Martial arts movies have been leaving audiences with their jaws on the floor for generations. In recent years, the genre has managed to reinvent itself with innovative fighting styles, incredible stunt work, new stars, and emotional, hard-hitting stories.
The 20th century was ruled by the legendary likes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan but since 2000, many other martial artists have punched and kicked their names as some of the best to ever do it. It’s no surprise that the movies in which they exhibited their excellent skills are also some of the best the genre has ever seen.
10 Ong Bak Introduced The World To The Amazing Talents Of Tony Jaa
Few martial artists have ever burst onto the scene in such breathtaking, awe-inspiring fashion as Thailand’s Tony Jaa. As a gymnast and Muay Thai expert, Jaa showed off his mind-boggling moves in Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior. Jaa’s motivation for making Ong Bak was to bring Thai martial arts to the mainstream. With Ong Bak, he certainly succeeded.
The absence of wires and CGI only further cemented Tony Jaa as the next big thing in martial arts movies. He would top Ong Bak a couple of years later, yet there’s no denying the impact this film had on fight films and Thai cinema in general.
9 SPL Is A Must-Watch Martial Arts Flick Featuring The Great Donnie Yen
No discussion of the greatest martial arts movies is complete without Donnie Yen. Though the action legend has lent his terrific techniques to many pictures over the years, SPL: Sha Po Lang (released in the United States as Kill Zone) remains one of his best works.
With Ip Man director Wilson Yip at the helm and the talents of Wu Jing and Sammo Hung on display alongside Donnie Yen, SPL delivers some truly thrilling and fast-paced fight scenes. SPL would receive two sequels, with each one being more than worthy of sharing the name with this classic.
8 John Wick Changed The Game For American Martial Arts Movies
It’s not often that a film from American cinema comes alongside the very best that Asia has to offer in terms of martial arts movies. Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series certainly laid a claim to being one of the best fight series to ever come out of the U.S., but the Keanu Reeves-starring John Wick franchise has revolutionized the genre in North America.
Reeves’ charisma and likability set John Wick up for success. Additionally, its inventive fight sequences, spellbinding gunplay, and simple, easy-to-invest-in story are what make it such an unforgettable movie.
7 Zhang Yimou’s Hero Is A Classic Packed With Some Major Martial Arts Names
Few martial arts movies can boast a cast as star-studded and synonymous with the genre as Hero. Though Zhang Yimou’s wuxia film works best as a showcase of the incomparable Jet Li, Hero also stars Tony Leung (Shang Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings), Donnie Yen, and Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
Hero’s story and epic scope are what set it apart from so many in the genre. In 2002, it became the first Chinese language movie to place at number 1 at the American box office.
6 SPL II Managed To Build Upon The Original’s Excellent Fight Foundations
Topping the first installment of the SPL franchise was an admittedly tall order, yet director Chaeng Pou-soi, producer Wilson Yip, and stars Wu Jing, Zhang Jin, and Tony Jaa were up for the challenge. SPL II: A Time For Consequences (also known as Kill Zone 2) takes the unforgettable fighting styles and stuntwork of the first SPL movie and builds on them in every way.
Though the sequel lacks the undeniable star power of Donnie Yen, SPL II still manages to hit harder in terms of awesome action and emotion.
5 House Of Flying Daggers Is Filled With Romance And Ridiculously Good Action
Though Zhang Yimou’s 2004 wuxia film is more about love and romance than hard-hitting action, the fight scenes and stunt choreography within House Of Flying Daggers are thrilling enough to stand alongside the absolute best that the genre has to offer.
With an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography, it’s hard to argue against House Of Flying Daggers as one of the best-looking martial arts movies ever made. The highlight, Zhang Ziyi’s breathtaking dance sequence, remains an unforgettable element of a truly fascinating film.
4 Ip Man Features Donnie Yen’s Finest Work
Donnie Yen is undoubtedly a master when it comes to the martial arts genre. Arguably, his greatest movie saw him play a real-life master in Ip Man. As the grandmaster of Wing Chun who trained Bruce Lee, Donnie Yen shows off his impressive repertoire of moves while delivering a powerful and dramatic performance.
Ip Man is far from your typical fight flick. Wilson Yip’s movie is packed with emotional scenes that will engage and delight viewers even if they don’t have the slightest interest in martial arts.
3 The Protector Is An All-Time Great And The Ultimate Showcase Of Muay Thai
Tony Jaa’s incredible brand of toughness wowed audiences upon the release of Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior. When the former gymnast followed it up with The Protector (or Tom-Yum-Goong as it is known in Thailand), fight fans could hardly believe their eyes. The Protector‘s hallway scene, which sees Jaa plow through hordes of nameless enemies, is now a legendary sequence within martial arts cinema history.
Jaa’s athleticism and mastery of the ancient form of Muay Boran are breathtaking to watch. The Protector rarely lets up from its gripping opening scenes but when it does, it delivers some surprisingly emotional moments amongst the bone-breaking madness.
2 The Raid: Redemption Is On A Floor Of Its Own When It Comes To Innovative Action
Influential and endlessly imitated in recent years, The Raid is an all-out assault on the senses that doesn’t let up from the moment that Iko Uwais’ Rama enters the high-rise building filled with enemies, wishing to end his life. Each fight sequence within Gareth Evans’ phenomenal film manages to outdo the last, and it does this while raising the stakes for the heroes.
As a viewer, fans will no doubt be glued to their seat throughout The Raid’s runtime. Thanks to The Raid and Iko Uwais’ stunning skills, the Indonesian martial art of Pencak Silat sits comfortably as cinema’s most devastating discipline.
1 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Is The Fight Film With No Equals
Ang Lee’s legendary installment into the hall of wuxia wonders is simply one of the greatest martial arts movies ever made. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon received an incredible 10 Academy Awards nominations, which was a record for a foreign-language film at the time.
With the star-studded cast (including Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, and Zhang Ziyi), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon forever changed martial arts cinema. Its story, fight choreography, and performances remain the gold standard for fight flicks.
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