The Best Martial Arts Movies and Actors
A martial arts movie is a style of action film that features martial arts combat as a central part of the narrative. While on-screen action has been depicted since the earliest days of cinema in war movies, westerns, and gangster films, the popularity of martial arts films grew tremendously in the late 20th century. The influence of martial artists like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, as well as directors like Sammo Hung and Tsui Hark, has elevated critical appreciation for the genre.
Did You Know?
Jackie Chan is the most successful martial arts film star of all time. His films have grossed a combined box office total of over $5 billion worldwide.
Definition of Martial Arts Movies
The most basic definition of a martial arts movie is any action film that features characters engaging in hand-to-hand combat or combat involving martial arts weapons. Typically, most audiences associate martial arts movies with Asian film—primarily Japan, China, and Hong Kong cinema, but also from other countries like Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia. However, while martial arts films have their roots in Asian cinema and undoubtedly many of the most popular examples originate in Asia, they have been produced in many regions and their influence has extended worldwide. For example, Hollywood blockbusters like The Karate Kid (1984), The Matrix (1999), and Batman Begins (2005) are all influenced by martial arts films.
In addition, ever since martial arts icon Bruce Lee starred as Kato in the American television series The Green Hornet (1966-67), Asian martial arts movie stars have appeared in big-budget productions and have become crossover stars, and in turn have increased the popularity of martial arts films. Examples include Jackie Chan in The Cannonball Run (1981) and the Rush Hour series (1998-2007), Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), Jet Li in Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) and The Expendables series (2010-14), Tony Jaa in Furious 7 (2015) and xXx: Return of Xander Cage ( 2021), and Donnie Yen in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) and xXx: Return of Xander Cage ( 2021). Most of these films would not generally be considered martial arts movies even though each feature some degree of hand-to-hand combat.
One key attribute that often marks a film as part of the martial arts genre is that the study and practice of martial arts factors in as a key part of the plot. Often the protagonists are students of a particular discipline and seek to prove their skills, or need to utilize their expertise in martial arts to accomplish a heroic goal. In others, a hero faces off against powerful adversaries in order to seek vengeance for a past offense. As a result, the martial arts action that ensues is central to the advancement of the plot and the resolution of the conflict. In particular, intricately choreographed fight, chase, and stunt sequences have been common to the genre and often feature clever and comedic gags.
Though many marital arts films depict realistic action in a contemporary setting, wuxia films typically take more of a fantasy approach with superhuman feats and are often set in earlier historical eras. These films also feature intricate stunt work and special effects that go beyond the realm of reality, including wire stunts, trampoline-assisted acrobatics, and sequences in both slow and fast motion.
Best Martial Arts Movies
Enter the Dragon(1973)
If any single individual could be credited for launching the martial arts film craze, it would be Bruce Lee. Released one month after Lee’s untimely death at age 32, Enter the Dragon features Lee as a master martial artist who is recruited to take part in a crime lord’s tournament in order to uncover evidence of wrongdoing. Enter the Dragon‘s mix of Lee’s superb skills, spy intrigue, and diverse cast helped make it a huge box office hit internationally.
Like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan became an international martial arts movie star. However, his martial arts films often mix intricate stunt work and slapstick comedy with its martial arts choreography. In one of Chan’s breakthrough roles on the international stage, 1985’s Police Story featured Chan as a Hong Kong police detective on the trail of a major crime lord. Police Story was followed by five sequels starring Chan. The actor would go on to become a worldwide superstar over the next two decades, and was awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 2016.
Once Upon A Time In China(1991)
This historical martial arts film (set in the 1800s), directed by Tsui Hark, stars Jet Li as real-life martial arts expert Wong Fei-hung, who defends ancient China against European and American invaders with his students. It was followed by five sequels, with Li appearing in three of them.
Iron Monkey (1993)
Like Once Upon a Time in China, 1993’s Iron Monkey is also about real-life martial arts master Wong Fei-hung, this time with Donnie Yen playing Wong. After this Robin Hood-inspired story was a hit in Hong Kong, it was released in the United States in a re-cut version in 2001 (under the banner “Quentin Tarantino Presents”), which performed well at the U.S. box office.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon(2000)
Filmmaker Ang Lee’s historical epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which stars Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, became an international sensation in 2000. Its memorable action sequences—including its famous wirework—helped propel the film to box office success all over the world, grossing over $200 million worldwide. It was also nominated for ten Academy Awards and won four, including Best Foreign Language Film. A sequel was released by Netflix in 2016.
Kung Fu Hustle(2005)
Martial arts films have often lent well to comedy, and writer-director-star Stephen Chow created one of the most popular martial arts comedies of all time with 2005’s Kung Fu Hustle. The film’s mixture of cartoonish action and superb choreography made it a worldwide hit.
Ip Man is one of many films about the life of real-life renowned martial arts grandmaster Ip Man, who taught Bruce Lee. In this film, which stars Donnie Yen, Ip begins training students during the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. While a heavily fictionalized version of Ip’s life, Ip Man was a success and helped make Yen a martial arts star. Ip Man has been followed by three sequels.
Renowned filmmaker Takashi Miike created this samurai martial arts film as a remake of the 1963 film with the same title. The film depicts the titular 13 assassins who are enlisted to murder a vicious feudal lord before he achieves more power. The movie has been praised for its thrilling action.