Few things are as enjoyable and adrenalizing as martial arts films, whatever their make and model. Sometimes, plot is a necessity for stringing together cool fights. Sometimes, it’s as much of a pleasure as the cool fights. There’s nothing wrong with coasting along in anticipation of the next round of beatings, but the best martial arts movies each fall under the second category, where story and suspense meet sterling choreography. Need an idea of what that looks like? Here are our picks for the 20 best martial arts movies every guy should see.
The fight scenes in Ip Man are so devastatingly awesome, you’ll want to start training in Wing Chun as soon as the credits roll. Bruce Lee’s mentor, as played by martial arts great Donnie Yen, is kind and soft-spoken. He’s also fully capable of dismantling a man with his bare hands if he’s given a reason. What makes Ip Man especially interesting as a martial arts movie is the combination of top-tier fight scenes and an historical lens that shows us what life was like in 1930’s Southern China. Plus, you figure the dude who trained Bruce Lee must be decent, right?
The first thing you’ll notice about the martial arts movie Hero is the sheer beauty of Zhang Yimou’s direction – not just in the fight scenes, choreographed by Cai Li, Wei Tung, and Jack Wai-Leung, but the painterly aesthetic. It’s a stunning movie. In fact, it’s the only time we can recall watching a hailstorm of arrows loosed at someone’s cranium and thinking, “Gosh, that sure is pretty!” instead of “Welp, that guy’s a goner.” Yimou is a master as demonstrated through his whole career, but Hero is a standout among even classics like Raise the Red Lantern.
Enter the Dragon
Apart from Game of Death, technically completed but only through the use of actual cardboard cutouts and footage of Bruce Lee’s actual funeral, there’s no movie in his filmography that couldn’t be justified for inclusion here. But Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee’s last complete martial arts movie movie prior to his death in 1973, is easily argued as the best chapter in a life cut too short. The film embodies Lee’s life philosophy better than the rest, and the fight sequences remain the stuff of legend coming up on 50 years after its release.
Some of the kicks in Ong-Bak land so hard that you’ll check your own jaw to make sure it’s still intact. Tony Jaa has a way of using his whole body like a fulcrum and striking with enough force to shatter his audience’s jaws. The film, which on release gave Muay Thai a showcase on an international stage, remains one of Jaa’s standout projects, and in 2003 marked him as a bright new star in martial arts movies.
Brotherhood of the Wolf
“French film” tends to conjure thoughts of passionate romance and avant garde pictures that fiddle with our expectations of what “film” can be. (Also: Baguettes.) “Martial arts” likely doesn’t come immediately to mind. Brotherhood of the Wolf isn’t a straight-up martial arts movie, but it isn’t a straight-up any kind of movie, so who cares? If you’ve yet to see it, trust us: It’s like nothing you’ve seen before, combining weird French history, cool practical FX, Mark Dacascos’ finest hour, and the one-two punch of Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel, a pair of unreasonably attractive actors anchoring Christophe Gans’ genre elements with their hotness.
The scheming and strategy, the David versus Goliath theme, and the kickass battles make 13 Assassins a treat for samurai fans, for Takashi Miike fans, and hell, for movie fans in general. There’s a grand scope here buttressing the film’s action scenes, plus enough of Miike’s personality as a provocateur to distinguish his take on the material from Eiichi Kudo’s original 1963 interpretation of Japanese history. 13 Assassins is loosely – very, very loosely – based on real events, but this isn’t all that important given the extraordinary payoff to Miike’s buildup in what has to be considered one of the best martial arts movies around.
The Man From Nowhere
At times, it’s challenging to determine what is and what isn’t a “real” martial arts movie. What do you do when most of the action involves gun fights, but complements them with martial arts? The Man from Nowhere walks that fine line, but we put it on this list for two good reasons: 1) It’s ridiculously awesome, and 2) The fight scene with the eyeball in a jar. That’s all we’ll say.
Kung Fu Hustle
The best martial arts movies don’t always have to be dead serious. Frankly, they don’t have to be serious at all. (See: Jackie Chan. More later.) Rather than a Bruce Lee biopic, Kung Fu Hustle is Stephen Chow’s personal wish fulfillment project, an opportunity to play his version of a Lee character through his own filmmaking lens. It’s absurd. It’s hilarious. At times its violence is shocking. Ultimately, though, it’s touching. Kung Fu Hustle’s combination of emotion, sharp action, and love of martial arts cinema is irresistible, to say nothing of Chow’s charms as a star.
Once Upon a Time in China
The first entry in Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series served, in 1991, as Jet Li’s introduction to the world, and still serves that purpose today. There’s a reason the martial arts movie and Li endure. Clocking in at about 134 minutes, Once Upon a Time in China requires not only exemplary skill from its star, but dramatic chops to hold the story together between bouts. Li more than manages. He shines.
Kill Bill Vol. 1
How much you like Kill Bill Vol. 1 versus other films on this list depends on whether you like fatty steaks more than cheeseburgers. If you prefer your beef on a bun, Kill Bill Vol. 1 is your movie. Quentin Tarantino’s filmmaking and granular attention to details is always impressive, even when he isn’t at his best, and his knack for casting rivals his skills as a screenwriter. The film may be more memorable for Uma Thurman than for Tarantino, or even David Carradine as the charismatic, smooth-talking, avuncular Bill. Either way, it goes down as one of the best martial arts movies.
Think of Iron Monkey as Robin Hood without the tights. An unknown hero steals from the rich, except when thugs get in his way, he beats their asses with his fists instead of his bow and arrows. This is a bit reductive, but that basic dynamic supplies Iron Monkey with its narrative framework. Iron Monkey is directed by Yuen Woo-Ping, the man who’s responsible for the fights in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as well as The Matrix, and once again stars Donnie Yen, who frankly appears in so many of the best martial arts movies that you could probably knock out a whole list made up entirely of Yen movies.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Speaking of Yuen and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Here’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a martial arts movie who’s prestige is well-warranted. Ang Lee doesn’t bother making movies that are anything less than visually stunning, and the fairy tale element here lets him reach peaks most of his other movies can’t by virtue of their genre. Case in point: Tree fighting.
The Legend of Drunken Master
Like Bruce Lee, virtually anything Jackie Chan has done in his life qualifies for inclusion on this list (assuming you add a proscription against a swath of the movies he’s made in the U.S.). The Police Story films work; they show him in peak form as the combination of martial artist and silent film comedian that he strives to be. But The Legend of Drunken Master houses some of the most audacious and entertaining fights known to martial arts movies, and watching Chan act blotto is always a good time.
Among the Lees and Chans and Yens, it’s easy to overlook the Yeohs, the Cheungs, and the Rothrocks. So here’s Corey Yuen’s Yes, Madam, where Michelle Yeoh (pre-Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Cynthia Rothrock team up to track down a microfilm loaded with evidence of a criminal outfit’s many ill deeds. The final fight scene here should be considered the same stuff of legend as any of the best martial arts movies featuring the Lees, or the Chains, or the Yens.
The Raid: Redemption
From the country that brought us Matthew Rhys, rarebit, and an orthography written in too many digraphs comes Gareth Evans, an unfailingly gentlemanly type whose latent bloodlust inspired a niche of ultra-violent martial artistry through the 2010s. It is, and we don’t say this lightly, a miracle that no one’s died shooting an Evans picture. (Yet.) This applies more so to The Raid: Redemption’s sequel, but the sheer savagery of the fights in this movie still pack shock value almost 10 years since the worst distributor on Earth, Sony Pictures Classic unceremoniously dumped it in theaters in late March.
Come Drink With Me
Well, hey, why not drink with King Hu, Cheng Pei-pei, and Yueh Hua, if the invitation’s on the table? There’s an argument to be made for Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen, two of the great big-screen wuxia epics, but for our money Come Drink With Me doesn’t get enough love and rips just as hard. (It also measures out to half the latter’s running time and 20 minutes of the former’s. This isn’t a good approach to ranking or prioritizing movies, but not everyone can instantly carve out 3 hours even for a film as good as A Touch of Zen.) Come Drink With Me is the movie where Hu solidified his fight scene aesthetic as similar to that of dance. Each move hits hard, but there’s a grace and anti-realism to them that’s stuck around as a martial art standard for decades.
Another movie where we must ask: Does this count as a martial arts movie, or is it something else? Whatever it is, it really is something else. You know The Matrix. If you grew up in the 1990s, it’s one of the most significant pop cultural moments of its era, a watershed moment for blockbuster tentpoles that’s been copied and never replicated since hitting theaters and changing the movies as we know them.
Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword
If you happen to like Apple TV+’s post-apocalyptic series See, where the blind fight the blind, then do yourself a favor and check out the many Zatoichi movies streaming on the Criterion Channel. You won’t be disappointed. You especially won’t be disappointed if you start off with this one, which not only shows off Japanese icon Shintaro Katsu’s star power (the man’s comic timing is impeccable), but also features a chambara all-timer: A martial arts fight scene shot in the dark and lit by a candle balanced on Katsu’s shikomizue.
Don’t come between a mother and her kid. Especially don’t come between a mother and her kid if the mother was, at one point in her life, a merciless gangster, and if she can, at this point in her life, still turn your bones to powder with a flick of her wrist. Vietnamese director Lê Văn Kiệt’s Furie dropped in 2019 and was immediately overlooked by all but its core audience; this is a “shame,” but also a “crime,” because movies like Furie (read: martial arts movies starring women) don’t come along often even today, and Kiệt’s lead, Veronica Ngo, is genuinely tougher than many of her contemporaries to boot. Not only is a modern classic in the genre, it might just be one of the best martial arts movies around.
The Night Comes For Us
Remember Gareth Evans? The Night Comes For Us isn’t his movie; it’s the work of Timo Tjahjanto, an Indonesian filmmaker and utter madman who has collaborated with Evans here and there throughout his career (most famously on “Safe Haven,” their contribution to the 2013 horror omnibus V/H/S/2). But The Night Comes For Us belongs to the same family as the Raid films, and even features two of that film’s stars – Iko Uwais and Joe Taslim, whose Mortal Kombat ‘21 co-stars uniformly cited as “too fast” for the camera – in lead roles. Tjahjanto ups the ante on Evans in terms of brutality; the martial arts fights are stellar, but they’re gory on a grindhouse slasher level, too. This is a feature, not a bug.