Martial arts movies make up a special and distinctive genre of action films that has been developing and growing for over 50 years. The following list includes 20 of the greatest martial arts movies of all time, based on critic and popular audience ratings. It is arranged in chronological order to best showcase the progression of the genre through time.
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1. Seven Samurai (1954)
- Original Title: Shichinin no samurai
- Director: Akira Kurosawa
- Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima
Seven Samurai is perhaps the ideal movie with which to begin the list of best martial arts movies of all time. Consistently ranked well by critics and fans alike, this historical drama continues to impress audiences over 50 years after its initial release. Co-written, edited and directed by cinema legend Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai takes place in 1586 rural Japan.
Facing repeated attacks and thefts from a group of bandits, a farming village hires seven ronin — samurai without a master — to protect them from harm. Aside from the martial arts itself, the story line is so enduring that Seven Samurai was adapted and rebooted as The Magnificent Seven, in 1960. The Western version has been rebooted again and will be premiering this year in 2016.
2. Come Drink With Me (1966)
- Original Title: Da zui xia
- Director: King Hu (as King Chuan)
- Starring: Pei-Pei Cheng, Hua Yueh, Hung Lieh Chen
Often hailed as one of the greatest Hong Kong films of all time, Come Drink With Me features a fierce group of female warriors at the center of the action. When a general's son is taken hostage, the general sends his daughter to go and retrieve him. Cheng Pei-pei stars as Golden Swallow, the tough and savvy heroine. In April 2007, Bob and Harvey Weinstein discussed a remake of Come Drink With Me under the direction of Quentin Tarantino, yet the idea appears to be no longer in development.
3. The One-Armed Swordsman (1967)
- Original Title: Du bei dao
- Director: Cheh Chang
- Starring: Yu Wang, Chiao Chiao, Chung-Hsin Huang
Like Come Drink With Me, The One-Armed Swordsman is another wuxia film from Hong Kong. It was one of the first of its kind to play on the idea of male antiheroes and copious amounts of bloodshed. A young student of poor lineage, Fang Kang (Jimmy Wang) loses an arm in a battle with his teacher's spoiled daughter.
With the help and love of another girl, he is able to re-master swordsmanship despite his physical handicap. It was the first Hong Kong film to break HK$1 million at the local box office, and Jimmy Wang soon became a wuxia super star.
4. The Big Boss (1971)
- Original Title: Tang shan da xiong
- Directors: Wei Lo, Chia-Hsiang Wu
- Starring: Bruce Lee, Maria Yi, James Tien
This is the film that propelled Bruce Lee into the international spotlight. Directed by Lo Wei, Bruce Lee co-wrote the script with Wei, and starred as Cheng Chao-an, a Chinese man that moves to Thailand to work in an ice factory. While working in the factory, he discovers that the whole operation is a front for a drug smuggling ring. He sets out to defeat the leader of the organization, but tragedy begins to plague his family at the hands of the violent gangsters.
5. Fist Of Fury (1972)
- Original Title: Jing wu men
- Director: Wei Lo
- Starring: Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, James Tien
Mistakenly released in the US as The Chinese Connection, Fist Of Fury firmly secured Bruce Lee's position as a world-renowned martial artist and actor in the martial arts movies industry. Capitalizing on the polarization between Japan and China, the film follows the story of a young student, Chen Zhen (Bruce Lee) who returns to his school in order to marry his true love. Tragically, he finds that his master has died while he has been away. Students from a Japanese dojo arrive and taunt the Chinese students, making challenges and threats until Chen Zhen defeats them all with his impressive nunchaku skills, and then sets out to avenge his master's death.
6. The Way Of The Dragon (1972)
- Original Title: Meng long guo jiang
- Director: Bruce Lee
- Starring: Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Nora Miao
The Way Of The Dragon had to earn a place on the list of best martial arts films of all time as it is Bruce Lee's only solo directorial achievement. It broke the box office records set by Fists Of Fury and The Big Boss with a whopping US$5.2 million. Bruce Lee stars as Tang Lung, opposite Nora Miao as Chen Ching-hua. Set in Rome, the climax of the movie happens in an epic fight between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in the Colosseum.
7. Enter The Dragon (1973)
- Original Title: Enter The Dragon
- Director: Robert Clouse
- Starring: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly
The final masterpiece in Bruce Lee's list of remarkable martial arts films, Enter The Dragon was released six days after the star's death at the tender age of 32. Bruce Lee stars in the film as Lee, a Shaolin martial artist that receives an invitation to participate in a private competition held by Mr. Han (Shih Kien). When it turns out that Han is engaged in numerous nefarious and illegal activities, Lee goes under cover with the British Intelligence Agency to defeat Han.
Enter The Dragon achieved such popularity in the United States it is often considered to be the film that set off the "Kung Fu Kraze" in cinema. In 2004, it was preserved in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
8. Five Deadly Venoms (1978)
- Original Title: Wu du
- Director: Cheh Chang
- Starring: Sheng Chiang, Chien Sun, Phillip Chung-Fung Kwok
The Five Deadly Venoms quickly rose to cult film status in Hong Kong and throughout the world, ranking #11 on EW's Top 50 Cult Films list. From director Chang Cheh, the film follows the story of Yang Tieh, who is charged with a special mission from his dying master. Yang Tieh must find five previous pupils from the Poison Clan: Centipede, Snake, Lizard, Toad and Scorpion. Each of the five fights with a mask and has his own unique set of deadly combat skills. Yang Tien must decide who of the five he can trust, and defeat the rest in order to protect the Yun fortune.
9. The Prodigal Son (1981)
- Original Title: Bai ga jai
- Director: Sammo Kam-Bo Hung
- Starring: Biao Yuen, Ching-Ying Lam, Sammo Kam-Bo Hung
Leung Chang (Yuen Biao) is not a natural-born fighter. While studying kung fu, he is so inept that his father begins paying people to lose to him in fights. But when Leung Chang discovers his father's deceit, he decides to study martial arts with renewed fervor and a new teacher.
10. The Karate Kid (1984)
- Original Title: The Karate Kid
- Director: John G. Avildsen
- Starring: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Elisabeth Shue
The original Karate Kid marked the beginning of the success of American martial arts films. Starring Ralph Macchio as Daniel LaRusso, the film tells the story of a teenage underdog that comes under the tutelage of Mr. Miyagi. Through extensive training, Daniel becomes a skilled martial artist, ultimately defeating his nemesis in the final match of the film. The Karate Kid was such a critical and box office success, it spawned two sequels and a remake in 2010, starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith.
11. Once Upon A Time In China (1991)
- Original Title: Wong Fei Hung
- Director: Hark Tsui
- Starring: Jet Li, Biao Yuen, Rosamund Kwan
The first in the Once Upon Time In China series, this action film starred Jet Li and is widely credited as reintroducing the martial arts craze in cinema in the '90s. Set in China in the late 19th century, Jet Li stars as Wong Fei-hung, a martial arts teacher of a local militia, along with Yuen Biao as Leung Foon, a performer that ultimately seeks to become a martial artist.
12. Iron Monkey (1993)
- Original Title: Siu nin Wong Fei Hung chi: Tit ma lau
- Director: Woo-Ping Yuen
- Starring: Rongguang Yu, Donnie Yen, Jean Wang
The Iron Monkey is the alter ego of Yang Tianchun, a physician that runs a medical clinic by day, and dresses as a masked martial artist operating under a Robin Hood-style code of ethics by night. The film incorporates a fictionalized version of the childhood of Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung, and his father Wong Key-ying. When Key-ying is suspected of being the Iron Monkey, the true Iron Monkey arrives to disrupt the proceedings. Ultimately father, son and Iron Monkey must unite to protect the town against a traitorous Shaolin monk.
13. Fist Of Legend (1994)
- Original Title: Jing wu ying xiong
- Director: Gordon Chan
- Starring: Jet Li, Shinobu Nakayama, Siu-Ho Chin
Produced by and starring Jet Li, Fist Of Legend is a remake of 1972 Fist Of Fury. Following the same plot line as its predecessor, the film had a tremendous influence on later films, including many of the fight scenes in The Matrix. An unofficial sequel premiered in 1996, starring Jet Le instead of Jet Li.
14. Drunken Master 2 (The Legend Of Drunken Master (US)) (1994)
- Original Title: Jui kuen II
- Director: Chia-Liang Liu
- Starring: Jackie Chan, Ho-Sung Pak, Lung Ti
Another film based around Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung, Drunken Master 2 stars Jackie Chan. A reboot of 1978 film Drunken Master, it enjoyed massive critical success in comparison to the original. Wong Fei-hung attempts to smuggle ginseng for his father, angry at the idea of paying tax on the imported goods. When the train is stormed by British Consulate guards searching for a stolen item, Wong Fei-hung discovers that he has actually taken a valuable artifact instead of the ginseng.
15. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
- Original Title: Wo hu cang long
- Director: Ang Lee
- Starring: Yun-Fat Chow, Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang
Directed by Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a compilation of Taiwanese, Hong Kong and American martial arts cinema. Set in the late 1700s during the Qing Dynasty, the film stars Chow Yun-fat as Li Mu Bai and Michelle Yeoh as Yu Shu Lien. Mu Bai, a great warrior, sends his sword to an old friend as a gift, but when the sword is stolen, he and Shu Lien must seek to find the sword and resolve their feelings for one another.
A surprise international smash hit, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon became the highest grossing foreign-language film in U.S. history, bringing in US$128 million in the United States alone, and $213 million worldwide. So far one of the best martial arts movie ever been produced.
16. Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (US)) (2003)
- Original Title: Ong-bak
- Director: Prachya Pinkaew
- Starring: Tony Jaa, Petchtai Wongkamlao, Pumwaree Yodkamol
Ong Bak first introduced actor and martial artist Tony Jaa to the world. Set in a rural Thai village, Jaa stars as Ting, a young martial artist that must go on a quest to retrieve a stolen Buddha statue known as Ong-Bak. The film spawned two sequels, Ong-Bak 2 and Ong-Bak 3.
17. Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
- Original Title: Kung fu
- Director: Stephen Chow
- Starring: Stephen Chow, Wah Yuen, Qiu Yuen
Stephen Chow directed, produced, wrote and starred in this joint venture between production companies Star Overseas and Columbia Pictures Asia. The film features many retired stars from '70s era Hong Kong martial arts cinema, but is generally compared to contemporary films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. An action-comedy with a distinctive style, Kung Fu Hustle takes place in 1930s Shanghai. Sing (Stephen Chow) is an underdog whose main goal in life is to join the notorious Axe Gang.
18. Tom-Yum-Goong (The Protector (US)) (2005)
- Original Title: Tom yum goong
- Director: Prachya Pinkaew
- Starring: Tony Jaa, Nathan Jones, Petchtai Wongkamlao
The second Thai film on the list, Tom-Yum-Goong also stars tony Jaa and was directed by Prachya Pinkaew. Jaa plays Kham, the final son of a family that took care of the war elephants of the king of Thailand. When two of the elephants dear to Kham are stolen during a festival, Kham must travel to Sydney to try and retrieve the elephants from the Vietnamese gangster that stole them.
19. Fearless (2006)
- Original Title: Huo yuanjia
- Director: Ronny Yu
- Starring: Jet Li, Li Sun, Yong Dong
Set toward the end of the Qing Dynasty just before the formation of the People's Republic of China, Jet Li stars in Fearless as Huo Yuanjia. Huo Yuanjia is a historical figure in Chinese history, as he challenged many foreign fighters to public fights and restored pride and nationalism to China at a time when Western Imperialism and Japanese manipulation loomed.
20. Ip Man (2008)
- Original Title: Yip Man
- Director: Wilson Yip
- Starring: Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Siu-Wong Fan
Ip Man is based around the life of Wing Chun grandmaster Yip Man, who was the master of Bruce Lee. Donnie Yen stars as Ip Man, with martial arts choreography by Sammo Hung. The film became the first in a the Ip Man series, which includes Ip Man 2 and Ip Man 3.
What's your favorite martial arts movie of all time?