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The 100 Best Martial Arts Movies – Part 2 of 2

So after many long nights of toil and countless hours in front of screens and TVs, we have arrived at part two of the 100 best martial arts movies. Here are the results – haaaiii-yaaa!!!

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 (here is part one) in the martial arts genre. Sometimes, an entire movie series has placed itself in the same place.

50 Gladiator (2000)

It is not just the soundtrack that is good for ”Gladiator” – the movie is beautiful. Many gladiator movies could make this list, but ”Gladiator” represents them all.

49 Girlfight (2000)

Michelle Rodriguez, who plays the lead role in the film, has no boxing background. With that in mind, it’s impressive how well she pulled it off. As a film, it is not as good as ”Million Dollar Baby”, but it is seen as a milestone in the genre.

48 Alatriste (2006)

Viggo Mortensen stars in this Spanish historical film. ”Alatriste” takes place during the 17th century, and we follow Captain Alatriste on his adventures as a mercenary and assassin. The fencing in the film rests on a realistic foundation, and it always feels dangerous when someone breaks down. The film was praised by critics, won several awards and became one of the most financially successful Spanish films of all time.

47 Rob Roy (1995)

If ”Alatriste” was realistic, so is Rob Roy, but it took place in Scotland in the 18th century. The duels and fighters in the film show a lot of realism in terms of variety, even if it is not a masterpiece like ”The Duellist”. Tim Roth was nominated for an Oscar for his role as the scheming aristocrat and fencer Archibald Cunningham.

Mifune

46 The Drunken Master (1978)

One of the few films where the second film (a remake) was more successful than the first. The film popularized drunken boxing and was one of the early successful martial arts comedies. Jackie Chan had already become big in Hong Kong when ”Drunken Master” came out but became much bigger afterwards.

45 The Blade (1993)

”The Blade” is a Hong Kong film known for its experimental use of dramatic close-ups, colour shifts and special angles and camera movements during combat. The film is on the list because it is so unique in style, but the question is, how many other films can you bear to watch in this way?

44 Once Upon a Time in China (1991)

This Jet Li reel is based on a Chinese folk hero, Wong Fei-Hung. The film was one of the most successful in the so-called Golden Age of Hong Kong films (1986–1993) which involved Chinese nationalism and good martial arts.

43 Zu: Warriors From Magic Mountain (1983)

Martial arts fantasy – both in the 1983 and 2001 versions, the emphasis is on spectacular special effects and has inspired other films.

42 Moon Warriors (1993)

”Moon Warriors” is a wuxia* about the fisherman Fei who can fight magically well with swords. By chance, he stops an assassination of a prince and then helps him reclaim the throne taken by the prince’s evil brother. Flashy choreography and lots of sword-waving. Reality is never in focus.

41 The Raid: Redemption (2011)

This film showcases classic Indonesian martial arts and primarily Pencak Silat. The film is innovative and showcases a style that had previously only been glimpsed in other films.

40 Martial Club (1980)

This film has passed many by, but it is a little treasure for those who like more lighthearted martial arts films. Like many others, it doesn’t have the best story, but the chaotic fight scenes have made many people drop their jaws as there is so much to focus on. The introduction is tough.

39 Best of the Best (1989)

Taekwondo film starring Eric Roberts. It wasn’t a huge hit, but many martial artists saw it, and a taekwondo movie was needed. In 1992, gyeorugi (a form of full-contact sparring in taekwondo) entered the Olympics as a sport and had been there ever since.

Bruce Lee

38 Duel to the Death (1983)

”Duel to the Death” is a wuxia* with many martial arts and is considered an action film first and foremost. It has ended up on several lists among the world’s best action films of all time, but never quite high up.

37 Swordsman 2 (1992)

We see Jet Li in the lead role, and the director gives the film a meaning to the term ”creative slaughter”. ”Swordsman II” is full of swords and sorcery and is a great homage to classic sword films from Hong Kong.

36 Come Drink With Me (1965)

Cheng Pei-Pei plays the mysterious swordsman ”Golden Swallow”, who tries to rescue a man held prisoner in a Buddhist temple. The film set a new standard in martial arts cinema, and the 20-year-old star became the first true heroine of the genre. Ang Lee was inspired by this film when he made ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, in which Cheng also plays the role of the treacherous Jade Fox.

35 Legendary Weapons of China (1982)

Perhaps one of the greatest martial arts directors of all time, Liu Chia-Liang, stars in and directs this milestone. His character is defecting from an evil cult filled with martial artists who believe they can stop bullets from Western firearms. At the film’s end, Liu Chia-Liang is fought against his real brother Liu Chia-Rong, and some say it is the best choreography for Chinese weapons.

34 The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1977)

Liu Chia-Liang directs his adopted brother Gordon Liu Chia-Hui who plays a rebel during the Ching Dynasty. The film was the first to reveal the training methods of a Shaolin temple and changed the landscape for all future films in the genre.

33 Highlander (1986)

Immortal warriors walk through time and can only be killed by each other by beheading; the film was a huge hit. It also contains period elements from the 90s, where the duels and fighters between the immortals are the very hubs of the story. The film’s tagline, ”there can be only one”, lived on in the film’s sequel and spin-off series, and the music that the band Queen wrote for the film has also lived on.

32 The Kill Bill series

Quentin Tarantino wanted to pay tribute to many of his old love films such as ”Shogun Assassin”, ”The Five Deadly Venoms”, and many others – so the ”Kill Bill” trilogy is a pure homage to other films. ”Kill Bill” also made many people start watching old Hong Kong movies. The first film grossed $333 million and had a budget of $60 million – a huge success. Kill Bill is better than many films that place higher on the list, but not as a martial arts film; therefore, the Kill Bill films have to settle for 32nd place.

31 The Fighter (2010)

Biographical sports film starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo. The film centres around professional boxer Micky Ward and his half-brother Dicky. ”The Fighter” took a classic boxing movie to major mainstream success. It won two Oscars and had several nominations.

30 The Last Dragon (1985)

The list’s only martial arts musical deserves a shoutout for quirkiness. The film is not very good, but cool and damn funny. Check out the trailer on YouTube for those who saw the film when you were young. Nostalgia!

29 Rashomon (1950)

Now we’re starting to get to really strong classics that have great value, even as movies in general, not just martial arts movies. ”Rashomon” is usually considered the film that made the Western world appreciate Japanese cinema, and it is Akira Kurosawa’s breakthrough. The film is a jidaigeki** starring Toshiro Mifune and is considered by some to be the world’s best film. As a martial arts film, it lands this high on the list mainly because of its importance and is a precursor.

28 Yojimbo (1961)

”Yojimbo” is a jidaigeki** directed by the legend Akira Kurosawa. ”Yojimbo” is about a ronin, portrayed by Toshiro Mifune, who arrives in a small town where criminal gangs are ravaging and fighting for supremacy. ”Yojimbo” was made into a western in 1964. Several other films have more or less directly taken the concept of ”Yojimbo” and made their film out of it – for example, Bruce Willis’s film ”Last Man Standing” (1996).

27 13 Assassins (2010)

Directed by Takashi Miike, this Japanese jidaigeki** is a beautiful remake of Eiichi Kudo’s film of the same name from 1963. ”13 Assassins” is a samurai film that makes you think back to the best of the genre. In the film’s final battle, which the film built up to, we see cruel fighters for 45 minutes.

26 Heroes (2002)

Similar to the film ”Rashomon”, the story is based on a mystery told from more than one perspective. When ”Hero” was made, it was China’s most expensive film ever and aimed to beat ”Crouching Tiger”, but it didn’t quite succeed.

25 The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter (1983)

Unfortunately, the film’s lead, Alexander Fu, passed away during filming in a car accident and is not in this Hong Kong film’s showdown. The film is based on a Chinese legend, and if there is any Shaw brothers film you should start watching if you haven’t seen any other, it is this one.

Kill Bill

24 Game of Death (1972)

This is an unfinished Hong Kong film that Bruce Lee wrote, produced, directed and starred in. As it is somewhat unclear how Bruce Lee wanted it, it is a bit difficult to include the film on the list, but the film that was put together after Bruce’s death is worth it. The story is simple and is structured like computer games would later build their levels. Each level has a boss in a tower, and Bruce Lee has to kick and fight with them all.

23 The Big Boss (1971)

This film that made Bruce Lee big in Hong Kong marks his first major role in a feature film.

22 Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001)

The only animated film on the list is a space western based on a series from 1998. The martial arts and environments look just like the creators want without worrying about difficult stunts.

21 Cinderella Man (2005)

An inspiring historical boxing film that takes place in the 1930s and is about the light heavyweight James J. Braddock, who is forced to stop boxing when he breaks his hand. Despite his broken hand, he goes to matches and eventually becomes the world heavyweight champion. The film is both beautiful and stylish.

20 Million Dollar Baby (2004)

This boxing film was nominated for nine Oscars and won four. Clint Eastwood won an Oscar for Best Director, and Hilary Swank won Best Actress for her fantastic performance and portrayal of a boxer. Morgan Freeman won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and the film won one. The film grossed $216 million at the box office and cost $30 million.

19 Fight Club (1999)

”Fight Club” may not have changed the world, but it was incredibly timely. Fight Clubs popped up worldwide, and illegal MMA-like galas in, for example, Denmark, Germany, Holland, France and more. Brad Pitt plays his part superbly, and Edward Norton does as well.

18 Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993)

Inspirational biographical film about Bruce Lee because a (then) modern feature film about the exciting martial arts legend Bruce Lee was needed.

17 Bloodsport (1988)

Jean-Claude Van Damme inspired countless people to practice martial arts with this timely film. A fairly banal story (as is often the case in this kind of film) about a secret and unofficial martial arts competition in Hong Kong that attracts the world’s best fighters.

16 The Chinese Connection (1972)

Also called ”Fist of Fury”. Bruce Lee became a big star with this movie, creating a wave among Chinese people worldwide as the hero defeated many Japanese. The film is loosely based on the life and death of legendary martial artist Huo Yuan-Chia. When Bruce Lee, in one scene, kicked seven different opponents (at a karate school, where some of the opponents have hideously ugly wigs and their Japanese skirt pants backwards) in a single take, fight choreography changed forever.

15 Drunken Master 2 (1994)

Jackie Chan returned to the role of Huang Fei-Hung in the remake of ”Drunken Master”. The film was better than its predecessor. Huang Fei-Hung hunts down smugglers who sell historical Chinese items to the British. Many stylish fighters take place in the film – the final battle stands out.

14 Ali (2001)

Michael Mann created this biographical film in which Will Smith brilliantly plays the lead role of Muhammad Ali. The film received two Oscar nominations, and although it didn’t record enough to go around (in theatres), it did well otherwise.

13 The Karate Kid (1984)

Karate began to grow big in the Western world, and a film like ”Karate Kid” increased interest. I don’t know how many times I watched ”Karate Kid” as a child and rewatched the movie as an adult. The film is not good, but it appeals to countless people worldwide. The film cost eight million dollars and grossed $90.8 million at the box office, which says something about how popular ”Karate Kid” became. None of the sequels is worth mentioning.

12 Raging Bull (1980)

”The Bull from the Bronx” is a boxing film by Martin Scorsese and a brilliant Robert De Niro. The film is based on Jake LaMotta’s autobiography, a story of rise and fall and much more. The depth of several characters, not least in the main role, is impressive. As a martial arts film, perhaps boxing is not entirely in focus, but everything around it is. ”Rocky” may have influenced the world more than ”Raging Bull”, but this is the better movie if you look beyond the martial arts genre.

11 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

This movie made many people who don’t normally watch Asian martial arts movies experience something new. This wuxia* is based on novels by Wang Dulu and stunned the world. This film put Ang Lee on the map, and as a director, he has since made a number of successful blockbusters. The film won four Oscars and was nominated for six.

10 The Duelist (1977)

The directorial debut of Ridley Scott was fantastic. The film is based on duels with different weapons, and we follow Harvey Keitel’s role in Gabriel Feraud through life. Even a film like Kubrick’s ”Barry Lyndon” could be mentioned here on the list, but ”The Duellist” must represent this type of European duelling film this high up on the list.

Ran (1985)

Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece is a Japanese-French jidaigeki** set in the Sengoku era. Kurosawa was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, and photography, set design and costume design were also nominated, with the latter winning. The film is filled with epic battles and fighters. The story is based on legends of daimyo Mori Motonari and Shakespeare’s ”King Lear”.

Five Deadly Venoms (1978)

Along with Shogun Assassin, this is Quentin Tarantino’s favourite martial arts movie, and it’s easy to see why. In this classic Kung Fu movie, each ”Venom” is a master of their style, based on an animal. This is undoubtedly a pure cult classic today, and Entertainment Weekly ranked the film 11th in its top 50 cult films worldwide.

Samurai 1: Musashi Miyamoto (1954)

Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki and starring Toshiro Mifune as the world’s most famous Asian fencer, Miyamoto Musashi. This trilogy of films that came out in the 50s about Musashi is mentioned in the top 10 as they are both important and good. Miyamoto Musashi, also known as Shinmen Takezo, Miyamoto Bennosuke or by his Buddhist name Niten Doraku, was a Japanese swordsman and Ronin. Musashi became famous through the depictions of his excellence in duelling swords from an early age. He was the founder of the Niten-ryu style, as it was also called, and the author of the ”Book of Five Rings” on strategy, tactics and philosophy, which martial artists and business people in modern times still study.

Samurai 2: Duel at Ichijoji Temple Zoku (1955)

Hiroshi Inagaki continued the trilogy, and no one was disappointed.

Samurai 3: Duel on Ganryu Island (1956)

The third and final film in the trilogy changed the genre in many ways. There have been many films and series about Musashi; the first film came as early as 1929. As many as six TV series about Musashi have been produced, and he remains the most important martial artist. What makes Musashi so great is that he must have been very good, but also because he shared his knowledge in book form, similar to Western swordsmen in their manuals. Musashi was considerably more philosophical in writing than the Western fencing masters, and his thoughts have, since his death in 1645, been a great source of inspiration worldwide.

4 Shogun Assassin (1980)

But wait now?! How can a B-movie end up so high on the list? ”Shogun Assassin” or ”Kozure Okami” is a jidaigeki** made primarily for the American and British markets. Not only is this one of Quentin Tarantino’s absolute favourites that are mentioned and shown a bit in ”Kill Bill”, but it has its place in film history. The story of the Lone Wolf and his little child, whom he drives around in a pram, has been the subject of several books, comic albums, and films. The project was a bit crazy as unexpected producers and filmmakers were behind it. Andy Warhol’s one apprentice produced ”Shogun Assassin” and ensured that the film became poetic, extremely graphic and idiosyncratic. And the fact that the first twelve minutes of the film are a mishmash of previous films says something.

3 The Rocky movies

The value of the Rocky movies should not be underestimated. Of course, the later films in the series are not nearly as iconic as the first, but since the early ones almost changed a genre, they are lumped together here. The story of an underdog, a working-class boy who will become nothing but rises and becomes a world champion, is the basis of so many films after ”Rocky” that it has become standard. The drama in the boxing also stood out, even if the fighters themselves weren’t that good. The music for the Rocky movies (mainly the title track) made by Bill Conti is familiar to exercisers worldwide.

Enter the Dragon (1973)

Of course, ”Enter the Dragon” is among the top 10. This is Bruce Lee’s best movie and the best martial arts movie ever. No other Hong Kong martial arts movie has been this good, and it could top our list.

1 The Seven Samurai (1954)

The world’s best martial arts movie of all time is undoubted ”The Seven Samurai”, and it still holds up today. The film not only changed the world and made people in the West crazy about all things Asian – like samurai and budo – but it was also incredibly big at home. The film is three and a half hours long in the original by Akira Kurosawa. ”The Seven Samurai” is incredibly beautifully photographed in a style that does not shy away from being inconsistent (”the end justifies the means” has somehow always been Kurosawa’s aesthetic program, as well as our own Ingmar Bergman’s). It has everything a film classic – this misused word – should have: a tight story, chiselled character gallery, moral as well as psychological complications, unexpected events and perhaps above all, a genuinely cinematic sense of time and space. Kurosawa didn’t shy away from borrowing elements from other stories and films while making them his own. The film has been called by several reviewers the closest cinematic equivalent to the Iliad.

***

*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 travelling 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.

**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.

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