Top 10 Martial Arts Films To Start With

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Bruce Lee (center) in Fist of Fury (Golden Harvest)

As we celebrate the two-year anniversary of World Film Geek, we will take a look at something very special for film fans who may not have watched or would love to get a start at a specific subgenre of action film: the martial arts film. The following is WFG’s list of Top 10 Martial Arts Movies to Start Fans With.

The following list is based on the opinions of World Film Geek and do not reflect the general consensus. The list is based on various aspects such as story, actors, and even fight choreography. There are many other 10 ten lists all over the place, but this is the list WFG would recommend for people who wish to check out martial arts films and are considered a novice to the subgenre.

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Eric Roberts (left) and Phillip Rhee in Best of the Best (SVS Inc./The Movie Store)

Best of the Best (Robert Radler, 1989): The tagline says it all – “A team is not a team if you don’t give a damn about each other”. The film revolves around five members of the United States Karate Team as they endure hardships during training for a competition against Team Korea. When you have the legendary James Earl Jones as the U.S. team coach, Eric Roberts as a veteran karateka on a comeback trail, and a blistering third act with co-star Simon Rhee’s fight choreography, the piece de resistance is that this film’s finale may even make the manliest of man shed a tear. Roberts and co-star Phillip Rhee would star in a 1992 sequel with Rhee going solo and directing two more sequels in 1995 and 1998.

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Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury (Golden Harvest)

Fist of Fury (Lo Wei, 1972): While many consider 1973’s Enter the Dragon (Robert Clouse, 1973) perhaps Bruce Lee’s greatest, this film is WFG’s favorite Bruce Lee film. Set in early 20th Century Shanghai, Lee’s Chen Zhen arrives home to avenge the death of his master, Huo Yuenjia. Along with The Chinese Boxer (Jimmy Wang Yu, 1970), this film would pioneer the on-screen rivalry between Chinese kung fu and Japanese martial arts in classic kung fu films. The film spawned two lesser known sequels with Bruce-alike Ho Chung-Tao as well as a “sequel” that starred a young Jackie Chan. Jet Li starred in a remake, Fist of Legend, in 1994. Donnie Yen played the character in a 1995 series for the defunct ATV channel in Hong Kong and reprised the role in a 2010 sequel, Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen.

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Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China (Golden Harvest/Film Workshop)

Once Upon a Time in China (Tsui Hark, 1991): Jet Li starred as real-life Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung (1877-1924), who uses his martial arts skills to unite the Chinese people against villainous foreigners as well as face a rival named “Iron Vest” Yim, who sees Wong as a worthy adversary. Wong and Yim’s epic fight, which is set in a room full of ladders, would be a major influence for the 2001 film The Musketeer, which Li’s double Xiong Xin-Xin, choreographed and doubled for villain Tim Roth. The film spawned five sequels, three of which starred Li as Wong and the other two, an attempt to launch future action star Vincent Zhao, who would play Wong in the fourth and fifth installments.

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Scott Adkins (left) and Michael Jai White in Undisputed II: Last Man Standing (New Line Cinema/Nu Image)

Undisputed II: Last Man Standing (Isaac Florentine, 2006): This is an interesting film to start with, as it is in fact a sequel to a boxing film set in a prison. When director Isaac Florentine, a martial artist, decided to use martial arts in this sequel, little did Florentine know that he would unleash not only an action franchise, but the film’s breakout star is British martial artist and actor Scott Adkins, who shines as Russian powerhouse Yuri Boyka. Michael Jai White takes over for Ving Rhames as former boxing champ “Iceman”, who is framed and sent to prison in Russia to face Boyka. Adkins proved to be the highlight with his impressive skills. So much that he would take the lead and return to the role in two sequels, one in 2010 and one coming to DVD and Blu-Ray on August 1.

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Jean-Claude Van Damme unleashes his trademark “helicopter kick” in Bloodsport (Cannon Films)

Bloodsport (Newt Arnold, 1987): This is the film that turned Belgian martial artist and actor Jean-Claude Van Damme into a household name. In the film, Van Damme plays Frank Dux, who goes AWOL from military service to head to Hong Kong. There, he competes in an underground martial arts tournament known as The Kumite. The film features the likes of Donald Gibb (Ogre from the Revenge of the Nerds franchise) and Bolo Yeung, a classic kung fu star who broke out when he faced off against John Saxon in Enter the Dragon. The film spawned three sequels nearly a decade later, all starring Swiss-born martial artist Daniel Bernhardt.

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Jackie Chan (right) shows his comic flair while training with the late Simon Yuen in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (Seasonal Film Corporation

Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (Yuen Woo-Ping, 1978): After a series of box office bombs for director Lo Wei, a young hopeful named Jackie Chan was loaned out to Seasonal Films to star in this kung fu comedy about a human punching bag who learns Snake Fist from an elderly master, played by Simon Yuen, the director’s father. When Chan faces off against an Eagle Claw master played by Korean super kicker Hwang Jung-Lee, Chan sees his cat kill a snake and meshes Snake Fist with a new technique he develops called Cat’s Claw to face off against Hwang and his men. During filming, Hwang accidentally kicked Chan’s tooth out and the result can be seen in certain parts. The film was a hit and showing that Chan was not a fluke, Yuen directed Chan in Drunken Master that same year, which helped solidify Chan as he would go on to become a prolific icon in action films.

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Tony Jaa prepares for action in Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (Sahamongkol Film/Baa-Ram-Ewe)

Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (Prachya Pinkaew, 2003): Starting out as a bit player for his late mentor, Panna Rittikrai, Thailand’s Tony Jaa broke out internationally with this film which has a basic premise. Jaa plays Ting, a villager who is forced to go to the city when a gang of thieves steal the village’s sacred statue head. What follows is Jaa showcasing his powerful skills in Muay Thai using real contact with the stunt team members and showcasing some impressive acrobatic skills in an epic chase scene midway through the film. Jaa would star in two sequels that were set centuries before the original and the film recently had a bit of homage in Kickboxer: Vengeance.

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Jackie Chan prepares for battle in Drunken Master II (Golden Harvest)

Drunken Master II (aka The Legend of Drunken Master) (Lau Kar-Leung, 1994): Jackie Chan stars in this sequel to the 1978 hit film as Wong Fei-Hung, the legendary folk hero. When a band of Chinese plot to steal the country’s priceless artifacts to ruthless foreigners, Wong teams up with some old friends and a Chinese revolutionary to stop them all. The film features some of Chan’s best fights under the direction of the late great Lau Kar-Leung. However, a falling out would lead Chan to take over for the finale, which pits him against one of his real-life stunt team members, Ken Lo, who wows the audience with his impressive kicking skills. Lau, upset with the falling out, attempted a third installment that same year, but did not do well at the box office.

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Gordon Liu strikes a pose in the intro sequence to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Shaw Brothers)

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Lau Kar-Leung, 1978): This epic film from the Shaw Brothers film company would be the breakout film for its lead star, Gordon Liu of Kill Bill Liu, who was adopted by the family of director Lau Kar-Leung, stars as a young man who goes to Shaolin Temple to avenge the death of his friends, goes on a journey of self-discovery and enlightenment. This would lead him to eventually become Shaolin Temples’s famed Abbot San Te. Liu would star in two official sequels in 1980 and 1985.

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Donnie Yen (right) prepares to deflect a flying side kick in Ip Man (Mandarin Films)

Ip Man (Wilson Yip, 2008): Donnie Yen’s magnum opus, in which the longtime martial arts actor would play the legendary Wing Chun grandmaster famous for teaching Bruce Lee. Usually known for his kicking and MMA skills on screen, Yen truly delves into a worthy performance of epic proportions in the role of Master Ip, who goes from a respected martial arts master to a poverty-stricken man during the Sino-Japanese War. The highlight includes Ip taking on ten Japanese blackbelts for a bag of rice. The film proved to be so successful that it won the Best Picture award at the 2009 Hong Kong Film Awards. Yen reprised the role in two sequels in 2010 and 2015 with a fourth installment set to begin production in March 2018.

These are the ten films that World Film Geek would recommend for newcomers to martial arts films. So find that movie on DVD, Blu-Ray, or even if you’re nostalgic, VHS, and enjoy these along with many more martial arts films!

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