The Top 10 Martial Arts Films of All Time

   

     I met Jon Gentile some 20 years ago and immediately learned of his great passion for the Martial Arts.  An instructor and practitioner way ahead of his time, Jon owned and operated American Filipino Self Defense, where he taught the Rossi Kun Tao system.  Unlike other schools in town in that era, Jon was open minded and always looked to expand the curriculum at his school, as well as his own proficiency in styles and systems well beyond the one he had perfected back home in Connecticut.  Having studied and learned from legendary former students of Bruce Lee, Larry Hartsell and Dan Inosanto, Jon embraced and ultimately passed on techniques that encompassed all ranges of fighting.  In 1995, Jon was one of the first schools in Las Vegas to teach what we now refer to as Mixed Martial Arts with classes in Kun Tao, Jeet Kune Do, Submission Grappling, Sambo, Shoot Fighting,  and Filipino Stick/Knife just to name a few.  Put simply, the white belts in Jon’s classes knew quite a bit and had the confidence to prove it.  How do I know?  I was one of them.

     Because Jon and I still work together to this day, there has been no shortage of Martial Arts related conversations that typically range from the results of recent UFC events to the state of tactics training in our line of work.  Knowing my passion for writing about movies, Jon suggested we put to use our experiences in chosen craft and create a Top 10 List for the Best Martial Arts Films of all time.  Both of us love movies as well as Martial Arts and our knowledge in both subjects is vast, yet the perspectives are different in the way we view what is worthy of such a list and what is not.  The task at hand is to put the 10 Best Martial Arts Films in ranked order from ten to one, including two additional films given Honorable Mention.  The results are as follows:


THE TOP 10 MARTIAL ARTS FILMS OF ALL TIME - JASON HARNEY


10.  Blood Sport (1988)   Watch the Trailer

     The true story of Frank Dux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and his participation in the Kumite, an underground tournament in Hong Kong featuring fighters from around the world.  I can’t help but to think Rorion Gracie and Art Davie, the original owners of the UFC, watched “Bloodsport” and hatched their idea for the now mainstream American version.  Though not in a cage, the film follows fighters from nearly every discipline, pitting them against one another to determine which style is the best.  The film launched Van Damme into a career of making movies just like it over and over again throughout the 1990s, introducing his famed jumping helicopter kick paired with bad acting.  For all its faults; however, the film is and remains a classic if for no other reason many a VHS cassette copies were worn out by anyone who was into Martial Arts at the time.


9.  The Raid (2011)  Watch the Trailer

     Rarely will a Martial Arts film waste time with the complexity of a well thought out plot when the filmmakers would clearly rather be choreographing fight sequences instead.  The Indonesian action film “The Raid” fits that bill perfectly as the plot is reduced to that of your typical video game, but quite possibly features some of the best Martial Arts action sequences ever filmed.  The pace is fast and furious as the opening shot has a van load of SWAT team members being briefed on their mission.  A ruthless drug kingpin resides near the 30th floor of a building and their orders are to go get him.  Problem is, they must start at the first floor on foot and work their way up as they encounter endless hoards of the bad guy’s henchman.  These encounters allow for the cast and crew to stage fight sequences that set the bar for both technique and brutality in a modern film.


8.  Fist of Legend (1994)  Watch the Trailer

     Not long before Jet Li made his way from Hong Kong to the United States and took mainstream audiences by storm with his performance as the villain in “Lethal Weapon 4”, the Kung Fu expert and overseas action star made what I believe to be his best offering in a Martial Arts film, “Fist of Legend”.  Taking place in 1937, the story follows Chen (Li) and his return to Shanghai, only to find his long time teacher and mentor dead and his school constantly bullied by the Japanese, who now occupy the country.  Li demonstrates unmatched speed, fluidity, and bone crushing force in every fight scene, along with skills which individually speaking are likely the best of any actor from every movie on this list.  His skills play on screen as if he is a Bruce Lee 2.0 if you will.  The final fight sequence against the so called undefeated Japanese General, who killed his master, is one for the ages.  


7.  Kung Fu Hustle (2004)  Watch the Trailer

     Famed film critic Roger Ebert said of “Kung Fu Hustle”, “Imagine a film in which Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton meet Quentin Tarantino and Bugs Bunny”, a description that holds true and then some.  Director Stephen Chow’s extraordinary concoction of the zany and the hilarious mixed skillfully with inventive twists and hard core Martial Arts action makes for one creative film recipe.  The story takes place in a 1940s Shanghai housing complex with its occupants hell bent on defending their homes from the nefarious Axe Gang.  The choreography of sequences involving hundreds of actors fighting at the same time, along with the creative use of household items as weaponry, creates some of the most complex action sequences ever put to film.


6.  Ong-bak (2003)  Watch the Trailer

      Muay Thai expert Tony Jaa burst on the scene when his first film to make it to an American film screen created a buzz which anointed him as the next big action star.  No one at that point had brought such a brutal, yet acrobatic, Muay Thai skill set to the screen and though his films thereafter proved to be a rehash of this one, it can’t be denied that Ong-bak stands as perhaps the best Muay Thai Martial Arts film ever made.  Doing away with techniques, such as kicks and punches, traditionally used in Martial Arts films, Jaa infused the choreography with a massive dose of devastating knees and elbows.  Gone were the types of scenes stuffed with overlong exchanges between evenly matched opponents.  Jaa has brutal intentions with every strike thrown and finishes opponents in the film with a normally life ending exclamation point.   

    

5.  The Legend of Drunken Master (1994)  Watch the Trailer

      Jackie Chan has long been somewhat of a gold standard as a star of Martial Arts films for the better part of four decades now.  While his films are typically low in the plot and story department, Chan has excelled in both action choreography and a strong emphasis on stunt work.  One of the best parts of watching a Jackie Chan film is the end credits in which a series of  fight sequence outtakes are shown that sometimes end with Chan seriously injuring himself.  What sets “The Legend of Drunken Master apart is the fact he basically  reinvented his Kung Fu fighting style to show how it might look if the person using his legendary techniques was under the influence of alcohol.  His character in the film struggles mightily when fighting sober, but when he guzzles red wine something happens.  He literally transforms himself into an unpredictable fighting machine, who is nearly impossible to hit as he moves in a way that defies the laws of balance.  Chan doesn’t necessarily get stronger with alcohol, but he definitely departs his normal mindset for one who believes he can and will defeat anyone. 

   

4.  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)  Watch the Trailer

     Nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, director Ang Lee’s best film to date is also a crown jewel of Martial Arts films, featuring superb acting, beautiful cinematography, a rousing score, and gravity defying fight sequences among the best ever captured.  The film would go on to win four Oscars and was a box office sensation world wide.  This was the film that made the use of wire work in Martial Arts choreography the common technique it is today.  Lee tells the story of Master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), a warrior swordsman is on the cusp of retirement and wishes to part with his most prized weapon, the Green Destiny.  Set during a period in China when it was said Zen warriors could float through the air, walk on water, and scale rooftops with ease, Lee stages a number of action set pieces that push the envelope on both style and jaw dropping skill.


3.  The Karate Kid (1984) Watch the Trailer

     If you grew up in the 80s as a teenager, “The Karate Kid” was required viewing as it displayed the attributes of dealing with themes important to kids in high school and combined them with a stateside version of the tropes which make the very best Martial Arts films.  Easily the most quotable film on this list, director John Avildsen and screenwriter Robert Kamen tell the story of Daniel Larusso (Ralf Macchio), a high school age teen who has just moved to Los Angeles and is almost immediately  bullied by a group of kids who train at one of the most fearsome Karate dojos in the area.  When his apartment complex handyman observes the bullies, led by the notorious Johnny, beating Daniel up, he singlehandedly fends off the group and agrees to train Daniel in the art of Karate.  The story culminates in a tournament that pits Daniel against Johnny in one of the most memorable scenes in all of film history.


2.  Enter the Dragon (1973)  Watch the Trailer

     Observed by some as the best Martial Arts film ever made, “Enter the Dragon” was the first film starring Bruce Lee to receive a wide release in America and thus catapulted him to superstardom.  His untimely death in 1973 cut short what was certain to be a long and influential film career, making it impossible to predict how high he would’ve ascended in both film as well as Martial Arts.  His philosophy behind his signature fighting style, Jeet Kune Do, encouraged his students to be open in their training and seek out techniques from all styles and disciplines, using only what works for each individual person.  It’s amazing when you think about his death being over 40 years ago and then examining how embedded his namesake, his ideals, and his persona are in our society today.  In some way, every film on this list, as well as nearly every Martial Arts film made post 1973, pay homage to Bruce Lee in some capacity.  You have to wonder if the Martial Arts film genre would even exist outside of Asia today if not for his massive fingerprints on popular culture.


1.  Kill Bill: Volume 1 & 2 (2003-4)  Watch the Trailer

     The easiest decision to make for this list, “Kill Bill” as one epic story is the greatest Martial Arts film of all time.  I named Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece number one on my 2000-2009 All Decade list and it has a place in my All Time Top 25 Films, checking in at number ten.  “Kill Bill” pays homage and respect to each and every Martial Arts film before it with everything from the casting of “Kung Fu” star David Carradine as the film’s namesake to the costuming of The Bride in a yellow and black jump suit similar to the one Bruce Lee wore in “Game of Death”.  The fight sequences in “Kill Bill” would stand on their own and still ensure the film a spot on this list, but what makes “Kill Bill” stand alone at the top is the writing by Tarantino himself.  The action scenes, as good as they are, only enhance what is a compelling story that is expertly directed and acted.  The film plays like a “Disneyland” of Martial Arts, including numerous fighting styles and techniques ranging from swordplay to the five-point-palm-exploding-heart-technique used during the film’s conclusion.  Though the story is told in non linear fashion, we follow Uma Thurman’s The Bride, beginning with her horrific wedding day and then through the series of events that occur where she is hell bent on revenge.  The sequence in which The Bride takes on the Crazy 88s gets the most attention, but have you had a more shocking experience at the movies when The Bride’s fight versus Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) comes to an abrupt and decisive halt?

Honorable Mention: “The Best of the Best” and “Rapid Fire”


THE TOP 10 MARTIAL ARTS FILMS OF ALL TIME - JON GENTILE


1.  The Way of the Dragon (1972)  Watch the Trailer

     Bruce Lee v Chuck Norris- Roman Coliseum sets the stage for the final fight. Ignited martial arts to where it is today. Traditional versus non-traditional fighting.....a must watch classic.

 

2.  The Hunted (1995)  Watch the Trailer

     Samari v Ninja- Freaking train scene is awesome fight. One of the best choreographed scenes ever.  Weapons fighting is on the money! Stars John Lone and Chris Lambert. Lone plays a great ruthless villain.

 

3.  Rapid Fire (1992)  Watch the Trailer

     His best movie- Brandon Lee- Fast and good......good story and plenty of action. Trapping and Jeet Kune Do can be seen all over . Glimpses of Bruce Lee do come to mind! 

 

4.  Blood Sport (1988)

     Before the UFC there was Blood sport-----styles competing in a ring. Some very authentic exposure to this style v style. Quite simply entertaining. 

 

5.  The Raid (2011)

     Simple story and easy to follow. The movie exposes effectiveness in street fighting intertwined with a police story. Superbly done. Introduced audiences to Indonesian Silat fighting techniques. The story shows an innovativeness of different fighting techniques mixed with weapons. New entry.

 

6.  Kill Bill (2003-04)

     Great revenge story ! Has scenes running of brutality with a similar twist of the Chinese Connection. Great fight scenes and character development as you expect from Tarantino!

 

7.  The Matrix (1999)  Watch the Trailer

     Mainstream Sci Fi movie. Great, clean, and fast fight scenes. Major stars and one liners.

 

8.  Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000)

     Good story with romance and martial arts-Plot was very good and surprised many viewers. It was a good cross over movie.

 

9.  The Karate Kid (1984)

     Influence and story popularized martial arts and a story of bullies set the stage. Pat Morita steps in to help a troubled youth played Ralph Macchio who begins to see the light. Good story will have you cheering in the end. Feel good movie and blockbuster.

 

10.  Ninja Assassin (2009)  Watch the Trailer

     Sleek and dynamic- This guy is a ninja machine. Simplistic plot but who cares. This guy piles up the bodies where ever he goes! Korean Pop star Rain plays the kick ass ninja against his clan run by Sho Kushi- who many have known from early ninja cult films like Revenge of The Ninja and opposite Van Dam in Black Eagle. Non stop action!

 

Honorable Mention: “The Legend of Drunken Master” and “Enter the Dragon”