was at once a pivotal moment for our hero, and a kick-ass finale to a great fight.
The Bride vs. The Crazy 88 (Kill Bill Vol. 1)
While there have been some truly legendary one-on-one fights in movies, it’s a whole other ballgame when one person takes on an entire multitude of enemies. In his own love-letter to the martial arts movie genre, Kill Bill, writer/director Quentin Taratino concocted and executed (no pun) a fight sequence that stands toe-to-toe with the very films that inspired it.
All things being honest, few people ever imagined that actress Uma Thurman could be taken seriously as an action star – let alone a martial arts action star. However, that all changed when Thurman (as the vengeance-seeking “Bride”) drew a katana sword and took on no less than eighty-eight members of O-Ren Ishii’s (Lucy Liu) Yakuza army – including psycho teenage bodyguard, Gogo (Chiaki Kuriyama). Check out this epic battle to the last (wo)man standing:
Tang Lung vs. Colt (The Way of the Dragon)
There are martial arts fight scenes that earn their reputation through sophisticated choreography – and then there are those that are remembered for their iconic nature. Even now, forty years later, it is still awesome to see Bruce Lee battling Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon.
Tang Lung (Lee) is trying to defend family and friends from a local Roman mafia – but when he proves to be an obstacle, mob lieutenant “Ho” hires foreign martial artists to solve the problem – including fearsome karate fighter, Colt (Norris). Like gladiators of old, Tang and Colt have their epic showdown in the halls of the Colosseum – and for awhile Colt holds the upper hand. But Bruce Lee is Bruce Lee, so losing was never really an option.
Even though the telegraphed punches and kicks seem dated by today’s standards, the awesomeness of seeing one of the greatest martial artists of all time battle one of the most badass action stars of all time never fades. Plus: there’s a kitty-cat referee!
Lu Yan vs. The Silent Monk (The Forbidden Kingdom)
There isn’t much we love about The Forbidden Kingdom – a fluffy marital arts adventure film made by the guy who directed The Lion King - but it does contain a pretty epic showdown between two martial arts movie legends: Jet Li and Jackie Chan.
Both men were not exactly spring chickens when the movie was released in 2008 (Li was 45, Chan 54), but all things considered, they put on quite a show. When Drunken immortal Lu Yan (Chan) enters the temple of the silent monk (Li), the two have a “misunderstanding” in the form of a martial arts brawl.
While the choreography is a little silly (what with all the “wire-fu” aerial antics), the significance of seeing these two icons share the screen more than makes up for it.
Tien vs. Imperial Guard (Ong Bak 3)
Tony Jaa became a breakout marital arts movie star thanks to Ong Bak, and there are certainly plenty of scenes from the franchise that would easily qualify for this list. However, Ong Bak 3 features the Muay Thai fighter in one especially crazy scene, taking on the soldiers of evil Lord Rajasena.
What is so crazy about this particular sequence, you ask? Well, for one it features Tien (Jaa) looking feral enough to be Blanka from Street Fighter; it also features Tien taking on a multitude of opponents at once. But if all that wasn’t enough, this particular fight sequence incorporates actual elephants into the complex choreography – yep, you read that correctly: ELEPHANTS.
Ip Man vs. General Miura (Ip Man)
The movie Ip Man - based on real-life Wing Chun martial arts master Yip Man – is as much about the history of southern China as it is the titular character. This is why scenes of actual martial arts combat in the film hold such weight: they’re not just battles between men, they symbolize the ups and downs of China’s struggle against the Japanese invasion of the 1930s.
Martial arts movie star Donnie Yen plays Ip as the quiet, humble, and carefully measured man he was; however, when Ip is finally forced to display his Wing Chun martial arts against the heartless General Miura’s (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) karate assault, he unleashes the punishing wrath of not just Wing Chun, but all of China. In the end, ever the disciplined master, Ip Man spares his enemy and shows mercy – which is more than his enemy would ever do for him.
Chen Zhen vs. General Fujita (Fist of Legend)
The character of Chen Zhen has appeared in numerous marital arts films and TV series, and has been played by famous martial artists that include Bruce Lee and Donnie Yen.
Jet Li stepped into the role of Chen for the 1994 film Fist of Legend, and his showdown with World Kickboxing champion-turned-actor Billy Chow (as “Supreme Killer” General Fujita) remains the stuff of martial arts movie… er, legend.
In the hands of a master, belt beats sword every time:
Iron Monkeys vs. Governor Hin-Hung (Iron Monkey)
Fight choreographer/director Woo-ping Yuen gained fame with American audiences thanks to the release of The Matrix in 1999, but he had been making kick-ass marital arts films long before that – including the 1993 film, Iron Monkey.
A sort of twist on the Robin Hood tale, Iron Monkey follows benevolent doctor Yang Tianchun (Yu Rongguang) who moonlights as “Iron Monkey,” a masked hero who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. The twist comes when another physician named Wong Kei-ying (Donnie Yen) moves to town with his young son; when corrupt local officials notice Wong’s marital arts prowess, they mistake him for being Iron Monkey and exact revenge.
The finale of the film sees the two doctors teaming up to save Wong’s son from Shaolin warrior-turned-corrupt Governor, Hin-Hung (Yen Shi-Kwan), in a battle that takes place on wooden poles over a fire pit. The scene remains, to this day, one of the greatest “wire-fu” fight sequences ever put to film.
Rama & Andi vs. Mad Dog (The Raid: Redemption)
The Raid: Redemption was one of the best action films of 2011 – arguably one of the best action films in years. The film – about a squad of cops stuck in an apartment complex filled with criminals – catapulted Welsh director Gareth Evans to stardom, while putting a spotlight on the Indonesian martial arts style, pencak silat.
Fight choreographers Iko Uwais and Yaya Ruhian play super cop Rama and super villain Mad Dog, respectively. In the film’s climatic battle, Rama tries to save his criminal mastermind brother Andi (Donni Alamsyah) from the wrath of Mad Dog. What ensues is one of the most brutal martial arts battles we’ve ever seen.
Check out what it takes to put a Mad Dog down:
Wong Fei-hung vs. Axe Gang (The Legend of Drunken Master)
Before The Bride battled the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill or Rama took on the nightmarish machete gang in The Raid: Redemption, Jackie Chan was battling a horde of ax-wielding thugs while managing to make us laugh at the same time.
Legend of Drunken Master is the 1994 sequel to the 1978 classic, Drunken Master, which helped launch the international stardom of both Jackie Chan and Woo-ping Yuen. Woo-ping didn’t return to direct the sequel, but Legend of Drunken Master nontheless offers a sense of both fun and skill in its fight choreography. Stop for a second and consider just how difficult these stunts were – executed in the name of comedy, as much as action:
Inspector Ma Kwun vs. Jack (Killzone – S.P.L.)
I must confess, Killzone (a.k.a. Saat po lang) is the one film on this list I haven’t seen – but I will be seeing it now, for sure. And this clip is the reason why.
Donnie Yen is a martial arts star that belongs up there with Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, etc. – though it somehow feels like he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves with international audiences. In any event, Killzone is a convoluted tale about where the moral line lies in the fight between cops and crooks – but one thing that is easy to understand is when Inspector Ma Kwun (Yen) confronts Jack (Jing Wu), the knife-wielding assassin who killed the men of Kwun’s unit:
Yu Shu Lien vs. Jen Yu (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
With the exception of Kill Bill, pretty much every entry on this list has been about male martial arts stars – but ladies can be just as formidable as guys. Ang Lee’s martial arts drama Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon turned martial arts films into Oscar-wining cinematic art, and the performances of its stars – Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang – were a major contributing factor.
Spoiled rich girl Jen Yu’s (Zhang) immaturity brings chaos to the lives of aging martial arts warriors Li Mu Bai (Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh) – an unrequited pair who were trying to leave the life of the sword behind, so that they might settle down together. Despite the warriors’ great patience, Jen pushes a delicate situation to dire straits, and Yu Shu Lien is the one who steps up to put the young girl in her place – by way of a kick-ass duel.
Using just about every weapon in a warrior’s dojo against the might of “Green Destiny” – the legendary sword Jen stole from Li Mu Bai – Yu Shu Lien helps brash Jen separate the fantasy of being a warrior from the harsh reality: