August 22, 2011

10 best martial arts movies – ever!

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Written by: Ben Heys
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Ok so this is going to be a well subjective opinion. In fact this was a hard post to put together as I’m a massive fan of martial arts movies so narrowing this list down to the “best” 10 was a very hard thing to do. One thing that’s happened in the end that I didn’t expect was that the final results have only two Jackie Chan movies in the list but 3 from Jet Li. This isn’t reflective of any sort of preference for Jet over Jackie, in fact if anything the opposite is true, however in the interests of a fair and well rounded list I tried to include movies of different time periods and styles and the most well rounded list I could come up with just seemed to come out this way.

I actually think that overall the very best martial arts movies of all time were generally shot by Jackie Chan in his prime (the late 80′s and the early 90′s) – this was a unique period in time where technical effects were not overly used, all stunts were done with sweat, pain and broken bones and a child was pretty much physically and mentally abused (Jackie) to the point that would not be tolerated today but it produced a martial arts star that went so far beyond the limits for his art that fight scenes were made with a (type of) realism and grit that we’ll probably never see again. If you want to see some inspiring fight scenes and some stunts that caused some casualties then check out this period of movies from the master – Jackie.

However, in the interests of a well rounded list from various artists, styles and time periods this is the list that I’ve put together, all thumbs of the movies link to their entry on amazon:

hero movie dvd cover

# 10 Hero

Starring Jet Li, Hero is a movie I had to include for both the story and the cinematography. I am not only a martial artist but a photographer and as a photographer the artist inside of me fully appreciates the care and effort that was put into making this movie extraordinarily beautiful. Every different scene in the movie has it’s own colour scheme that reflects the emotion of the scene, for instance the passionate act is all red tones. You could freeze frame almost any instant of this movie and have a technically azmazing photograph, which makes the total movie an artistic feat almost without equal. It doesn’t hurt that we have the amazing Jet Li and one of the most beautiful women in the world, Zhang Zi Yi performing in this masterpiece.

Equilibrium - martial arts movie cover

# 9 Equilibrium

Starring Christian Bale. Ok so he’s not your regular Asian Kung Fu star, and to be honest I found the whole gun kata thing in this movie to be a touch lame. However it is also a very artistically put together flick and Christian Bale does pull off some martial art type moves that Keanu Keeves could only salavate over. Equilibrium is strongly based after the classic novel 1984 by George Orwell. It’s a story about personal power and the desire for freedom beating a totalitarian society ruled by a government that wields absolute power. Better than and similar to The Matrix in many facets it unfortunately never received the acclaim it should have.

Kiss of the dragon by Jet Li, movie cover

# 8 Kiss of the dragon

Kiss of the dragon is I believe Jet Li’s most realistic effort ever. It is much closer to a moderish Jackie Chan movie with brutal fight scenes that don’t rely overly heavily on wires and special effects, just short sharp speed and effective techniques. If I have a problem with Jet Li movies on the whole it’s that they rely too much on mystical type of “Kung fu” that has performers flying through the air and performing supernatural style martial arts maneuvers. This movie takes a well appreciated step aside from that and paints Jet as more than just a wushu performer and more like a brutal, effective real martial artist. It’s similar to Jackie Chan in his prime except perhaps without the comedy (in some ways a positive) and without the fully filmed dangerous stunts (about the only negative you can come up with for this movie).

Ip man - Donnie Yen movie cover

# 7 Ip Man

Ip Man holds a special place for me seeing as my own base martial art is Wing Chun and this movie not only pays homage to the quintessential Wing Chun grandmaster Yip (or Ip) Man but also remains very true to the art of Wing Chun. Which is something that not many Wing Chun films manage to do. Wing Chun is an art that is all about short sharp movements and getting in close to be effective, it isn’t about spinning or high kicks, it isn’t about leaping through the air or doing any of the other theatrically amazing looking stunts that pervade martial arts movies. Wing Chun certainly has a beauty all it’s own, but it’s not a flashy beauty. Instead it’s a beauty that’s all about raw power and uncompromising efficiency. This is about the only Wing Chung movie that remains even partially true to the art and actually does well at portraying complicated and amazing looking fight scenes. Not to be missed by any Wing Chun (or Bruce Lee) fan.

Police story - Jackie Chan movie cover

#6 Police Story

This was Jackie Chan in his prime. Lots of painful stunts, lots of realistic fight scenes. Now when I say realistic what I mean is that Jackie doesn’t stand there while attackers surround him and come into attack one at a time. The fight scenes are fluid, with Jackie running as hard as he can to get away from his attackers having to stop when he can to deal with the one or two that have kept up with him, he gets hit, he gets hurt, but he keeps going until he’s the last one standing. He doesn’t do the “magical kung fu master” thing were he’s too quick to get hit by anyone, what he does do is stunts and fight tactics that are intelligent and the closest thing to realistic you are going to get in any martial arts movie.

The Transporter, Jason Stratham martial arts movie cover

# 5 The Transporter

It’s not often I’ll put a white boy in with the greatest martial arts movies ever but I’ve done it twice here. First with Christian Bale and secondly with Jason Stratham here. If anything Stratham is even more deserving of the title than Bale as Jason is obviously more fit and more of a martial artist than Bale. This movie is infact the closest thing that you will get to a Hong Kong Kung Fu movie starring a white boy. Not surprising considering Stratham was an olympic gymnast before he became a movie star so he has a true athletic background and the fight choreographer and partial director was none other than Yuen Woo Ping/Corey Yuen, Kug fu brother to Jackie Chan and responisble for probably 60% of the successful martial arts movies these days. Full of action packed car chase scenes and amazing stunts this is another movie that doesn’t rely on cgi but rather old fashioned physical stunts and fantastic agility.

Blade - Wesley Snipes martial arts movie cover

# 4 Blade

Starring Wesley Snipes Blade is a futuristic view into the vampire world that isn’t at all of the variety of Twilight and similar films. Blade is a no holed barred action movie through and through. Wesley Snipes demonstrates a very brutal and effective looking martial arts style that doesn’t immediately betray his heritage as a Capoerira stylist. It was a toss up whether to throw this movie in the list or the sequal, Blade 2, as the second one shows if anything even a more effective and brutal fighting style that shows a lot of elements of Wing Chun. However the original just seems to flow a little better and be a better movie overall than the sequel and as everyone knows originals are pretty much always better than their sequels and so I chose to go with this one. If you enjoy this movie then make sure you also check out the sequel, Blade 2, just don’t bother with the third one unless you can get it for free…it’s a load of rubbish…

Once Upon a time in China - Jet Li movie cover

#3 Once upon a time in China

Starring Jet Li Once upon a time in China is a classic last century martial arts movie with a difference. The difference is that it is closer to reality than many similar martial arts flicks. Jet Li plays Wong Fei Hong in this movie, the most portrayed Chinese martial arts personage in history, he is so often portrayed that he even has his own theme song! (the character, not the actor), the music that you hear in the beginning and end credits and also in some parts of the movie can also be heard in other Wong Fei Hong movies through the last century, including when Jackie Chan plays him in his Drunken Master movies (the second one being a close inclusion to this list). Wong Fei Hong as legend goes was a master of not only martial arts but also healing, he was a real life scholar warrior and Hero to the people. This movie is his greatest ever tribute and a classic in all senses of the word. It is what “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” tries to be and something any fan of martial arts movies needs to see…no questions asked.

Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee movie cover

#2 Enter the Dragon

Starring Bruce Lee this is a movie that any martial arts fan should know on sight. Bruce Lee was the man that turned Kung Fu mainstream, he brought it to the United States and therefore to the world. He was also much more than just a movie star, he was a REAL martial artist. And this movie was his masterpiece, his Pièce de résistance. Enter the dragon was perhaps the first film that truly tried to portray Kung Fu as something more than just ninjas who jumped out of trees and magically attacked from underneath the ground. In making Enter the Dragon Bruce Lee forged new ground and single handedly started an entire new genre, that of the (more or less) realistic martial arts movie. It is also the first time a Chinese actor ever sat center stage in a popular film, before this Chinese were always relegated to the comic sidepiece. Philosophically Bruce Lee might have just regurgitated a bunch of old taoist sayings but he did so in such a way that (at least some) western audiences could relate to and he is in a large way responsible for the proliferation of Chinese and Eastern thought concepts spreading throughout the West. This movie is a triumph of so many levels it simply cannot be ignored on this list. In most such lists it actually sits at number one position, the only reason why it cant here is because of the sheer quality of number one:

Project A - Jackie Chan movie cover

#1 Project A

Starring Jackie Chan for my money Project A is the absolute best martial arts movie of all time. I said before that the very best time sliver ever for the making of true martial art classics was the late 80′s and the early 90′s of Jackie Chan’s career and this movie is the best result of that sweet spot in history. First of all this movie features not only Jackie Chan but also Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung, both Kung Fu brothers of Jackie who grew up with him. It is quite simply a trill ride from start to finish of amazing, realistic fight scenes, spectacular stunts (including one that took Jackie a week of attempting before he could summon up the courage to follow through with it), a decent story and some off beat humor (some would say Jackie’s speciality). There are very few moments in this film that go by without either a laugh, a wince or a moment where you punch the air in triumph at the amazing feats performed by Jackie and his crew. If every martial arts movie was this good there would be no reason for anyone anywhere to make any other type of movie – ever. If you haven’t seen Project A then you seriously need to…this is not a subjective matter but absolute fact!

So there you have it. I was actually intending to post some “honorable mentions” at the bottom of this post with reasons why they were great along with reasons as to why they weren’t included in the main list, including such titles as: The Matrix, Drunken Master 2, Wing Chun, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon et al. But this post is already long enough so I might throw them into a following post. Thanks for reading and any opinions you have will be appreciated, I’m sure lots will disagree with me so feel free to “correct” me in the comments ;)



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  1. Chris

    Thanks for the recommendations! There’s a few movies here that I’ve now put on my “must see” list thank to you :)

    I’ve always loved Jackie Chan but now after reading this I have much more appreciation.

    • Ben Heys

      Thanks Chris & yeah, you should try reading Jackie’s autobiography (co-written) “I am Jackie Chan” it will really open your eyes on what he went through to become what he has!

  2. Fantastic site. Plenty of helpful information here. I am sending it to a few friends ans additionally sharing in delicious. And of course, thanks on your effort!

  3. Leroy Gogan

    Another key delineation of unarmed martial arts is the use of power and strength-based techniques (as found in boxing, kickboxing, karate, taekwondo and so on) vs. techniques that almost exclusively use the opponent’s own energy/balance against them (as in T’ai chi ch’uan, aikido, hapkido and aiki jiu jitsu and similar). Another way to view this division is to consider the differences between arts where Power and Speed are the main keys to success vs. arts that rely to a much greater extent on correct body-mechanics and the balance of the practitioners energy with that of the opponent…:..”

    My current blog site

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