Hollywood loves musicals. Hollywood loves war movies Hell, Hollywood even loves horror movies because of the low cost/high returns they usually get at the box office. But do you know what genre Hollywood doesn’t seem to be fond of? Martial arts. And films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill are unfortunately few and far between.
But look, you and I? We’re martial arts fans. We know what’s up. We know how awesome it is to watch somebody kick somebody else in the face and then do a backflip before whipping out the nunchucks and wrecking a whole crew of people.
And that’s why I’ve written this list, to point you to all the cool Kung fu movies you can watch while you’re sitting at home on your couch, counting down the days. So let’s do this! Here are some of the best martial arts movies that you can check out right now.
Kill Bill: Vol 1 (2003)
More a homage to other Kung fu films than anything else, Quentin Tarantino’s martial arts epic, Kill Bill, concerns a woman known only as "The Bride" in the first movie. She was shot and left for dead on her wedding day by a group of killers called the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad that she once belonged to. Now, after awakening from a coma, "The Bride" is out to kill the other assassins until she finally gets to the head of the organization and (wait for it) kills Bill. Bloody violence ensues.
Now, Kill Bill is in two parts, but Part 2 is more of a western, and Part 1 has all the great fight scenes, like the battle with the Crazy 88’s. It’s not the deepest movie and it’s definitely a Tarantino picture--meaning, expect a lot of witty banter in-between the violence. But if you love martial arts, and you like your combat bloody as hell, then Kill Bill: Vol 1 is your movie. Bang bang.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)
Up from the 36 Chambas! Do you like the Wu-tang Clan (I mean, you kind of have to if you’re into the martial arts genre)? Well, if you’re a fan of the group, then you’ve probably already seen the classic Shaw Brothers movie The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, as that’s where the group got the inspiration for their first rap album.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, also known as The Master Killer (which is also the name of one of the rappers in the group) is a story of revenge, but then growth.
A man named Liu Yude is caught in the middle of an uprising where his family and friends are murdered. In anger, Liu Yude heads off to the Shaolin temple to learn the ways of martial arts, but he needs to start from the bottom and he learns valuable lessons in the process. Each “chamber” that he learns is a different technique. The fight choreography is immaculate and it’s a legendary movie that all fans of the genre need to see.
The Five Venoms (1978)
Another Shaw Brothers masterpiece, The Five Venoms (also known as Five Deadly Venoms) is about the last student of a moribund master who is sent out on a mission to track down the master’s five best students, who all have a distinct style of martial arts. There’s the centipede, snake, toad, scorpion, and lizard, and their styles are so unique that it’s a pleasure to meet each one of them.
The fight choreography in this one, by the legendary Leung Ting, is bold and expressive, and I just love watching each technique, especially the fast as lightning centipede style. When it comes to classic Kung fu, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Drunken Master (1978)
You knew I had to put a Jackie Chan movie on this list. Drunken Master is a kung-fu comedy starring Jackie Chan as Wong Fei-hung, who was an actual person, though this is far from a biopic. At least I hope it is. It’s about Wong Fei-hung back in his youth when he used to get in trouble all the time.
Unlike in the sequel, Drunken Master II, where Jackie Chan’s character is actually getting drunk to become a better fighter, in this one, his drunken technique is just a style that he learns from a wise master named Begger So. The fighting in this one is just so much fun to watch, and it’s more like dancing than anything else. Check it out.
Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
Drunken Master is cartoony, but the Kung fu comedy, Kung Fu Hustle, is pretty much a full-on cartoon, with characters running like the iconic video game character, Sonic the Hedgehog. In that way, watching Kung Fu Hustle really depends on your mileage when it comes to slapstick martial arts movies. Either you’ll love this one, or you’ll hate it. There really isn’t much of an in-between.
The story is about a guy who wants to join a group called the axe gang, but he finds he’s up against a bunch of pissed off tenants in a housing complex who can kick ass, most notably a cigarette-smoking landlady. The fighting is high flying and ridiculous, but you kind of go into this movie already knowing that.
Also known as The Protector in the U.S., I like to refer to this movie as a boy and his elephant, since the whole plot centers around Furious 7’s Tony Jaa going on a mission to rescue missing elephants, most notably one he’s grown greatly fond of over the years. Silly as it sounds (and it does sound pretty silly, I’ll admit), what makes Tom-Yum-Goong work so much is that actual sadness that you see in Tony Jaa’s expression when anybody messes with his elephant, Por Yai, and its calf, Kohrn. That, and you know, the kick butt, Muay Thai action.
And kick butt this movie certainly does. The choreography is done by Panna Rittikrai, and it’s even more hard-hitting than Tony Jaa’s break-out role, Ong Bak. The best moment is definitely a seemingly single take fight scene where Jaa’s character races up some stairs and kicks ass every step of the way. Chef’s kiss for this Muay Thai excitement!
Speaking of Muay Thai, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the 1989 classic Kickboxer, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme of Street Fighter-fame (Sorry. I tend to bring up the Street Fighter movie as much as possible on this website).
The story concerns a kickboxer and his brother (The brother being Van Damme) who travel to Thailand to face the best of the best. But when the best of the best paralyze said kickboxer, Van Damme’s character trains his butt off in order to exact revenge. And while yes, I know I could have just as easily picked Bloodsport for my Van Damme pick on this list, I prefer Kickboxer for its arguably superior fight scenes, and its amazing training sequences. What did that poor tree ever do to you?
The Raid 2: Berandal (2014)
While you could definitely argue that the first Raid movie, The Raid: Redemption, is the better overall flick, due to its more condensed nature, I liken The Raid 2: Berandal with the Batman Arkham games. I’ll explain. The first game, Batman: Arkham Asylum feels a lot tighter than its sequel, Arkham City. That said, Arkham City is much more sprawling and epic, and that’s how I feel about The Raid 2: Berandal. It’s just bigger (and dare I say better) in every way.
The story this time around concerns the cop, Rama (played by Indonesian actor, Iko Uwais) again, but this time, due to the events of the last movie, he has even more criminals on his scent. So, to save his family, he needs to go undercover in order to make his way up to the head of a crime ring. And you know there’s kick ass action sequences along the way.
What makes both this and the original so spectacular though is the hard-hitting Pencak silat fighting style that makes every punch and kick look like it's going to crack somebody’s bones into pieces. Ouch.
The Karate Kid (1984)
I don’t know if you’re noticing, but I’m trying to include as many different martial arts disciplines on this list as possible, which is why I have to include karate. And what better movie (Or should I say, movies) represent karate more than The Karate Kid?
The story of a boy named Daniel (Ralph Macchio) who gets bullied by some martial arts students, only to learn that there is a zen to martial arts from a repairman named Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita), The Karate Kid may be much heavier on the teen drama than it is on the actual karate, but I dare you to find a movie with a better fight montage than in The Karate Kid. It’s the best…around! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oomCIXGzsR0&t=92s
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
The only pure martial arts movie to ever be nominated for best picture (if we’re not including the Best Picture winning, Everything Everywhere All At Once, which also stars Michelle Yeoh), Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon concerns a sword being stolen and the romance that ensues. It’s super classy for a martial arts picture, and has some of the biggest names in the business at the time, such as Chow Yun-Fat, the aforementioned Michelle Yeoh, and Ziyi Zhang.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is unlike most of the other martial arts movies on this list since it’s more about story first, and martial arts second. At its heart, it’s a romance, but there’s also some great Wuxia action and swordplay that makes it look almost like a dream at times. It's a beautiful movie and a landmark film in the genre.
Ip Man (2008)
Let’s keep it classy. Ip Man tells the biographical story of Bruce Lee’s teacher’s origins. John Wick: Chapter 4’s Donnie Yen plays the titular character who comes from a wealthy family, but, due to circumstances involving a Japanese invasion, loses everything and begins to teach others in his martial arts style. This is actually the first of four movies, but the first one is the best one and the most worthy of your time.
The combat is amazing in this modern day classic, and since there are different styles between the Chinese and the Japanese, you get some intense battles that are utterly thrilling to watch.
The Big Boss (1971)
Speaking of Bruce Lee, I’d be remiss if I left him off this list. The Big Boss is about a pacifist, played by Bruce Lee, who works in an ice factory. But the ice factory isn’t what it seems (It’s actually a different kind of “ice”), and Bruce Lee’s character, Cheng, drops the pacifism and starts kicking ass the way only Bruce Lee knows how to do.
For those unfamiliar with Bruce Lee movies, the fighting is a bit different from other martial arts films since a lot of the fights consist of Bruce Lee kicking ass and then close-ups of his face. Bruce Lee is the usual go-to guy for martial arts, and I highly recommend this movie, but just be forewarned that it has a bit of a slower pace. But that’s just to keep track of all those heavy kicks Bruce Lee is swinging.
Enter The Dragon (1973)
Lastly, I of course have to end on probably the most famous martial arts movie of all time, Enter the Dragon. The story of a martial artist who is infiltrating a kung fu competition in order to exact revenge against the man who murdered his sister (and also stop a narcotics kingpin to boot), Enter the Dragon probably features Bruce Lee at his most Bruce Lee-ist.
I’m talking slow motion kicks, crazed expressions of anger once he leaps on a dude’s chest, and nunchaku action like you wouldn’t believe. There are a lot of great martial arts movies on this list, but if you’re going to start somewhere, then all roads lead to Enter the Dragon.
As mentioned up top, there’s a lot of great martial arts movies streaming right now. So sit your butt down and watch some of these movies or I’ll kick your butt! Just kidding. I’m out of shape, too. Might as well be out of shape together, right?
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Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.