Let’s be honest: there’s a primal thrill in watching people beat each other up. Especially when they do it stylishly! That’s one of the reasons why the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) has become so popular in recent years. It’s also why everyone loves a good martial arts movie. Kung fu, Karate, Kickboxing, Muay Thai, Jiu-jitsu: name any style you can think of, and there’s bound to be a practitioner of it who has showcased his skills on the silver screen.
Today we’re looking at the very best of those practitioners: the actors who have combined their mastery of the martial arts with a flair for the dramatic. You’ll definitely recognize some of the names on this list, while others may be less familiar. What they all have in common is hard-earned skill, a gift for performance and some of the best martial arts films ever made.
15. Michael Jai White
We start with an actor who is proficient in a number of different martial arts styles, and has showcased those skills in a number of films. Michael Jai White has studied martial arts since childhood, and holds black belts in Shotokan Karate, Goju Ryu, Kyokushin, Taekwondo, Kobudo, Wushu and Tang Soo Doo. He’s probably one of the deadliest actors working in Hollywood today: luckily, he seems to be a pretty nice guy!
He has starred in a number of projects that have made good use of his martial arts skill, including Universal Soldier: The Return, Exit Wounds, Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing and Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown. He also appeared in Kevin Tancharoen’s cinematic re-imaginings of the Mortal Kombat franchise, Rebirth and Legacy, as Jax.
14. Cynthia Rothrock
Like most of the performers on this list, Cynthia Rothrock was an accomplished martial artist long before she ever stepped in front of a camera. She has earned her black belt in seven different martial arts (eighth degree in Tang Soo Doo) and won five world championships for her forms.
During her career in competitive martial arts, she was discovered by the famed production company Golden Harvest, and she made her screen debut alongside Michelle Yeoh in Yes, Madam. She would go on to make a number of popular films in China, including China O’Brien, The Inspector Wears Skirts and Righting Wrongs.
13. Sammo Hung
Like his long-time friend Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung was trained in the martial arts at a Peking Opera School before beginning his career in the Chinese film industry. As children, he and Chan were both part of the Seven Little Fortunes performance group.
Most of his extensive career has been spent in his homeland, where he is a legitimate icon. To Western audiences he is probably best known for his short-lived series Martial Law, which ran for two seasons on CBS from 1998 to 2000. Co-starring Arsenio Hall and Kelly Hu, it starred Hung as a Chinese cop who is transferred to Los Angeles.
In China, he has worked as an actor, director, stuntman, and action choreographer in hundreds of films, from his first appearance as a child actor in 1961’s Education of Love to directing the action for this year’s Paradox.
12. Jim Kelly
Jim Kelly was a real martial artist and a multiple time world champion in the early 70’s. Kelly was a master in Shorin-ryu Karate and opened his own school in Los Angeles. It’s there that Enter the Dragon producer Jerry Weintraub discovered him and cast him in the key role of Williams. Starring alongside the iconic Bruce Lee in his last completed film (and arguably his best) was a huge boon for Kelly’s burgeoning acting career.
After Enter the Dragon, Kelly continued to showcase his martial arts prowess while becoming one of the biggest stars of the blaxploitation genre thanks to movies like Black Belt Jones, Three The Hard Way, Black Samurai and Hot Potato.
11. Kara Hui
An icon of Chinese cinema and one of the biggest female action stars of all time, Kara Hui has an extensive resume of film credits spanning five decades.
Discovered by director Lau Kar-leung, Hui was cast in his 1976 film Challenge of the Masters and never looked back. Her early career was dominated by appearances in a number of martial arts films produced by the legendary Shaw Brothers Studios, among them Invincible Shaolin, Mad Monkey Kung Fu, Return to the 36th Chamber and Clan of the White Lotus. Her most iconic role came in 1982’s My Young Auntie, an action comedy for which she won Best Actress at the inaugural Hong Kong Film Awards. It was the first of three such awards for her: she also won for 2010’s At The End of Daybreak and 2017’s Happiness.
10. Iko Uwais
Iko Uwais is the youngest entry on this list, which is great news for action fans. At just 34 years of age, his career is only getting started.
Uwais has a classic Hollywood (or in his case, Jakarta) origin story. He was discovered in his Silat dojo by filmmaker Gareth Evans, who was so impressed with the young martial artist that he cast him in his first movie, 2009’s Merantau. But it was their second collaboration, 2012’s The Raid, that blew the proverbial doors off and signaled his arrival as a martial arts star. Considered one of the best martial arts movies of all time, it’s action packed, impeccably choreographed and absolutely brutal. The sequel, 2014’s The Raid 2, is equally celebrated. He also had a short but memorable cameo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
9. Ti Lung
Like Kara Hui, Ti Lung achieved iconic status in China by virtue of his starring roles in a number of films from Shaw Brothers Studios. A student of Wing Chun, he enrolled in the studio’s acting course and quickly found work thanks to both his burgeoning skills as a performer and his youthful good looks.
His first leading role was in 1969’s Dead End, a contemporary film: but it was his work in the Wuxia genre that would truly make him a star. His first film in the popular genre was 1969’s Have Sword, Will Travel, followed quickly by 1970’s The Heroic Ones and 1971’s King Eagle.
His most celebrated role was as Little Flying Dagger Li in 1979’s The Sentimental Swordsman and its sequel, Return of the Sentimental Swordsman. Well known for playing heroic roles, he expanded his fan base by going in a new direction as a Triad member in John Woo’s 1986 film A Better Tomorrow.
8. Jean-Claude Van Damme
The Muscles from Brussels! Okay, so Jean-Claude Van Damme is never going to win any awards for his acting ability. Who cares? He’s been bringing it in great martial arts action films for over thirty years.
A second degree black belt in Shotokan Karate, he competed in a number of karate and kickboxing tournaments before launching his acting career. He has also studied Taekwondo and Muay Thai.
Van Damme broke out with the 1988 cult classic Bloodsport, which told the true (ish) story of martial artist Frank Dux and his battles in the underground fighting tournament known as the Kumite. Another cult classic soon followed in 1989’s Kickboxer, in which he played a skilled martial artist seeking vengeance for his brother’s murder at the hands of a brutal fighter.
More memorable roles in films like Double Impact, Hard Target, Street Fighter and Universal Soldier followed. In recent years he has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence thanks to a surprising performance in 2008’s JCVD, in which he played a fictionalized version of himself having a very bad day.
7. Tony Jaa
Everyone knows about Muay Thai today, thanks in large part to its popularity among MMA fighters. But “the art of eight limbs” was considerably less well known when Tony Jaa burst onto the scene in 2003 with Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior. The skilled martial artist brought international attention to the fighting style, which he would further showcase in two Ong-Bak prequels as well as 2005’s The Protector.
As a child, Jaa was inspired to study the martial arts thanks to his love for the films of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. His own films eventually caught the attention of Chan, who wanted to cast him in Rush Hour 3, but scheduling conflicts prevented it.
6. Michelle Yeoh
One of the most celebrated actresses in Chinese cinema, Michelle Yeoh is also an international star thanks to her work in a few well chosen Hollywood productions.
A ballet dancer in her youth, Yeoh parlayed her remarkable athleticism into a career as an action star. Like her Police Story 3 co-star Jackie Chan, she became renowned for doing her own stunts in many films. She rose to fame with starring roles in films like Magnificent Warriors, Executioners and Tai Chi Master before achieving international fame as Chinese agent Wai Lin in the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. Hardly the typical “Bond Girl”, Wai Lin was every bit as skilled as Agent 007 himself.
She was nominated for a number of acting awards for the role of Yu Shu Lien in 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and returned to the role sixteen years later for the sequel, Sword of Destiny. Her career is still going strong, as she is set to star in the new series Star Trek: Discovery and had a surprise cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
5. Chuck Norris
To modern audiences, Chuck Norris is probably best known for the “Facts” meme that sprang up about a decade ago. You know, “Chuck Norris can slam a revolving door.”… “Chuck Norris doesn’t sleep, he waits.” While he may not be as incredible as those facts suggest, make no mistake: Chuck Norris is the real deal.
For starters, he’s a multiple black belt in a number of different styles, including Karate (fifth degree), Taekwondo (eighth degree) and Tang Soo Doo (ninth degree). He has also created his own style, Chun Kuk Do.
His first big role was as a villain in his friend Bruce Lee’s film Way of the Dragon, in which the two stars staged an iconic battle in Rome’s Colosseum. Since then he’s become one of the best known action stars in the world thanks to films like The Delta Force, Missing In Action and Firewalker, and his long-running television series Walker, Texas Ranger.
4. Donnie Yen
Donnie Yen has long been a superstar in his native land of China. An exceptionally gifted martial artist proficient in a number of different styles, Yen broke into the business in 1983 as a stuntman. It wasn’t long before he was choreographing the action, directing films and starring in them himself. His leading roles in films like Iron Monkey, Ip Man and Hero have cemented his status as one of China’s most bankable stars.
Across the pond, he broadened his appeal with supporting roles (and behind the scenes work) in a handful of Hollywood films, including Highlander: Endgame, Blade 2 and Shanghai Knights.
His worldwide fame reached new heights last year, thanks to his performance as Chirrut Imwe in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Playing the blind Force devotee allowed him to showcase both his martial arts prowess and his acting chops.
3. Jet Li
Following in the footsteps of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan before him, Jet Li achieved fame in his homeland before taking Hollywood by storm. His work in films like Once Upon A Time In China, Black Mask and the excellent remake Fist of Legend set him apart as one of the greatest martial artists of his generation.
It was only a matter of time before he made a splash in the Western movie scene, which he did with his role as the villain in 1997’s Lethal Weapon 4. He has continued to work in American films steadily since then. They may not match up to the likes of Hero, but films like Romeo Must Die, The One and War are still worth checking out.
These days, his biggest Hollywood role is that of Yin Yang in the Expendables franchise.
2. Jackie Chan
Seriously, who doesn’t love Jackie Chan? He’s a legitimate badass, famous for doing all his own stunts for the majority of his career (before age finally caught up to him) and breaking countless bones in the process. Aside from that, he’s one of the most genuinely likeable actors around. While other action stars are known for their scowls and simmering rage, Jackie Chan’s best characters always seem to be having fun, and that fun is contagious.
Having endured years of demanding training at a Peking Opera School as a child, Chan was already a seasoned martial artist when he began work as a stuntman in the 70s. He had bit roles in some of Bruce Lee’s films before breaking out as a star in his own right thanks to films like Drunken Master, The Big Brawl and Police Story. There’s lots to love in his later Hollywood productions too, like Rush Hour, Shanghai Noon and The Forbidden Kingdom.
1. Bruce Lee
Apologies for being predictable, but this is The Dragon we’re talking about. Bruce Lee will forever be the greatest icon of martial arts cinema.
Though his life was cut tragically short at the age of 32, Bruce Lee had already accomplished more in that time than most people do in a century. In his short life, he mastered Kung Fu, developed his own martial art styles (first Jun Fan Gung Fu, then Jeet Kune Do), wrote several books, starred in The Green Hornet series as Kato, defied convention by training Westerners in the Chinese martial arts, and became one of the biggest movie stars in the world.
His martial arts films – The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, Way of the Dragon, Enter the Dragon and Game of Death – are still held up as the standard by which all others are measured, almost 50 years after his death.
There are too many martial arts film stars for any one list. Who are some of your favorites? Let us know in the comments.
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