When it comes to martial arts cinema, most film fans only have a handful of reference points. Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, of course. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill, sure. Or, God help us, Steven Seagal. But the kung fu genre has a deep, rich history. No proper overview of action movies can do without multiple mentions of Asia’s mighty fight contributions, but delving beyond the basics requires a bit of helpful navigation. Here are 20 great places to start.
The 20 best martial-arts movies of all time
We'll assume you know about Bruce Lee: some of the best martial-arts movies came both before and after his heyday
Best martial-arts movies of all time
4. Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984)
How much damage can one man do with a wooden stick? If he’s Gordon Liu, plenty. In this epic tale – one of the last films produced by Hong Kong’s mighty Shaw Brothers studio – a soldier-turned-monk is pulled back into the vengeance game after the same jerkoffs who betrayed his father on the battlefield kidnap his sister. Filming was nearly derailed when star Alexander Fu Sheng died in a car accident halfway through production. Instead, director Lau Kar-leung honoured him with a masterpiece.
6. Black Belt (2007)
7. The Mystery of Chess Boxing (1979)
Hey, this one sounds familiar. Yes, it inspired the Wu-Tang Clan song of the same name, as well as the moniker of Ghostface Killah, who took his nom de hip-hop from the film’s memorable villain. But even if no one ever rapped about it, the balletic fight scenes – a blend of graceful five-element technique with chess-influenced strategem – would still have guaranteed the movie a spot in the pantheon.
8. Five Deadly Venoms (1978)
A true genre classic, Cheng Cheh’s Five Deadly Venoms established the ‘Venom Mob’, the crew of actors who’d turn up in many subsequent productions from Shaw Brothers Studio. A dying master, suspecting that his teachings are being used for evil, sends his last remaining student to investigate five of his former pupils, each one skilled in a different animal-based technique. (Snake, Scorpion, Centipede, etc.) It’s an irresistible premise that allows each fight scene to take on its own unique identity. A lot of kung-fu fandoms start here.
10. Five Element Ninjas (1982)
Even by the over-the-top standards of cult-classic kung fu, director Chang Cheh always went a little higher, and this face-off between elite Chinese fighters and well-trained Japanese ninjas might be the bloodiest, most bonkers entry in his oeuvre. How bloody and bonkers? At one point, a disemboweled combatant gets tangled up in his own guts. ’Nuff said.
11. Throwdown (2004)
14. The One Armed Boxer (1971)
Six years before Master of the Flying Guillotine, writer, director and star Jimmy Wang Yu presented the origin story of his titular impaired ass-kicker, Tien Lung. (Yu really had a niche: he’d previously starred in two unrelated One Armed Swordsman movies for Shaw Brothers.) It’s tame compared to the sequel but not to practically anything else in cinema. Wang avenges his missing limb by iron-fisting his way through a coterie of international villains, including a fanged Japanese kung fu master, twin Thai boxers and a gray-faced Indian yogi with impenetrable skin. Well, almost impenetrable.
15. BKO: Bangkok Knockout (2010)
16. Sister Street Fighter (1974)
To save her cop brother from an underground drug ring, Etsuko Shihomi must defeat a Warriors-like assemblage of bad guys before confronting an iron-clawed final boss. If that sounds like a video game, well, it is called Street Fighter. Although to be honest, the title is a bit misleading: yes, this is a female-fronted spin-off of the movie that broke Sonny Chiba internationally, and Chiba is in it, but he plays an entirely different character. It does, however, have a similar ’70s exploitation vibe and enough ultraviolence to initially get it slapped with an X-rating in the US. More than anything, it’s got Shihomi, who is neither sexualised nor presented as a feminist symbol – just as someone you really shouldn’t mess with.
17. Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (1978)
Along with Drunken Master – released the same year, with the same director, newcomer and future icon Yuen Woo-ping – this action-comedy helped establish Jackie Chan as the Buster Keaton of Hong Kong action cinema. In one scene, Chan, initially playing a lowly janitor, manically slips towels under the feet of a guy walking across a floor he just mopped. After getting taken in by a vagrant proficient in the nearly extinct ‘Snake’ fighting style, he fends off a gang by having the beggar control his limbs, then achieves his final battle-ready form by imitating a cat. It’s all wonderfully goofy – but, in the grand Chan tradition, he still incurred legitimate injuries, including a missing tooth and a slashed arm from a supposedly dull sword.
18. The Victim (1980)
A roly-poly ass-beater named Fatty (Sammo Hung, who also directs) gets embroiled in a vaguely Shakespearean family feud between a violent scumbag and his benevolent adopted brother. It’s a bit convoluted plot-wise, but the film mostly exists as a thrilling early example of the choreographic magic of Hung, who’d go on to become one of Jackie Chan’s frequent collaborators.
19. Shaolin vs Lama (1983)
Another film whose reputation has been enhanced from being a source of hip-hop samples, Shaolin vs Lama tells a basic story: an aspiring student of kung fu seeks mentorship from an old monk and ends up in the middle of a war between Chinese fighters and a violent Buddhist sect. But the acrobatic action sequences come non-stop and make compelling use of the scenery, particularly a Shaolin temple. Also, there are at least two fights involving a roast chicken.
20. Born Invincible (1978)
Most martial arts films peak with a third-act showdown, but the highlight of this Taiwanese production – a collaboration between Mystery of Chess Boxing director Joseph Kuo and ascendant fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping – is an opening montage educating audiences in the art of t’ai chi. According to the narrator, the top one percent of practitioners eventually become impervious to pain, a concept one advanced student helpfully demonstrates by smashing bricks with his head, dragging a knife across his body, getting gut-stomped off a balcony and taking a spiked bat to the junk. It sets a high bar, but the climactic final battle, in which the pupils of a kung fu academy attempt to defeat a villainous t’ai chi master by piercing his one weak spot, is worth sticking around for.