Martial arts movies are not for everyone, but they are for more people than you might think. Just because the emphasis of a movie is a series of long fights doesn't mean there isn't room for a great plot, script, acting, set and costume design, or all of the above. The reason we are writing this list is two-fold: (1) many people have never seen a martial arts movie and have no idea where to start, and (2) for the folks that have seen and love martial arts movies this list is intended to maybe highlight some that have been forgotten, while not straying too far from the classics.
We have excluded samurai films, not because the samurai way of fighting isn't a martial art, but because samurai films warrant a list of their own. Some of these movies are included for their incredible fight choreography, some for their comedy, some for their outlandishness, and some for their beauty. We cover a wide swath in this list, and would love you all to fill in the gaps in the comments. These are 15 Martial Arts Movies Worth Fighting For.
15 The Raid: Redemption
The first movie on our list comes out of Indonesia. Many Western moviegoers don't think 'Indonesia' when they think of a martial arts film. In fact, many Western moviegoers don't think of Indonesian films as a thing at all. We are happy to report that not only is Indonesian film a thing, but that this one is absolutely stellar. The Raid: Redemption is the most visceral and brutal movie on our list. This film focuses on a special police unit having to go up a tenement building infested with criminals in order to reach a crime boss at the top. The criminals aren't happy the police are there, responding with deadly force. This causes the police to have to respond in kind, and we watch Officer Rama carve his way up the building.
The fighting is all primarily based on silat; a fighting art native to Indonesia and surrounding countries. Both the criminals and cops also use guns and machetes and knives to get the job done. The film is very fighting-centric, and uses the cramped and dank interior of the tenement building almost as another character. There is a hallway fight scene that has to be seen to be believed; and puts the Daredevil hallway fight to shame. Not a traditional martial arts movie by any means, this is still an incredible film and worth your time if you are able to stomach realistic violence. It also spawned a very good sequel that is arguably better than the original.
14 Riki-Oh (aka The Story Of Ricky)
Riki-Oh stands, in one sense, on the diametric opposite end of the martial arts movie spectrum to The Raid. Riki-Oh is a Hong Kong-made film adapted from a Japanese manga. The titular character surrenders himself to the police after having killed a crime lord (the crime lord had kidnapped Ricky's girlfriend after she witnessed a heroin deal... and she then leaped to her death in captivity). He then runs afoul of the uber-corrupt warden of his prison and the Gang Of Four, who are semi-magical inmates that control each of the four cell blocks of the prison and are in cahoots with the warden.
Riki-Oh is hyper-violent and cartoonishly gory. Martial arts masters are capable of puncturing, or even exploding, flesh and bone with a strike. People can do things in the movie that are completely impossible in real life and, despite the disgusting bloodiness that is resultant, makes this movie a really fun romp. In the early days of The Daily Show, a clip of a guy's head being splattered in this movie was a go-to for host Craig Kilborn, and appeared in virtually every episode of Kilborn's run.
13 Five Element Ninjas (aka Super Ninjas aka Chinese Super Ninjas)
Not all fighting movies have to be serious. As with Riki-Oh before it, Five Element Ninjas falls on the more cartoony side of things. The film, released in 1982, comes from legendary Hong Kong studio Shaw Brothers (the Warner Brothers-esque Shaw Brothers shield on a movie is a virtual guarantee that there will be at least some redeeming quality to the film) at a time where interest in the traditional kung fu film was waning. Five Element Ninjas takes a standard kung fu film, with standard plot tropes, and just bathes it in a pool of weirdness and early '80s aesthetics. The resultant film is a glorious and colorful extravaganza.
Ninjas, using techniques that mirror the five elements (fire, water, earth, wood, and dressing up in gold), trap and kill the students of a kung fu school. The lone survivor from the school teams up with some friends and trains in the ways of the ninja in order to seek vengeance. The costuming is ridiculous, the weapons are absurd (think killer stilts), and the action is a little bloodier and cringe-worthy than you would think. This is a party movie of the highest order, and is sure to have you and your friends talking for a long time.
12 Rumble In The Bronx
This movie was released in the U.S. more than a year after it was originally released, but it was America's introduction to Jackie Chan. Chan was already a legend of Hong Kong cinema, and had starred in dozens of movies (he recently won an honorary Oscar for all his film work, and has 134 acting credits to his name on IMDB). To this day, people who are unfamiliar with Jackie Chan (hard to believe anybody would be in this day and age) would be well off using this movie as a starting point.
Chan plays Keung, who is visiting his uncle in New York and helping mind his market. He beats up and chases away some ridiculous gang members (all the gang members in this movie dress like rejects from Grease or In Living Color). This leads him down a rabbit hole that winds up with him taking on a crime syndicate. The plot is absurd, but it allows Chan to pull out all his Jackie Chan stops. The Clown Prince of Kung Fu is famous for his ability to comically improvise during a fight or a chase; using whatever is within arm's reach to give him an advantage. Thanks to his expressive acting, we get to see his entire thought process, and get wowed multiple times along the way. Just be sure to stay tuned through the credits, because you'll see b-roll of him attempting his stunts (he does all his own).
11 Duel To The Death
At its heart, the movie is about two swordsmen, including a samurai. But this is far from a traditional samurai film. The movie's premise is that there is a traditional contest between a champion from China and one from Japan to prove who has the best swordsmanship. There is more underhanded action afoot surrounding the lead-up to the titular Duel to the Death.
The fighting is pretty tremendous, and this film is of the school of wire work (that's acrobatics and flight by use of barely visible wires, and a staple of the martial arts movie genre) where true martial artists can perform superhuman feats. Much of the fantastical element comes from the ever-present ninjas in the movie, who manage to do all kinds of amazingly ridiculous things (including forming a squad of ninjas into one giant ninja and burrowing through sand like moles on speed). The action throughout is top notch, but where this movie really shines is the epic final duel, which will make you want to stand up and salute those brave men.
10 Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior
This is the only other title from a Southeast Asian country on this list. As with Rumble in the Bronx and Jackie Chan this movie put Tony Jaa on the map with American audiences. While Jaa isn't the household name that Chan is, Jaa has had a very successful film career largely on the back of this phenomenal movie.
Jaa's fighting is primarily based around muay boran, a form of muay Thai that is all flying elbows and knees. While you don't get the prolonged chess match fights of a Shaw Brothers film in Ong Bak, the combat is much more visceral and brutal feeling, and has a beauty all its own. It's pretty safe to say that if you get a flying double elbow to the top of your skull your fight is pretty much over. In fact, there is a great little homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Jaa drops a combatant in an underground match with one blow. In this film Jaa plays Ting, a man charged by his town with recovering the stolen head of their sacred Buddha statue (called Ong Bak). With help from a former fellow townsman-turned-grifter, he finds and fights his way into the Bangkok underworld to recover the statue head. As with Jackie Chan, Jaa does his own mind-blowing stunts... and in this movie we are treated to him hurdling through bales of barbed wire at full sprint and fighting someone while being lit on fire.
9 Magnificent Butcher
This film is one of the greatest directed by (and choreographed by) legendary choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, who was maybe most familiarly responsible for staging the fights in Kill Bill: Vol. 2. Like several dozen other movies and shows, this title orbits around Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung and/or his students (in fact, Wong Fei-hung appears as a character in 4 of the movies on this list). This movie's main hero is Butcher Wing, played by Sammo Hung. Wing is a student of Wong's and gets embroiled in a drama based around the kidnapping and murder of his long lost brother's wife.
Much of the movie is much lighter than this all sounds. Sammo Hung, close friend and collaborator of Jackie Chan's, portrays Wing as a dumpy and good-natured buffoon who happens to stumble into and out of trouble due to a mixture of ego and self-preservation. Much of the action involves another popular character in martial arts films, Beggar So -- a martial arts master who also happens to be a vulgar drunk (and fights in a drunken boxing style). Things do manage to get dark, though, and the action's intensity ramps up accordingly. Yuen Woo-ping's style of fighting is similar to Chan's in that there is a great deal of using improvised weapons and shields. The fighting is more deliberate and has the pace of a heady speed chess game; giving the audience time to absorb every move and counter-move without hitting the pause button between blows.
8 Kung Fu Hustle
Steven Chow might well be the most famous name in film for the eastern half of the globe. For 6 years, Kung Fu Hustle was the highest grossing movie in Hong Kong film history. Chow's popularity is not without merit; he is a triple threat in all his best movies: writing, directing, and starring in each of them.
This film (which takes place in Shanghai in the '40s) follows Chow, as a homeless vagabond named Sing. He and his friend Bone aspire to join the brutal Deadly Axe Gang for power, respect, and recognition. When they pretend to be part of the gang when attempting to extort a slum, they are humiliated. From there, the Deadly Axe Gang actually makes a move on the slum and uncovers that the area (known as Pig Sty Alley) hides a secret. This is the only movie on our list that is aided heavily by computer special effects. The movie is primarily a comedy (with some touching moments) and plays like a Looney Tunes cartoon with fight scenes. People run with blurs and dust clouds for legs. People drift in the air like a loose leaf of paper. And one kick can cleave a building in two. If you're a fan of this style of martial arts movie, be sure to check out Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer and Journey to the West (which, at the time of writing this, is available on American Netflix).
7 Once Upon A Time In China
This is another movie featuring the character Wong Fei-hung. This one, though, features Wong as the main character. It is as Wong Fei-hung in this movie that Jet Li's career truly took off. The movie focuses on Wong, his students, and his family dealing with the encroachment of Western culture in China at the turn of the 20th century. It is a distinctly anti-Western film, and part of an overall excellent tetralogy (numbers 1-3 and Once Upon A Time In China And America) directed by Asian movie icon Tsui Hark.
The scale of the movie is far more epic than the rest of the titles on the list. Nearly every battle feels like the opening salvo of a war, and many of the set pieces are accordingly grand. Jet Li's quiet certitude puts the character of Wong Fei-hung in a class that seems above human, which helps to protect and extrapolate on the myth behind the actual man. The wirework in the film is second to none, and there is an incredible fight involving ladders in a storehouse that you will never be able to forget.
6 Iron Monkey
Here we have another Yuen Woo-ping movie and, surprise, it also involves Wong Fei-hung. In this movie, though, Wong is a child (portrayed by a girl). Wong Fei-hung's father, Wong Kei-ying, is portrayed by a young Donny Yen (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Ip Man, Blade II), and is featured prominently. The elder Wong is also a martial arts master and physician, and is tasked by the governor of the province to bring the titular Iron Monkey to justice after having been mistaken for the criminal. The Iron Monkey (portrayed by Rongguang Yu) is a charitable physician by day who robs corrupt government officials by night and distributes the money to the poor and needy.
The film, from both an action and directing standpoint, is the pinnacle of the traditional Hong Kong kung fu flick. While not as grandiose as Once Upon a Time in China, it has an epic feel to it that is accentuated with smart and sharp fights that help to drive the story. The fighting is much more fluid than Master Yuen's Magnificent Butcher, but still allows you to ascertain the motivation and emotion of the fighters with each move and hesitation. The movie has heart and humor in heaping doses, but never manages to lose sight of the fact that it is a movie about fighting first and foremost.
5 Master Of The Flying Guillotine
Master of the Flying Guillotine is a phenomenal example of how fun a martial arts movie can be when it takes itself seriously despite having super "out there" action. Cited by Quentin Tarantino as one of his favorites, Master is actually a sequel to the movie One-Armed Boxer. While the first movie is solid, it is not necessary to understand and enjoy Master of the Flying Guillotine, and you might even enjoy it better without the first one.
The movie begins with a blind assassin vowing revenge for the killing of his students by the One-Armed Boxer. Since the guy is blind, he intends to kill all one-armed men in order to make sure he gets the right guy. The expert wields the flying guillotine from the title, which is really like a hat on a chain with blades on the inside and outside of it. Knowing he is being hunted, the One-Armed Boxer refuses to enter a martial arts tournament, but attends along with his students. A few participants from the contest, including a muay Thai fighter and an Indian fighter (who can stretch his arms like Dhalsim from Street Fighter), assist the assassin in tracking down the Boxer. Compared to a technically sound movie like Iron Monkey, Master comes off as amateurish, but charmingly so. This is another great party movie. Also, oddly, much of the soundtrack comes from German krautrock bands like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, and Neu!
4 The Legend Of Drunken Master (aka Drunken Master II)
It is absolutely incredible the depth of fascination and the number of good movies made with the mythologizing of Wong Fei-hung. In this movie, it is Jackie Chan's turn to portray the folk hero. In the movie, Fei-hung uses his mastery of drunken boxing in order to stop the theft of Chinese artifacts by a British businessman, and also assist in a labor dispute in the process. Drunken boxing is exactly how it sounds: a martial art form that relies on drinking so much that your moves and coordination are off and wobbly in a way that mystifies the fighter's opponents. As far as fighting styles in Hong Kong films go, it is probably the most entertaining to watch. Combined with Chan's comedic chops, you have a recipe for cinematic gold.
The film was listed as one of the 100 greatest of all-time by Time Magazine in 2005. In addition to the entertaining and hilarious fight sequences by Chan, we are also treated to some pretty incredible stunts (highlighted by Chan kicking someone while his leg is on fire). While the movie is great, be sure to warn any children watching that alcohol is dangerous and does not give you super fighting powers like a can of spinach does to Popeye.
3 The Street Fighter
Do not get this confused with the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie based on the video game (which is entertainingly bad but would never come anywhere near this list). This is the sole Japanese movie on the list; a slab of 1970s grit and grime. Starring martial arts bad ass Sonny Chiba as Terry Tsurugi (the movie dubbing sometimes mistakes his name as Terry Tsuguri), the film has more in common with an early period Scorcese than it does its Hong Kong brothers. Tsurugi is fittingly an amoral antihero of the highest order; he is almost completely unlikable, and yet we root for him as he takes on the Mafia and the Yakuza (for money, of course).
Chiba's fighting style resembles a predator, waiting for a weakness to present itself before pouncing. Oftentimes he fights dirty just to get things over with as efficiently as possible. If you are used to the Shaw Brothers style of movies, this will be a real shell shock. In fact, the tagline of the movie is "If you've got to fight... fight dirty!" The movie was named by Entertainment Weekly as the eighth best "guilty pleasures" movie for men (which is a pretty solid list overall). Quentin Tarantino is such a fan of this film and of Chiba that one of the first movies he wrote, True Romance, prominently features The Street Fighter and a Sonny Chiba marathon. Later, Chiba was cast in Tarantino's Kill Bill movies.
2 Five Deadly Venoms (aka The Five Venoms)
This film is the gold standard for all classic, traditional kung fu movies. In fact, it was ranked the 11th greatest cult movie by Entertainment Weekly. The movie was released by Shaw Brothers, and was directed by legendary martial arts director Chang Cheh. Chang has 94 director credits on IMDB and was also responsible for Five Element Ninjas.
The film features a student tending to his dying master, when he is told that before him there were five pupils who trained in complete anonymity (hidden by masks). They each trained in a specific style: centipede, lizard, scorpion, snake, and toad. The student, Yang Tieh, is charged with seeking out the Five Venoms, figuring out who among them is good, and teaming up with them to take on the evil Venoms before they are able to rob a retired martial arts master. Each of the Venoms was a star for the studio and some of them are still acting. The film features some incredible fights and also one of the most brutal instances of torture captured in martial arts cinema. This film is very likely the key to understanding the entirety of Hong Kong kung fu film, and no amount of hyperbole will actually do the movie justice.
1 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Sometimes the obvious choices are also the right ones to make. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon likely served as an entry point for Western audiences to enjoy martial arts movies more than any other aside from maybe Enter The Dragon. The film is choreographed by Master Yuen, and is perhaps his greatest achievement in storytelling through action. It was directed by Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain) and is a love letter to Hong Kong kung fu films.
While there are several devastatingly beautiful martial arts films (House of Flying Daggers, Hero, and Curse of the Golden Flower to name a few), none surpass the sweeping and lush beauty of Crouching Tiger. Every set piece and setting is a mixture of homage and Planet Earth-worthy landscape. The film, which is based on a book by Wang Dulu, is at times inspiring, depressing, romantic, and steamy. Perhaps no greater love stories have been put forth in martial arts film history. It's a worn out saying, "This has to be seen to be believed," but perhaps in the case of this film the saying has never been more true. Do yourself a favor and avoid the English dubbed version, and feel free to avoid the recent sequel (which isn't exactly bad, but isn't exactly very good, either).
What other martial arts movies would you recommend for this list? Are there any hidden Shaw Brothers gems that people should run out to see? Are there good films from other countries that didn't get mentioned? Let us know in the comments section!