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The 25 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

Written by
Grady Hendrix
Written by
Matthew Singer
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For even the most devoted film fans, martial arts cinema can seem like a daunting world to penetrate. Sure, the starting points are well-known: Enter the Dragon, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill, a handful of Jackie Chan flicks. But going much deeper than that can be intimidating. Starting in the 1970s, the Hong Kong film industry churned out thousands of movies full of mind-bending action scenes and choreographed fight sequences. Sifting out the must-sees can be particularly difficult – and not just because many of them are hard to actually find. More than other genres, martial arts movies are not differentiated not by plotlines but the visual details and physical skills of the stars. Often, you can’t know what’s worth watching until you watch it. 

No proper discussion of action movie history, though, can do without multiple mentions of Asia’s mighty fight contributions. To help navigate the kung-fu curious beyond the basics, we’ve pushed aside some of the more obvious choices to focus on the genre’s deeper cuts. Here are 25 of the most kick-ass martial-arts movies ever made. 

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Best martial-arts movies of all time

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure
The movie that cracked the genre in half, The 36th Chamber is directed by the master himself, Lau Kar-leung, and it distills martial arts down to their purest essence. Here, the mandatory training sequence expands into an hour-long, cinematic tone poem on how discipline and commitment can save your soul.
  • Film

A nihilistic grindhouse trip, Jimmy Wang Yu’s one-armed boxer is so badass that a blind, psychotic monk (equipped with the titular weapon) comes gunning for his head. Cue a kung fu competition featuring arm-stretching yogis, spring-loaded, gut-seeking axes and a final battle inside a coffin shop.

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Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972)
  • Film
Decadent, delirious and dripping with sin, it’s more of a swordplay thriller than a kung fu killer, but it’ll still claw your eyes out. Lily Ho is kidnapped and sold to a brothel, where the lesbian madam teaches her the martial arts of revenge…and love!
Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984)
Shaw Brothers Studio

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.

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Young Master (1980)
  • Film
Jackie Chan’s first big movie had two conditions: no budget and no schedule. With unlimited resources, he turned out an old-school epic, sometimes burning 500 takes to get things right. The climax is an 18-minute barnburner with tae kwon do tiger Hwang In-Shik, one that took three grueling months to film.
Black Belt (2007)

6. Black Belt (2007)

Probably the greatest karate movie, this quiet tale of three students resisting the growing militarization of Japan during the run-up to WWII is a tangled tale about the corruption of tradition. The combat is pure karate: all stillness, silence and strategy, until the fighters unleash savage, swift, single blows.
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The Mystery of Chess Boxing (1979)
With Hong Hwa International Films

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.

Five Deadly Venoms (1978)
Shaw Brothers Studio

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.

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The Tournament (1974)
  • Film
Angela Mao (Bruce Lee’s sister in Enter the Dragon) is the Queen of Kung Fu, a whirlwind of unstoppable ferocity who first mops the floor with the Thai fighters who defeated her brother, then buffs it with any old Chinese dudes who happen to get on her nerves.
Five Element Ninjas (1982)
Shaw Brothers Studio

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.

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Throwdown (2004)

11. Throwdown (2004)

Johnnie To takes his cues from Akira Kurosawa’s 1943 Sanshiro Sugata; accordingly, his elliptical tale of an alcoholic judo master reaching the end of his career puts the focus on skill, respect and fair play, not savage beatdowns. It’s also the director’s personal favorite of all his films.
Heroes of the East (1978)
  • Film
Lau Kar-leung delivers a classic screwball comedy with “mantis fists” and “skirt kicks” replacing quips as a Chinese groom and his Japanese bride duke it out over whose martial arts are better. Combat becomes couples counseling, and lethal strikes are love bites in this ode to the sweet mayhem of marriage.
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Once Upon a Time in China (1991)
Image: Golden Harvest

13. Once Upon a Time in China (1991)

If a movie has the phrase ‘once upon a time’ in its title, you know you’re in for something epic, and director Tsui Hark’s masterpiece is no exception. Jet Li plays Wong Fei-hung, a 19th century Cantonese folk hero training an army to protect his province from encroaching Westerners. Full of spellbinding imagery, it’s perhaps the best martial arts movie of the ‘90s. Li would star in two sequels before making his English-language breakthrough toward the end of the decade in Lethal Weapon 4.

Seven Grandmasters (1978)
  • Film
Shot in Taiwan for $1.95, this by-the-numbers scenario allows two of cinema’s best action choreographers, Corey Yuen Kwai (Fong Sai Yuk) and Yuen Chuan-yan (Once Upon a Time in China), to unleash seven shades of hell, ending with the most epic kick in the nuts ever put on film.
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  • Film

One of the earliest Shaw brothers productions, Come Drink with Me established the look and tone of the wuxia sword fighting genre. After the son of a Chinese general is kidnapped and held for ransom, the general’s daughter Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-Pei) goes to rescue him, eventually teaming up with another formidable fighter known as Drunken Cat (Yueh Hua). A remake directed by superfan Quentin Tarantino has been rumoured for years, and while it appears that will never materialise, the movie’s influence on Kill Bill is strong enough to nearly count as one. 

The One Armed Boxer (1971)
Golden Harvest Company

16. 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.

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BKO: Bangkok Knockout (2010)

17. BKO: Bangkok Knockout (2010)

The most balls-out achievement by Thailand’s late, great Panna Rittikrai, it has a simple story: A gang of martial artists are locked inside a warehouse and have to fight their way out. What happens next is people get hit with shovels, cars, cinderblocks, fists, set on fire and dropped off buildings.
  • Film
  • Drama

Most famous as the movie that inspired Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, King Hu’s wuxia milestone exudes an uncommon grace and depth of feeling for the time period, not to mention length: it’s nearly three hours long. But it’s worth the commitment, and not just because of the later films that borrowed from it. Its exploration of Buddhist philosophy is still rare in the martial arts world, and its experimental touches make it an experience as unique as it is influential. 

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Sister Street Fighter (1974)
Toei Company

19. 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. 

Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (1978)
Seasonal Film Corporation

20. 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.

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The Victim (1980)
Graffon Film

21. 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. 

Shaolin vs Lama (1983)
Tin Ping Film Co.

22. 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. 

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Born Invincible (1978)
Ocean Shore

23. 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. 

The Chinese Boxer (1971)
Image: Shaw Brothers

24. The Chinese Boxer (1971)

Until the early 1970s, most martial arts films belonged to the wuxia subgenre – fantastical tales with action sequences centred around highly choreographed sword fights. With The Chinese Boxer, director and star Jimmy Wang Yu introduced a different kind of martial arts flick, placing the focus on unarmed combat and the mastery of various disciplines, and its box-office success ensured that it would set the template for just about every Hong Kong action movie to follow. As such, its story is as standard as it gets – a Chinese boxer seeks revenge for the destruction of his training facility – but Yu’s self-directed fight scenes remain spectacular even after decades of imitation.

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Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (2003)
Image: Sahamongkol Film International

25. Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (2003)

Thai phenom Tony Jaa smashed through to international audiences with this bruising tale of a Muay Thai fighting phenom who ventures into Bangkok underworld after the head of a sacred Buddhist statue is stolen. Full of jaw-dropping, non-CG action backdropped by spectacular location photography, the movie sets up Jaa as the next great martial arts crossover star – although his next most memorable movie is probably Ong-Bak 2, aka ‘the one where he runs up and backflips off an elephant’.   

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