When it comes to talking about films with my friends I always find that Martial Arts movies are the least well known, particularly by more casual film goers. It sometimes feels as if people feel excluded by the genre; like the fact there are so many classics, cult favourites and unknown gems that it is difficult to know where to start.
What really surprises me is that almost everyone I know has seen and loves Enter The Dragon and yet have never really moved on to explore what else is available in this incredible genre. Whilst I admit that there are plenty of these films that have literally no storyline, terrible acting and mediocre choreography, there are also a wealth of films that offer an experience equal to the great Bruce Lee films; some even surpassing them.
So I thought I would provide a handy guide to the best modern martial arts movies. Why only modern films? Mainly because they are the most easily accessible either through online streaming services (Netflix, Lovefilm etc) or on Blu-ray.
So in no particular order here are what I consider to be the best Martial Arts movies of the last decade.
Dragon Tiger Gate
Adapted from a graphic novel of the same name this film tells the story of two brothers, raised and trained at the titular academy, but who now fight for rival clans. As the many clans, heroes and villains fight to attain a coveted sacred plaque, the brothers’ bond is tested and the fight soon becomes about the importance of family.
This is a great entry film into the genre, not only because of the incredible choreography of Donnie Yen (who will feature heavily in this list) but also because the story itself is engaging and carries a great emotional punch.
Probably the most critically acclaimed film on the list, 13 Assassins is a traditional samurai tale. Set in the 13th Century Japan it tells the tale of an evil general who rapes and kills at will and is bringing terror and death to the country. To stop him a band of 12 Samurai’s and a 13th team member set up an elaborate trap in a remote village to surround and kill the general and his forces.
Of course with this being a samurai film the emphasis is more on swordplay than hand to hand combat, but this leads to a monumental bloodbath as the samurai literally carve a path of vengeance on their way to destroying their enemy.
Directed by the great Takeshi Miike (Ichi the Killer, Zatoichi) this is a fantastically shot film that has some moments of genuine beauty amidst the blood soaked chaos.
The film that made Tony Jaa a Martial Arts star overnight. This is pure adrenaline fuelled excitement. It’s the kind of film that you put on to watch with a group of friends and collectively gasp your way through it as the star performs one incredible stunt after another.
As much as Ong Bak tries to make the most of its plot, there really isn’t anybody watching this film to get engaged in the story. This one is all about the unique fighting style, the ridiculously insane stunts and the sheer force Jaa seems to actually apply when kneeing people in the face!
The second Donnie Yen film on the list sees a retelling of the life story of one of China’s most revered icons. Ip Man was a Martial Arts grand master who, according to this film, faced down the Japanese invasion of China almost single handedly by fighting the Japanese war lords in an organised bout in Foshan Square. He is also famous for being the man who taught Bruce Lee!
This is a more relaxed film (if that’s possible in this genre), exploring the zen like state of Ip Man; his mastery of Wing Chun and his commitment to his family over all things.
The choreography by Sammo Hung is all grace and complexity, making the fights feel very much like a dance. This is made possible thanks to Yen’s incredible speed and technique which is very reminiscent of Bruce Lee himself.
Kung Fu Hustle
Easily the most bizarre film on this, or any list. Kung Fu Hustle is like a live action cartoon. Set in a Chinese slum which is under attack from a mob, this film sees super-powered characters that can jump like frogs, run like roadrunner and blow hurricanes from their mouths!
As you can imagine this does not take itself seriously in the slightest. In fact it’s bloody hilarious! Director Steven Chow has created a sub-genre all of his own and it makes for a fantastic, if bemusing viewing experience.
This is Tony Jaa’s follow up to Ong Bak and as such manages to ramp up the action, the fights, the story and the stunts to create one of the greatest Martial Arts spectacles of all time.
This film tells the story of a young Thailand boy whose Elephant is stolen and taken to Australia for sale and death by poachers. The boy follows the captors and exacts his revenge through multiple elbows to the face.
Like Ong Bak this features some literally unbelievable live action stunts with nary a wire in sight. In particular a scene that sees Jaa battle his way up a 10 story building, fighting off countless gang members in a single unedited long shot is at once dizzying, bone crunching and totally knackering to watch!
Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen
The final Donnie Yen film on the list sees a Chinese war hero take on the mantle of a masked superhero to fight corruption and evil; a role made famous by Bruce Lee in 1972’s Fist of Fury.
The opening scene of this film sees Yen saving a whole platoon in World War 1, by taking out multiple machine gun nests and artillery using only his fists! Whilst that may sound a little far- fetched I can assure you that this is one of the greatest opening sequences in any film, let alone a Martial Arts film.
Yen brings a great charisma to this role, obviously having loads of fun in this pseudo realistic tale of a lone hero bringing the pain to any and all wrongdoers. The sets are stunning, the colours are saturated and the whole thing feels like a comic book brought to life.
2012’s surprise hit saw Welsh director Gareth Evans take on a relatively unknown Indonesian Martial Art called Pencak Silat and turn it into Die Hard for a new generation! Setting the action in a single tower block and following a small group of armed police as they fight their way to the villain at the top, this film feels like watching an insane computer game like story pan out in layers of tension, claustrophobia and copious amounts of violence.
The film’s lead actor Iko Uwais has quickly become recognised as a successor to Tony Jaa’s mantle of insane speed, technique and stuntsmanship (is that even a word?)!
This is the kind of film that needs to be watched with an audience. I remember seeing this at the cinema and loving the amount of collective “ooofs” and “awwwws” from the audience as backs are smashed on walls, legs are sliced and doors are used to sever necks!
Frenetic pacing, stunning direction and a thumping soundtrack make this a must see for any film fan!
So hopefully that gives you some food for thought in terms of beginning your Martial Arts odyssey. If you watch any of the above listed films come back and let us know what you thought in the comments below.
Or if you have any other recommendations please also drop us a line and get everyone involved (including me) in broadening their Martial Arts knowledge!