Martial arts are fighting systems that use specific sets of traditions and rules to teach, among their many practical uses, fighting for the purpose of self-defense. Different sets of rules or traditions make up different styles, and there are different fighting systems that originate from all over the world (kung fu or "wushu" describes systems developed specifically in China).
Martial arts films have been around for some time, though they arguably hit their peak in the 70s with an economic boom in Hong Kong cinema. The popularity of these types of films has risen and fallen over the years, but when a martial arts film is good, it transcends those peaks and valleys. If somebody wants to try and dip their toe into the genre but doesn’t know where to start, it can be hard to figure out what movies are the ones worth seeing. So, for those who are interested in finding some fun martial arts movies to watch, below is a list of some great ones to start with.
THE LEGEND OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER
A sequel to the movie Drunken Master that came out 10 years before and starring the insanely famous martial artist Jackie Chan, The Legend of the Drunken Master is not only one of the best martial arts films but is also one of the best action movies of all time. The Legend of the Drunken Master follows Wong Fei-hung as he learns of a plot to smuggle sacred Chinese artifacts to Britain.
Most Jackie Chan movies are a charming combination of action and comedy, with one aspect never being sacrificed in service of the other, and the two frequently working in tandem to elevate moments. The fight scenes are always fast and frantic, and the combination of dodges, blocks, and strikes come across like a complicated dance at times. Oftentimes the movies will pit Jackie Chan against large groups of enemies, barely scraping by with his wits and prowess, and usually trying to avoid the fight at whatever costs until the moment he absolutely has to defend himself. His movies usually feature him utilizing his martial arts training for things other than fighting, like doing odd jobs or even getting around (in many of his films he was doing parkour before it was given that name). He’ll also make frequent use of props and the environment around him to dispatch his foes. Nothing is deadlier than Jackie Chan with a ladder, a bucket, or your hat.
It’s hard to overstate how good the action sequences in Legend of the Drunken Master are. The action is incredibly fluid and well-shot, and the stunt work is top-notch. In the movie's signature fights, they have the progression of Wong fighting his enemies sober, finding some way to booze up, then doing an even better job fighting them while blitzed drunk and loosey-goosey, employing the techniques of drunken boxing. On top of the action being phenomenal, the movie is hilarious. Watching the balancing act Wong’s stepmother plays of being a model wife while also encouraging the behavior of Wong’s that draws his father's ire is always a treat. Jackie Chan, as always, really sacrificed for this movie since he had a penchant for doing all of his own stunts, and viewers are given a taste during the painful blooper reel during the credits. Yes, he actually did crawl across hot coals multiple times to get that one shot.
Ip Man is a historical drama about the life of Ip Man, a martial artist grandmaster of the Wing Chun fighting style. Wing Chun's technique is one of redirecting an opponent’s momentum and was originally taught only to women as a form of self-defense. As a result, other martial arts grandmasters regarded it as a lesser fighting style since it was considered feminine, but Ip Man knew that it was a valid style no matter who employed it. The movie follows this arc for a while and it’s all very fun until everyone’s lives are interrupted by the Second Sino-Japanese War as Japanese soldiers invade, and the story becomes about Ip Man’s struggles to keep himself and his family alive.
Donnie Yen is a practitioner of several styles of martial arts. The films he’s in will usually have fights that are a furious flurry of blows. He’ll usually follow up a punch to the head with several more hits in quick succession while the opponent is still realizing they were hit the first time. His fight scenes are frequently brutal and more realistic than what is standard fare, though people will still take more punches to the head than they would be able to in real life. His characters are generally not afraid to really do damage. If a Donnie Yen character wants to break all of the bones in an opponent’s body, that enemy will be in a full-body cast by the end of the day.
The movie features absolutely phenomenal fight scenes that each hit different ranges of emotions and motivations. There’s a friendly spar, a fight for honor and dignity, and a fight where Ip Man is full of anger and bloodlust, among other great fight scenes. No two fights hit the same emotional beat, though they do employ callbacks. The fight scenes are well-choreographed and a lot of fun to watch, containing enjoyable interludes and catharsis attached to each one that makes them worth repeat viewings even after they've just ended. The movie is well-written, and Ip Man is cool as a cucumber (most of the time) while still coming across as a protagonist the viewer genuinely wants to see emerge from the events of the film victorious, especially considering it’s a true story.
ENTER THE DRAGON
Martial arts films ride heavily on the caliber of the headline martial artist, and Bruce Lee is a legend. Enter the Dragon may be his best movie. The movie has been so influential that it’s likely anybody reading this article has experienced countless media that have either referenced this movie are taken direct inspiration from it. In it, Bruce Lee, a skilled Shaolin martial artist, is sent by an intelligence agency to participate in a fighting tournament on a private island to uncover evidence of nefarious activities being perpetrated by the owner, a former Shaolin monk.
Bruce Lee founded the “fighting system” of Jeet Kune Do, which is more of a guiding philosophy than a style as it has no specific stances, attacks, or defenses. Lee considered formalized techniques and katas (a choreographed showcase of a style’s techniques) to be a hindrance to any practical uses of martial arts in real combat situations. In his films, Lee’s moves are generally no-nonsense, devastating opponents with singular direct attacks, using little movement and fanfare. His method is more reactive, uses an opponent's movements for his own benefit to maximize the effectiveness of an attack. Lee was, after all, a student of Ip Man's and trained in Wing Chun. Enemies will approach, and within seconds they will be on the ground with no intent on getting back up any time soon, if at all. In several scenes in Enter the Dragon, Lee’s character explains some of the ideas and philosophies that guide his techniques.
Part spy thriller, part martial arts film, Enter the Dragon has a plot that feels like a solid entry in the James Bond series. With three protagonists, there are plenty of character moments throughout the film that gives the heroes their own unique motivations, and the villains of the film are varied and distinct from one another, thus creating an ensemble of characters we get to follow as things progress. There’s a lot of great moments with Bruce Lee that really showcase his personality, like him looking bored as he watches a room of guards act predictably to a poisonous snake being thrown into the room. On top of all of that, the film itself has been regarded as allegorical, bringing a bit of extra flavor for people who enjoy subtext in their movies. Fight scenes are not as emphasized in this movie as Bruce Lee’s other movies, Enter the Dragon being more akin to a pulp spy film than as purely a martial arts movie as his others, but it’s a fantastic watch and definitely worth viewing for anybody who hasn’t seen it yet.
ONG BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR
Tony Jaa was a stuntman before becoming the lead in his own martial arts films, and it shows. In his films, the punches and kicks look like they actually hurt the actors, and Jaa performed his own stunts. Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior helped propel Jaa into international stardom, along with his movie The Protector, both of which feature some truly impressive action sequences. In Ong Bak, Tony Jaa’s character Ting sets out on a quest to recover the head of a Buddha statue that was stolen from his village. Thus follows a series of intense fights and chases as he gets involved with Thailand’s seedy criminal underworld.
Muay Thai boxing involves a lot of hard-hitting strikes using one’s shins, knees, fists, and elbows. Tony Jaa’s fight scenes are almost agonizing to watch at times as they don’t hold back on the brutality and lethality of life-or-death combat. His movies are full of shots of Jaa getting right up in an opponent's grill and hitting them with the force of a speeding semi-truck, expelling clouds of dust that are probably the remnants of their skull. His attacks are swift and powerful and, rather than dodge a chair, Jaa will usually steel himself and let it break on him, making him seem truly unstoppable. Tony Jaa is also known for some rather breathtaking stunts, showcasing his incredible acrobatics and strength without using any fancy CGI or wires.
Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior is gritty without feeling brooding, and full of intense moments. Tony Jaa spends a considerable amount of the movie flipping around people and obstacles and finishing fights by flying through the air to deliver devastating strikes with his knees and elbows (usually both at the same time). Many of the hits are sure to deliver a visceral reaction from viewers as the nameless goons are hit so hard that one can see the soul being ejected out of their body on impact. The film makes gratuitous use of slow-motion, but there’s honestly no better way to watch Tony Jaa backflip-kick, somebody, into the void.
THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN
The Shaw Brothers are the most prolific studio to make martial arts films ever. Just look at their credits. They have so many good films it’s hard to pick just one, but at the same time, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is almost an obvious choice, and not because of the fact that it’s been so heavily referenced by The Wu-Tang Clan. In it, a group of students joins a resistance effort against the oppressive Manchu government. When their efforts are discovered, the whole town is destroyed and everyone is killed, save for one student who escapes to the Shaolin temple where the monks are masters of kung fu but refuse to involve themselves in affairs outside of the monastery. After sneaking in, the student joins the monks, and the movie shows their journey to master Shaolin kung fu.
Shaw Brothers films run the gamut of types of fight scenes (seriously, they have made so many films). A lot of their films feature the archetypal martial arts movie plotline – the hero loses a fight against a strong opponent, they train to get better and then have a final confrontation with that fighter where the ultimate test of skill between the two occurs. Their movies are not afraid to shy away from downer endings, either. Several of their films feature the hero characters dying in their struggles, meaning the viewer never really knows for sure how things are going to play out. While the focus is generally on the kung fu in their movies, they manage to pack in character development so there's the feeling of actual stakes and people to root for.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of martial arts films is when the training is more metaphorical (yet applicable) than simply teaching the student how to punch better, and that makes up a lot of the meat of this film. This type of training usually exemplifies how many martial arts styles are more than just fighting, but about bettering oneself and improving skills for life in general. On top of being a fun movie with interesting philosophy sprinkled in throughout, the fighting choreography is slick and really well done. As well, this movie shows how good Shaw Brothers Studios were at filmmaking. Scene transitions are snappy and clever, and shots are smart in the visual information they give the viewer. Seeing a Shaolin master smile knowingly as the hero masters technique after technique is strangely satisfying, and even characters who are present for a scene or two are given enough personality or backstory that they are significantly interesting. Overall, it’s a really solid package, and despite most of it being a series of scenes of personal growth and training, it’s still a very watchable classic.