When most people think of martial arts movies, they think of Bruce Lee noises and badly dubbed dialogue. People don’t realize the genre has so much more to offer. These film makers are masters at showcasing beauty in movement. From a story perspective, the characters and themes are often completely fresh and unfamiliar to western audiences. Good martial arts movies have a mystique and grace about them that set them apart from all other action movies.
If I had to guess, I’d say half of these movies you’ll have heard of, and about half you probably haven’t. But these are, in my opinion, far and away the best the genre has to offer and each one deserves a watch.
The Legend of Drunken Master (1994)
The fighting style this movie showcases is, in my opinion, one of the most visually interesting and entertaining things that has ever been put into a film. The fringe kung fu style of drunken boxing is built on lack of balance, lack of focus, looseness, and unpredictability. Jackie Chan’s sense of humor turns it into its own unique form of slapstick as well. This movie is totally lacking in the plot category, but it’s more than worth watching for the unique fight scenes alone.
By the Sword (1991)
While it may not technically be a martial arts movie, By the Sword more than fits the bill in spirit. Highly underrated and not well known at all, this is one of the only fencing movies ever made. The movie centers around my favorite martial arts movie archetype of all time: the mysterious old master. Thematically, it’s very much a martial arts movie, dealing with ideas of how strength can both corrupt and heal. This movie got so little attention, I don’t even know if it came out on anything besides VHS, but aside from a very forced romantic subplot, it’s a great story and I highly recommend it.
Without a doubt, one of the genre’s best and most heartfelt storylines. The movie is about a highly damaged individual and his first acquaintance with life outside of the crime underworld in which he was raised. Needless to say, the fight scenes are extraordinary. The film seamlessly weaves storytelling with action. The role of Danny was made for Jet Li, and is probably the height of his acting career.
The Duel (2000)
I don’t even know what to say. I got nothing. Too weird. Too hilarious. Totally over the top. The main character is ridiculous. The love story is stupid and makes no sense. But the movie is actually also… good? I love when stories succeed in goals that are seemingly mutually exclusive and somehow this little adventure story manages to be both epic and dumb at the same time. Go figure. Watch it. Or don’t? Because it’s weird? Probably watch it. Yeah, probably watch it.
The Karate Kid (2010)
As a huge fan of the originals and as a someone who has shaken the hand of the actual Mr Miyagi (true story: totally randomly met Pat Morita in a mall once), I was more than skeptical when they announced this remake, but I can say with 100% conviction that this version is better than the original. It does away with that cheesy, aged, 1980s vibe and leaves the heart of what has always been a powerful story of personal empowerment. In classic wax-on-wax-off fashion, the movie takes the viewer on a journey from an immature outlook on martial arts to a mature one. Jackie Chan is surprisingly subtle in his role as the Mr Miyagi character. To anyone who loved the original, this is a must see.
The Last Samurai (2003)
If you want an insight into what Japanese martial arts really means to its practitioners, there is no better movie. This story demonstrates the beauty of Japanese culture in a way no other movie I’ve seen has accomplished. The viewer is immersed in the lifestyle of a martial artist and learns how profoundly it can impact a whole life philosophy. With an engaging plotline about a fascinating time period and characters that are well designed and well acted, the Last Samurai goes above and beyond in every category.
The Grandmaster (2013)
A quietly brilliant movie, this story is an excellent romanticization of the impression martial arts left behind on Chinese culture. While most movies that try to do this overstate and exaggerate, watching the Grandmaster feels like stepping into the world where all the stories take place and just being left alone to observe. As if it’s not there for you, but for itself. It explores the culture that surrounds different martial arts styles and the pride and respect practitioners held for these traditions. The movie is visually breathtaking, and the careful, subdued characterization is masterful.
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000)
This movie is the quintessential martial arts adventure epic. From the mystique of the Green Destiny, the main character’s legendary sword, to the fight scenes that take place across moonlit rooftops, the story brings out the best in the iconic tropes of Chinese cinema without letting them feeling like tropes. The contentious struggle between the precocious student and the veteran master, the mythos of old rivalries, and even the love story all come off as honest and real in a way that feels timeless. Simply put, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is the Lord of the Rings of the martial arts genre.
Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003)
Tarantino is a master of emotionally gripping scenes. The stories he tells are unique and the ways he chooses to tell them are always so spot that they often feel perfect. Kill Bill is an homage that breathes life back into old cliches and makes martial arts exciting in a way other martial arts movies don’t. Everything feels somehow both classic and fresh. The heroine is a total badass, the fight scenes are top notch, and as a revenge story, it’s completely and utterly cathartic. (Note: Only Volume 1 makes it to my top ten list as a martial arts movie specifically. Volume 2 is still excellent in its own right.)
Hero might very well be my favorite movie of all time. Not just in the martial arts genre, but overall.
Visually, it has no equal. The colors and movement transcend good cinematography to the point that countless stills of the movie could be sold alone as art. Thematically, the movie explores the fundamental way a craft changes the nature of the craftsman, and does so in a way that is both deep and meaningful. All of this takes place two thousand years ago against the backdrop the most momentous time of Chinese history. This movie is powerful. It’s on a different level than the others on this list.
What makes martial arts genre so special is that it deals with such different building blocks than so many other genres out there. The themes are different, the cast of characters is different, even the very goals of the movies themselves often share nothing with those of other genres.
Martial arts movies can be about exploring a culture or showcasing physical prowess. So often, this leads to radically unique stories. Granted, as someone who has seen almost every Jackie Chan and Jet Li film, I’ll be the first to tell you that the average martial arts movie is pretty awful. But it makes me sad when that reputation prevents people from being exposed to the truly great titles in the genre.
If you’ve enjoyed martial arts movies in the past or even if you just like a good fight scene between cool badass characters, I highly recommend you give some of these a try.
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