When it comes to action movies, they’ve produced some of the greatest blockbusters of all-time. Films like Fast and the Furious, James Bond, and Avengers are a few that come to mind. One thing that those movies have in common is fighting. Kicks, punches, and flips sprinkled throughout various scenes is a common sight we see — the most spectacular views we’ve seen stem from some form of martial arts. For that, we have people like Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan to thank. The former helped pave the way for martial arts movies to become more popular and influence hundreds of other films. Here are the best martial arts films of all-time.
Fist Of Fury (The Chinese Connection)
We’ll kick things off with Bruce Lee’s second film. Fist of Fury (The Chinese Connection) features the up and coming star fighting for the honor of China while also avenging the death of his instructor.
Lee’s arsenal of sensational skills is on full display in this one. He has a moment where he takes out an entire Japanese dojo, and the impressive thing is that he choreographed the whole thing himself! Much like Chuck Norris, Lee is someone we’d never want to upset.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
This is a title you’ve probably heard before as it’s one of the most decorated films on this list. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won over 40 awards, and received ten Academy Award nominations. Not only that, but Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Hulk, Life of Pi) directed it.
The film went on to become the highest-grossing foreign-language movie in US history. The mid-air choreography and elaborate fight scenes helped make the flick enjoyable for even the harshest critics. You should add this to your queue if you haven’t already.
The Karate Kid
Similar to Rush Hour 2, The Karate Kid is more of a guilty pleasure. The underdog story hits home with so many people, especially if you’re younger, and that’s what helps make this film one of the classic martial arts movies.
It’s almost impossible not to think about Mr. Miyagi when you’re waxing a car. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to root for the kid who gets hassled by the school bullies? The adolescent woes are at an all-time high here, and it’s great to see Daniel LaRusso come out on top.
The Way Of The Dragon
Most martial arts movies featuring Bruce Lee, if not all, deserve mention when discussing the best films of the genre. In The Way of the Dragon, Lee showed he could do more than act, as this was his only completed directorial effort.
Not only that, but Lee grabbed a handful of Chuck Norris’ chest hair in the Roman Coliseum and ripped it out. Lee is the only man in history that could get away with disrespecting Norris like that.
Bruce Lee didn’t become one of the greatest martial artists on his own. Everyone has a teacher, and that’s who Ip Man was to Lee. Donnie Yen plays the real-life grandmaster of Chinese martial art Wing Chun.
The story focuses on Ip Man’s life events that took place in the city of Foshan during the Sino-Japanese War. If you haven’t seen this film, prepare for some of the most furious fighting scenes you’ve ever witnessed. What else would you expect from the man who taught Bruce Lee?
Five Deadly Venoms
Choreographed by the great Leung Ting, Five Deadly Venoms is about five kung-fu fighters with unique animal styles: the Snake, the Centipede, the Scorpion, the Lizard, and the Toad. A thrilling story mixed with great choreography makes this a must-see.
The dying master sends his last student to find his five former pupils with special techniques. The master becomes worried that the skills he taught will get used for evil, which is why he orders his last student, Yang, on the mission.
The Prodigal Son
The Prodigal Son does a great job of intertwining action and comedy, which boosts the overall enjoyment one receives while watching. The storyline follows Leung Chang, the son of a wealthy man that’s not entirely interested in studying kung-fu.
Chang fought over 300 men before realizing his father paid them to lose. After learning his father tricked him, he finally becomes whole-heartedly dedicated and tries to convince an expert to make him his pupil. Sammo Hung does a fabulous job of directing.
The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin
1978 saw one of the true classics in this genre release with The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Viewers go along on a journey of a student whose parents get killed by Manchu invaders. Student Liu Yude then seeks vengeance and undergoes supreme martial arts training in the Shaolin Temple.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin epitomizes a revenge tale and has an insane fight scene which features lanterns, spears, and a single man taking on an army of henchman. The Wu-Tang Clan love this movie.
The Legend Of Drunken Master (Drunken Master 2)
Many consider The Legend of Drunken Master (Drunken Master 2) to be one of Jackie Chan’s most exceptional performances as he combines acrobatic skills with his charming comedy. In the movie, Chan’s character, Wong Fei-Hong, must do battle with foreigners who wish to export ancient Chinese artifacts.
Fei-Hong’s father also has some antagonism that weighs heavy and is another thing he must overcome. Overall, it’s the last fight that makes you glued to your seat.
The Raid: Redemption
Once The Raid: Redemption hit theaters in 2011, viewers everywhere knew the bar was significantly raised for action movies. The plot of the story is an elite squad needs to infiltrate a high-rise structure run by a petty drug lord.
The adventure through the building is supremely violent and adrenaline filled. The Gareth Evans directed film doesn’t have too much of a plot, but what it lacks in the storyline, it makes up for with ruthlessly incredible fight scenes.
Have you ever seen Robin Hood? If yes, then you’ve seen a different version of Iron Monkey, which is a Hong Kong variation of Robin Hood. Released in 1993, the storyline isn’t thoroughly engaging, but it’s not often that we’re watching martial arts films for the plot.
In the film, the masked bandit robs Chinese villages and earns the nickname of Iron Monkey (after a benevolent deity). As far as martial arts battles in the 20th century go, this movie has some of the best.
Kill Bill Vol. 1
Can we start by saying kudos to Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman for this masterpiece of a film? Not only does it have a solid plot, but the action is stellar. Thurman provides viewers with a vengeance-fueled performance that saw her kill Vivica Fox in her kitchen.
Having to go through all the elites before finding Bill, Thurman’s character gears up in that iconic yellow jumpsuit and cuts through everyone with no remorse. Thank goodness Tarantino made a part two.
Legendary Weapons Of China
Legendary Weapons of China takes place during the Qing Dynasty when Empress Dowager Cixi sends her agents to find supernatural martial artists invulnerable to bullets. That sounds like a lot to take in, but it is a fantasy film and it features some of the best weapons fighting in cinema history.
We see rope darts, a monk’s spade, and almost every instrument of destruction known to man. The final battle is between real-life brothers, and it doesn’t disappoint at all.
Master Of The Flying Guillotine
As the title of this film implies, there is a flying guillotine involved, which makes this more enjoyable than it needs to be. The movie includes plenty of action, cheesy scenes, and absurd fighting– it’s almost impossible not to enjoy it.
The flying guillotine resembles a hat with a bladed rim and a long chain attached. The instrument cleanly takes off a victim’s head with a swift pull of the chain. Did we mention that there is a yoga master whose arms can stretch ten-feet long?
Fist Of Legend
Finally, Jet Li makes an appearance on this list. Fist of Legend is Li’s and director Gordon Chan’s spin on the Bruce Lee classic, Fist of Fury. Usually, remakes aren’t as good, but this one brings the intensity pretty well.
Thanks to choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, audiences received a healthy helping of Li’s lightning-quick moves. Woo-ping did such a great job; the Wachowskis hired him to provide his brilliant skills to The Matrix. Li and Woo-ping proved to be a great duo.
Crippled Avengers (Return of the Five Deadly Venoms)
Earlier on we showed you The Five Deadly Venoms, so now it’s time for the second act. Crippled Avengers gives viewers a lot to take in with a team consisting of deaf, blind, legless, and brain-damaged warriors who want revenge.
The movie is far from politically correct, and that makes it a tad more fun to watch. With dart-shooting arms, imaginative fights, and insane set pieces, this might become one of your favorites if you haven’t seen it before.
Come Drink With Me
Set during the Ming Dynasty, Come Drink With Me receives direction from King Hu and stars Cheng Pei-pei. Possibly the best Hong Kong film ever, Come Drink With Me was ahead of its time.
First of all, there weren’t many leading female protagonists in 1966, so that’s awesome. Pei-pei’s character was on a mission to save the governor’s son with plenty of ballet-like moves and hints of fantasy elements. This movie ended up inspiring Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Rush Hour 2
Appearing once again is Jackie Chan, and this time, he brought a friend along. Chan and Chris Tucker make one of the best on-screen duos we’ve seen in a while thanks to their glowing chemistry.
The two end up going rogue after getting kicked off the original mission and find themselves in some serious trouble. Tucker provides all the comedy you’ll need, and Chan brings the kicks, punches, and backflips that will make any fan content. One of the most memorable scenes is when Chan fights off a group of bad guys while scaling a building under construction.
The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter
The 1983 Lau Kar-Leung directed movie The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter is a gem in the martial arts film world. There’s a sad back story to this one involving Alexander Fu. The actor died in a car crash before they were done shooting the movie, so the script had to be re-written and left him out of the final showdown which wasn’t the original plan.
Still, the movie is superb. A mix of strong characters and excellent directing make this film one you need to add to your must-watch list.
Enter The Dragon
Did you think we weren’t going to include this classic? We would’ve failed everyone who enjoys these films if Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon didn’t make this list. Released six days after Lee’s death, the movie left no doubts that he was the master of martial arts movies.
Enter the Dragon was the first film in the genre to receive production from a major Hollywood studio, and we have Lee to thank for that. The stacked cast of Lee, Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, and Sammo Hung make this a delightful watch from start to finish.
Police Story was Jackie Chan’s second attempt at an American martial arts movie and it definitely paid off. In this action-packed film, Chan plays a disgraced cop that has to go undercover to clear his name. Naturally, an undercover Jackie Chan means a lot of bad-guy-butt was kicked.
If you’re questioning Police Story‘s legitimacy, Chan actually said it was one of his favorite films. That means it should be one of your favorites too.
Once Upon A Time In China
Before Jet Li was one of the highest-billed martial arts actors, he was just trying to get his foot in the door in Hollywood. Once Upon A Time In China marks the moment when his star began to rise. In the film, Li stars as the Chinese mythical hero Wong Fei-hung.
The choreography in Once Upon A Time In China is unmatched. Not only does Li use his fists and feet, but he manages to use a single bullet (without a gun) to wreak havoc. If that doesn’t entice you, we don’t know what could.
Filmed way back in 1967, you won’t get the over-the-top special effects or gore that you can find in a modern martial arts movie. Still, One-Armed Swordsman is on this list because it introduced us to the martial arts anti-hero.
Until the 1967 film, all martial arts characters came in to save the day. With Jimmy Wang as the complicated and curious Fang Kang, it showed the genre that an evil martial arts master is just as enticing.
Before Keanu Reeves reinvented the revenge genre in John Wick, Hero served as the ultimate grudge-driven drama. Jet Li stars as a nameless soldier seeking revenge for a royal assassination. It’s actually based on a real-life story of King Ke’s assassination attempt on the King of Qin way back in 227 BCE.
When the movie was filmed in 2002, it was the most expensive Chinese movie ever made with a budget of a whopping $35 million.
Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior
Directed by Prachya Pinkaew, Ong-Bak was the breakout martial arts role for Tony Jaa. The film introduced the international audience to the traditional muay Thai fighting style. The style focuses on kickboxing and it known for “violent strikes” with fists, feet, elbows, and knees.
Ong-Bak is worth a watch simply because it introduces the viewer to an entirely new fighting style. You’ll be clenching your jaw after watching the choreography in this martial arts film.
Okay, so maybe it’s not a classic martial arts movie, but Shanghai Noon was one of the films that brought martial arts to a wider audience. The film is supposed to be a juxtaposition between western and kung-fu movies. Jackie Chan’s character Chon Wang is even supposed to be a homophone for John Wayne.
Owen Wilson isn’t who you’d expect to love in a martial arts film but it was still rated 79% fresh by Rotten Tomatoes.
After decades of hard work by stars like Bruce Lee and Jet Li, martial arts final made it to the mainstream. It was most evident with the 1999 film The Matrix. People have debated for years if the film is truly a “martial arts movie” but one thing is for sure: it was seriously influenced by the style.
The Matrix introduced polished, cleverly choreographed fight scenes into the mainstream and gave audiences a desire for more.
Legend Of The Fox
What is most unique about Legend of the Fox is how strictly is follows the traditional rules of martial arts. Even in an entirely fabricated plot filled with heroes and villains, director Chang Cheh made sure the characters follow the “brotherhood” rule that is supposed to exist between all martial artists.
Cheh made 18 martial arts movies in his time but Legend of the Fox stands out for its intricate scenes and impressive weapon action.
Three Evil Masters
Three Evil Masters stars the legendary martial artist Chen Kuan-tai, but it’s also the introduction of Yuen Tak. Tak plays a kung fu student who learns from Kuan-tai. Three Evil Masters features sharp fighting movies and a legendary battle between Tak and the movie’s villain.
Tak actually studied alongside Jackie Chan and was considered one of the best at kung fu. Anyone who trains alongside the legendary Jackie Chan is worth a watch.
The Shaolin Temple
Based on a semi-true story, The Shaolin Temple is best remembered for being Jet Li’s debut role. Even though his name was misspelled in the credits as “Jet Lee,” it showcased an incredible talent.
The movie became on of the biggest blockbusters in China’s history with an estimated 300 million people going to see it. They tried to remake the film in 2011 with Jackie Chan but it doesn’t hold up the same way the original does.
Even though Jet Li is best known for his other famous roles, critics have widely agreed that Li showcases his best fighting skills in Tai-Chi Master. The 1993 film wasn’t the biggest blockbuster but it includes some incredible fighting by both Li and Michelle Yeoh.
Unfortunately, in 1993, martial arts films hadn’t been resurrected to the mainstream yet so it’s been forgotten. If it was released a few years earlier or later, it would probably be one of the most popular.
Duel To The Death
Set in the 16th century during the Ming Dynasty, Duel to the Death depicts the ancient tradition that every ten years, the top swordsmen engage in a duel to see who comes out on top. The 1983 film stars Norman Chu and Damian Lau as adversaries.
Duel to the Death is one of the first martial arts films to come closer to supernatural fighting skills. The final battle is almost entirely gravity-defying and awe-inspiring.
The Big Boss
Also known as Fists of Fury, this 1971 martial arts epic was Bruce Lee’s first major film. Not to be confused with the singular Fist of Fury that he starred in 1972, The Big Boss follows Lee’s character as an adopted man who stumbles onto a dangerous drug ring.
A young Bruce Lee wasn’t actually supposed to get the role in this film but when directors changed before production began, the starting lineup did too which gave Lee a chance.
Drunken Master II
Sequels are rarely better than the original, but Drunken Master II manages to surpass the 1978 movie in every way. For the sequel, Jackie Chan reprised his role as the legendary Huang Fei-hung. In Drunken Master II, Chan takes on a smuggling ring that is trying to sell precious Chinese artifacts to the British.
The final battle features some of Chan’s best action scenes and even includes a spear v. sword fight that has gone down in history.
Five Fingers Of Death
Film buffs have claimed that it was Enter the Dragon that kicked off the martial arts craze in America, but if you look closely it was actually Five Fingers of Death. The 1972 film was an unexpected hit and was seen as “mysterious and aloof.”
Even if you’ve never seen Five Fingers of Death, you’d recognize all its influence in later movies. Kill Bill even borrowed its recognizable battle music for its major fight scene.
Kung Fu Hustle
This 2004 comedy might be lighthearted but it is a certified top martial arts film. Starring, produced by, and written by Stephen Chow, Kung Fu Hustle has a 90% certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and grossed $102 million worldwide.
Even though the film has modern effects and fight sequences, it pays tributes to those to paved the way. The film features cameos by 1970s martial arts actors and uses traditional Chinese music during the cartoon moments.
This 1993 martial arts film isn’t just one of the top in the genre, but of all time. It holds a 90% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and Empire ranked it #99 in the Top 100 Best Films of World Cinema.
The high ratings is all thanks to a stellar performance by Donnie Yen. He plays the masked martial artist Iron Monkey, who is actually a traditional Chinese medicine man. The Iron Monkey is said to have inspired traditional Chinese hero Wong Fei-hung.
Of course, we couldn’t have a top martial arts movie list without mentioning one of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s best movies. Bloodsport was one of Van Damme’s first films and showed off his impressive martial arts abilities. While it wasn’t super popular at the time, it’s now a cult classic.
Yes, the movie is cliche and has some pretty bad acting, but it features some incredible fight scenes that are totally worth the other painful scenes.
The Forbidden Kingdom
Two legends came together on screen with The Forbidden Kingdom. Starring both Jackie Chan and Jet Li, this 2006 film is loosely based on the novel “Journey to the West.”
While it was criticized for having too many visual and CGI effects, you can’t deny that seeing Chan and Li on screen together is nothing short of magical. The action-packed choreography and chemistry between the two it what made The Forbidden Kingdom such a commercial success.
Ip Man 2
Yet another sequel that can compare with the original, Ip Man 2 features another stellar performance from Donnie Yen. The sequel picks up where the original left off and follows Ip Man, the master of the Wing Chun fighting style (and teacher of real-life Bruce Lee).
The filmmakers stated that the original Ip Man was about “survival” and the sequel was about “living.” Their change in direction paid off the Ip Man 2 was a huge box office and critical success.