Fighter Magazine embarked on a long journey through all the world’s martial arts movies with the goal of creating the ultimate top list. Here is the result after many long nights of toil and many hours in front of screens and TVs. Enjoy part one of two of the 100 best martial arts movies.
Let’s start with the definition of martial arts film. Some think these need to be about martial arts, but for the vast majority, elements of martial arts are enough. When we go through the best martial arts movies, it is, of course, subjective, and it is guaranteed that movies are missing, but as difficult as it was, we now have a list of the best 100 movies in the martial arts genre. Sometimes, an entire movie series has placed itself in the same place. And here is part two.
[This article was originally written in swedish and published first in the paper magazine and then online].
100. American Ninja (1985)
This cult film is the result of an American watching Enter the Ninja. A fairly cheesy film overall, but it influenced many in the Western world during the martial arts-crazy 80s.
99. Enter the Ninja (1981)
The movie is incredibly bad, but it started a wave of martial arts and ninja interest. During the 80s, Enter the Ninja was perhaps the most imitated film in the genre and is behind the very stereotype of a ninja in everything from appearance to style.
98. Hard to Kill (1990)
It’s a mystery that Steven Seagal became so popular. Hard to Kill received fairly poor reviews, but the film cemented Seagal’s place as a martial arts actor.
97. House of Flying Daggers (2004)
The first wuxia* film on the list is beautiful and is based on a poem written during the Han Dynasty by the poet Li Yannian. As the film is more of a love story than a martial arts film, it is not placed better, even though it is technically clearly better than many others.
96. Tokyo Zombie (2005)
Tokyo Zombie is based on the manga; in this Japanese film, we follow two slackers who work in a factory and practice jujutsu on their breaks. One day they murder their boss and dump the body in a toxic waste site called Black Fuji. It’s not long before an army of the dead rises and starts attacking everything and everyone. The characters’ jujutsu keeps them alive (of course). This absurd film deserves an honourable mention as it is a cult.
95. Undisputed (2002)
This boxing movie stars Wesley Snipes and Vin Rhames. It is as much a ”prison film” as a boxing film.
94. Diggstown (1992)
Diggstown is as unusual as a comedy film with hustling, gambling and boxing elements. The film is far from a masterpiece and tries too hard, but it represents its subgenre of martial arts film.
93. Creed – The Legacy of Rocky (2015)
This is the start of a new chapter in the ”never-ending” story of Rocky Balboa. Sylvester Stallone plays Rocky, but Michael B. Jordan plays Adonis Johnson in the lead role. Apart from Rocky’s mumbling, we are treated to some touching scenes between him and Adonis. The saving grace of the film is that the boxing is really good.
92. By the Sword (1991)
In By the Sword, Eric Roberts is a world-class fencer, and this is the first major feature film about sports fencing. Critics hated the script, but many liked the fight scenes. The fencing master who trained and did the choreography was the legend Bob Anderson, who was behind the fencing in Star Wars, Highlander, The Princess Bride, The Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean, among other things.
91. One-Armed Swordsman (1967)
Musicals and romantic films were big in Hong Kong when this film came to the world, signed by the now legendary director Chang Cheh. The film is a revenge story of bloodshed and violence and inspired many subsequent reels. The film belongs to the wuxia* genre but was the first of its kind to deal with an anti-hero. Jimmy Wang, who became a superstar, played the main role – the film did very well. One-Armed Swordsman was produced by Shaw Brothers, who, between 1958-1987, produced around 1,000 films.
90. The Blood of Heroes (1990)
The Blood of Heroes is allowed to represent blockbuster sports movies on the list (another such is Rollerball). The film is called The Salute of the Jugger. Rutger Hauer plays the main role, and the genre is sci-fi. It is a dystopian future where war has left the Earth scorched and hard. The only joy people have is a sport known as The Game. Travelling teams challenge city teams in the sport; the winner takes home the prize money. The Game is played by five players on each team trying to place a dog’s skull on the opponent’s goalpost. An unarmed player runs with the skull while his teammates try to protect him. However, not everyone lives a hard life on the surface. Beneath the ground is nine cities of superior wealth with their league, The League. The goal of each travelling band of players is to become good enough to take their place in the league. In a kind variation, with padded arms, this is played and called Jugger, which is described as a mixture of rugby and fencing. At the time of writing, 581 teams compete in the world league!
89. Shaolin Soccer (2001)
The film managed to get a large audience with a ridiculous set-up – some monks start playing football in their best, to say the least, way. This light-hearted reel represents several martial arts films of this kind.
88. The Blade movies
A martial arts and sword-wielding half-vampire kills other vampires. The martial art is not unique but more the setting and the style. Although The Matrix influenced much more and more directly with its style, the Blade films cannot be ignored. Wesley Snipes, who plays Blade in movies 1 and 2, was well-received as the comic book hero. It’s unusual to have a dark-skinned action hero, and Wesley has said that he approached the role from a sociopolitical perspective.
87. Shaolin Temple (1982)
Warlords in battle lead General Hou, played by Andy Lau, to take refuge in a Shaolin temple where he is given a new moral code and becomes ”good”. Andy Lau is known for films like Warlords and House of Flying Daggers, and in the film, Jackie Chan has a role in the temple. The film is a new variation on the theme of Martial Zen. The Shaolin Temple is, of course, attacked, and it turns out that Shaolin Kung Fu is really good, which is hardly surprising.
86. The Bourne movies
The Bourne films are not obvious to be on the list, but at the same time, they modernized martial arts on film a lot in execution. However, there are divided opinions as to whether it was for the better.
85. Braveheart (1995)
Braveheart represents films like Conan, where martial arts mainly consist of historical warfare (often medieval or fantasy). Unfortunately, the historical accuracy is not often particularly great, but the scenes are powerful enough that a film like Braveheart still makes a list. This type of film is a bit different from, for example, Highlander, The Duellist and Rob Roy, which focus more specifically on duels.
84. Zatoichi (2003)
Zatôichi is a character from Ken Shimozawa’s books. There are close to 30 films about the blind masseur and the swordsman Zatôichi. Film number 17 in the series has been seen by quite a few in the Western world as it was also made in an American version (TriStar Pictures). In the US, the film was called Blind Fury and starred Rutger Hauer. There has also been a series about Zatôichi in the 70s, where 100 episodes were created. In various other films, video games, and books, there are references to Zatôichi, who made an impression.
83. Azumi (2003)
Azumi is a film that belongs to the jidaigeki** genre and is based on a manga series of the same title. As a little girl, Azumi begins to be trained in martial arts and assassination by an old master. As an adult, Azumi is a badass swordsman, and she’s a deadly chick, to say the least, who can slay anyone.
82. The Matrix (1999)
This sci-fi film starring Keanu Reeves had an incredible impact and changed a lot about how fight scenes are portrayed on film. Bullet time, wire-fu (that is, kung fu in combination with wire) and other effects in the film have come to be used by many after The Matrix. Neo learns jujutsu, taekwondo, drunken boxing, kempo and kung fu in no time through a computer program. Neo’s line, ”I know kung fu!” when he just trained in martial arts and wakes up from the simulation, made many martial artists smile. Yuen Woo Ping, a stuntman from Hong Kong who is an expert in kung fu and the use of wires, was hired for the film’s martial arts. Yuen Woo Ping’s father, Yuen Sin Tin, was a stuntman and martial arts expert for the Shaw brothers.
81. In the Shadow of the Raven (1988)
This brutal Viking film from Iceland offers raw battles and an appreciated authenticity in the combat elements. It was the opposite of unrealistic Asian films – instead relying on crappy fights where everyone is not skilled. ”When the Raven Flies” and ”In the Shadow of the Raven” are not usually highlighted as martial arts films, but here it is because it is an attempt to show dirty and realistic fighting.
80. Southpaw (2015)
Boxing movies are a genre of their own that never seems to die. Southpaw has a lot of standard material, but the fighters work well. Like several other boxing films, it is as much drama as fighting, but what stands out is Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as boxer Billy Hope. Oscar De La Hoya reviewed the film and praised Gyllenhaal’s boxing, although he felt some things were exaggerated.
79. The Batman movies
The Batman films stand out from the crowd, but there’s no doubt they should have their place on the list. Batman is a superhero with no real powers other than some gadgets and good martial arts.
78. Blood & Bone (2009)
Michael Jai White stars as Isiah Bone in this film about illegal street fighting. MMA fighters such as Gina Carano, Bob Sapp, Kimbo Slice and Maurice Smith have roles in Blood & Bone, karate world champion Matt Mullins and other athletes. The film is not a masterpiece, but the fight scenes were praised, and it was better than some other attempts to showcase MMA (e.g. Redbelt and Never Surrender).
77. The Street Fighter (1994)
Even though this film was negatively received and lousy at times, it has inspired many. Street Fighter is an American film based on the arcade and console games of the same name and was filmed in Thailand. Jean-Claude van Damme inspired many to become martial artists with this movie, and even those who don’t like it have to admit that it has its place among, if anything, the most influential martial arts films.
76. Fighter in the Wind (2004)
The film is about a Korean martial artist arriving in Japan towards World War II’s end to become a pilot. Instead of reaching his goal, he is exposed to racism, organized crime, and rough Americans (after the war) and has to wrestle with his doubts about his ability as a martial artist. He retreats into the wilderness to toughen up and train himself. When he returns, he’s incredibly good and starts going around and going matches against skilled champions. The entire film is a tribute to karate and, more specifically, to Kyokushin, founded by Korean-Japanese Masutatsu Oyama.
75. The Three Musketeers (1973)
The story of the three musketeers has been told in many different forms and with more or less successful results. The 1973 film may represent this type of fencing film that never tries to be realistic or even remotely based on real rapier fencing but inspires and will continue to inspire many people. Adventure and fencing have long gone together in the film; the most famous story is about the three musketeers. This type of fencing film is often associated with one of the most famous actors of the 20th century, Errol Flynn.
74. The Princess Bride (1987)
Comedies based on martial arts are not uncommon, but Princess Bride stands out because it manages to be funny. On lists, this fencing reel usually ends up high among the funniest ever. In the film, real swordsmen are name-dropped and style fresh; director Rob Reiner has found a charm irresistible to many. The actual fighting in the film is theatre fencing, first and foremost but is sometimes really good.
73. Magnificent Butcher (1979)
The film is usually considered to be Sammo Hung’s best effort. Some consider Magnificent Butcher a top-ten martial arts movie, but it’s not that good. Directed by Yuen Woo Ping, who choreographed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Matrix and more.
72. Foxcatcher (2014)
This Oscar-nominated movie about wrestling made a big impression when it came out in 2014. Many have tried to capture wrestling on film, but few have done it successfully. If Foxcatcher had been more about wrestling, the film would have ended up higher; now, it is more a portrait of some real wrestlers and the crazy self-proclaimed wrestling coach John Eleuthere du Pont. The film is based on a true story, and the characters’ names have not been changed. John Eleuthere du Pont shot and killed Olympic gold medalist Dave Schultz in 1996.
71. Musa (2001)
This epic South Korean film is based to some extent on true events. Musa takes place in 1375 and is about a group that travels to China on a diplomatic mission. Spectacular fighting scenes in a desert environment are offered, and in 2001, it ended up in eighth place among the films that took in the most money that year.
70. The Ip Man movies
In 2008, Ip Man and director Donnie Yen’s flair for the genre came into its own. The semi-biographical story is about a legendary Wing Chun grandmaster who became an instructor to many successful martial artists, with Bruce Lee standing out a bit. The film is beautiful, and the fact that it is partly historical creates an extra dimension.
69. Warrior (2011)
Considering that Warrior might be the first and only movie where MMA doesn’t just become a thing, it should make a list. Nick Nolte received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the father of two brothers who ended up fighting eachother. One brother relies more on grappling and jiu-jitsu, while the other is a knockout machine. The film was a hit when it was released but was expensive to make and failed to break even at the box office. The famous film critic Roger Ebert wrote that the film had similarities to Rocky but that you couldn’t stick with either of the brothers towards the end. Many believe that Warrior is the best MMA movie ever.
68. Sherlock Holmes (2009)
The Bartitsu style might not have been known today if it weren’t for Sherlock Holmes. The film Sherlock Holmes from 2009 is mainly the breakdown of fight sequences that becomes a new approach and a new dimension. In the film, Sherlock Holmes can predict how different sequences will go, so the viewer can see everything unfold in slow motion. At the same time, we hear Sherlock go through the sequence in detail, and later we return to the present when (almost always) it is happening at full speed as Sherlock predicted.
67. Old Boy (2003)
Oldboy is a Korean thriller with elements of mystery and neo-noir. The film is based on a manga story and won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. In 2008, Oldboy was voted, by CNN’s viewers, as the best Asian film. The most famous fight scene from the film takes place in a corridor where the main character has to fight by himself against about 20 people. He gets a knife in the back, gets kicked while lying down and takes a lot of beating, but with the help of his hammer and a bunch of badass names, he manages to overcome every one. It’s not entirely realistic, but that’s not the most important thing.
66. Sword of the Beast (1965)
This jidaigeki is sometimes called Samurai Gold Seekers and is about a samurai on the run after killing an important man in the clan. It cannot be compared to the best samurai movies. The film is simple in structure and has been praised in retrospect mainly for how it is filmed and how evil and goodness are portrayed.
65. Iron Monkey (1993)
This Hong Kong film was directed by Yuen Woo-ping and stars Donnie Yen and Yu Rongguang. Just like some other films on the list, some controversial and strange cuts were made, to say the least, when the film was recut for the market outside the home country. A purely stylistic successor to this film is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
64. Ong-Bak (2003)
It showcases high-level Muay Thai and is usually a response to the more comedic Jackie Chan films from the 80s onwards. Many who saw Ong-Bak felt the impact, and it is said that many of the scenes are as close to reality as you can get. Many bones were broken during the filming, but the film does not get higher as it is mainly a salute and update on some classic Hong Kong reels.
63. No Retreat No Surrender (1986)
Jean-Claude before he became a superstar. The film was not a hit and received very negative reviews. The films that followed Jean-Claude were bigger – with the success of Bloodsport, Kickboxer and so on, many saw No Retreat No Surrender.
62. Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
Today, the film is usually compared to films like Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon regarding how much it influenced people worldwide. Kung Fu Hustle grossed $101 million at the box office (costing $20 million to make), making it the most financially successful film from Hong Kong then.
61. Kiss of the Dragon (2001)
Jet Li was a superstar from Hong Kong who travelled to the US to follow in Jackie Chan’s footsteps. It didn’t go quite well for Jet Le initially, but Kiss of the Dragon turned it around. With a heavy emphasis on traditionally choreographed scenes and less on CGI, the film was refreshing. The film became a hit worldwide; Jet Li became a big star in martial arts films.
60. The Grandmaster (2013)
Wong Kar-Wai loves the beauty and elegance of martial arts films, and that’s exactly what he created with The Grandmaster. The film’s martial arts have features of dance but still manage to capture brutality. There is a worse cut of the film on places like Netflix – the Chinese original is better. Like several other films, the film about Ip Man is about the legendary Wing Chun master. From a larger perspective, the film is about Chinese history and is told beautifully.
59. Tai Chi Master (1993)
Jet Li both stars and was a producer for Tai Chi Master, which is historically (probably incorrectly) based on Zhang San Feng, who is said to have created tai chi chuan. Strangely, not much tai chi chuan is shown in this epic film.
58. Tom-yam-Goong (2005)
Kham (Tony Jaa) goes to Australia to find a stolen elephant. For his help, Kham gets a Thai-born Australian detective. Together they take on a gang led by an evil woman. Thin story, but a classic worth watching for the martial arts and action sequences alone. Aside from Thai boxing, elephant boxing is also presented, focusing on grappling first and foremost – a warning for bone-breaking scenes!
57. Way of the Dragon (1972)
The list’s first Bruce Lee film falls against several other Bruce Lee films, but it is still clearly worth watching. Bruce Lee’s fight with Chuck Norris is one of the more classic martial arts films, but as a film, it is not that remarkable. The film was a huge success considering what it cost to make. With a budget of HK$130,000, it grossed HK$30 million in theatres. Bruce was and is, of course, the biggest martial arts movie star ever.
56. 300 (2006)
The king of the Spartans, Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and 300 Spartans fight to the last man against the Persian king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his army of over a million warriors. Meanwhile, in Sparta, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) tries to win support for her husband. Due to the fact that the film is made as a retelling of one of the participating soldiers, several supernatural beings are introduced, making 300 fall into the historical fantasy genre. The fight scenes in the film are graphic and almost create a style of their own. In real Sparta (and in the movie) many were engaged in pankration, that is, the MMA practised in the ancient Olympics.
55. Prodigal Son (1981)
A Sammo Hung film about a wealthy man who half-heartedly practices kung fu and goes to lay matches. Technically, Prodigal Son was a film that changed a lot by partially abandoning a two-dimensional perspective for a three-dimensional one. That way of photographing martial arts is still used today in Hong Kong.
54. The Shaolin Temple (1982)
Shao Lin Si, the film’s original title, was Jet Li’s debut on the big screen. When the ruler of the country is betrayed by a general and is overthrown, he starts using people as slaves. A young slave manages to escape and takes refuge in a Shaolin temple. We’ve seen the style and construction of the film many times, but the martial arts are cool and became extra important as it was the first Hong Kong film to be shot in mainland China.
53. Wing Chun (1994)
Wing Chun is an important Chinese film focusing on women and martial arts. The stunt work in the film is masterful with wires and some other tricks, but it wouldn’t be necessary. The story isn’t the best, but the fighting is nice. The film is not quite the feminist martial arts film that some desire.
52. Kickboxer (1989)
Of course, Kickboxer must be on the list! This is one of the great Jean-Claude Van Damme martial arts films and came the year after the huge success of Bloodsport. Kickboxer is considered a cult film, so it doesn’t matter how thin the story is. Movies like Kickboxer heavily inspired many martial arts and combat sports world champions. The film is about Kurt Sloane, who must learn Thai boxing to avenge his brother. In its remake times, one has just been shot that is now in post-production.
51. Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976)
Master of the Flying Guillotine is a Taiwanese wuxia starring/directed/written by Jimmy Wang Yu. The film is a sequel to One Armed Boxer, and Quentin Tarantino has said several times that it is one of his absolute favourite films ever.
*Wuxia roughly means “armed hero” and is a Chinese literary genre with a tradition dating back hundreds of years. As a rule, the stories revolve around a traveling swordsman with good skills in martial arts. Almost always, the hero has a sense of fighting for good and against evil, but sometimes that means not very pleasant methods. Wuxia corresponds to heroic tales, and not infrequently, the genre has fantasy features. One of the more famous classic works is a 14th-century novel called Tales from the Swamps. In modern times, in films, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero are usually highlighted.
**Jidaigeki is a film/theatre/TV genre in Japan and involves a historical drama. As a rule, the films take place in the Edo period (1603-1868) when the Tokugawa clan was in power. Some jidaigeki films are set in earlier periods than Edo, but it is not this genre if the story is set later. In jidaigeki, we follow samurai, farmers, craftsmen, merchants, etc. Sometimes a jidaigeki is called a chambara, meaning there are sword fights.