Martial arts movies are exactly what the name implies – movies featuring martial arts. From Muay Thai in Ong Bak to Ninjutsu in Bloodsport, these types of movies display different styles in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons. Martial arts movies originated in the Orient and have since penetrated Western cinema with movies such as Rush Hour and The One.
Many martial artist actors started their careers in the Orient and have since moved to Hollywood to develop and expand an exciting genre. The key figure in this transition was Bruce Lee – and actors such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li have followed in his footsteps.
Westerners have also started devoting themselves to learning martial arts and several Western actors, such as Chuck Norris, have also translated their skills to the screen. Directors such as Quentin Tarantino, with his films Kill Bill: Volumes 1 and 2, have been influenced and inspired by martial arts movies to give us exciting and innovative new ways of incorporating martial arts into movies.
The movies in this genre generally consist of extensive and brilliantly choreographed fight sequences. The most important aspect however, above even the superb display of skill and technique, is clearly bringing across the philosophies which resonate within martial arts.
From wuxia films (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) to spoof films (Kung Fu Hustle) to animation (Kung Fu Panda), there are way too many martial arts movies that you have to see to list them here, so rather check out these actors’ work:
• Bruce Lee
• Jackie Chan
• Jet Li
• Gordon Liu
• Tony Jaa
• Sonny Chiba
• Donnie Yen
• Chuck Norris
• David Carradine
• Dolph Lundgren
• Jean-Claude van Damme
ENTER THE DRAGON (1973)
Director: Robert Clouse
Cast: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly and Shih Kien
Bruce Lee was one of the greatest martial arts actors and his skills are on perfect display in Enter the Dragon. His character, Lee, is invited to a martial arts’ tournament in Hong Kong by the disreputable Han (Kien), although Lee’s reason for attending is personal. Among the guests are Americans Roper and Williams. Lee is a type of James Bond character, except with morals and scruples, and his character constantly reflects his personal philosophy. The audience is treated to an abundant number of brilliant fight sequences, which were staged by Lee himself. The costumes and settings are rich and sumptuous, reflecting Han’s glamorous and indulgent lifestyle, while emphasising the poverty of those around him in Hong Kong. Saxon and Kelly, as Roper and Williams, are brilliant supporting characters with their one-liners and eccentricity. Although this is a martial arts film, the story is complex enough to keep you involved and there is enough action and suspense to keep you on the edge of your seat. The absolute pinnacle of the film, besides Lee himself, is the incredible mirror scene at the end of the film. With its outstanding choreography and adherence to philosophy, Enter the Dragon will forever remain one of the greatest and most important martial arts films in cinema history.
DRUNKEN MASTER (1978)
Director: Yuen Woo Ping
Cast: Jackie Chan, Yuen Hsiao Tieng and Huang Cheng
Drunken Master is a terrific blend of comedy and martial arts and the king of this combination is Jackie Chan. Long before his ascent to the throne as comedy-martial art superstar in Hollywood with movies such as Rumble in the Bronx and the Rush Hour trilogy, Chan was kicking ass and making people laugh in the East. In Drunken Master, a young Chan plays cocky kung fu student Wong Fei-Hung who is disowned by his father, after he disgraces his aunt (who beats him up spectacularly). However, recognising his potential , Fei-Hung’s aunt convinces his father to give him another chance and this leads to him being trained under the drunken master of the title, whose elixir is wine. Fei-Hung’s master teaches him about the eight drunken gods, which leads to some hysterical but still incredibly impressive fight sequences. The film is non-stop action and the chemistry between Fei-Hung and his master is perfect. The choreography is brilliant and the best part is that there is no Western hero who steps in and saves the day. It is a genuine and pure martial arts film and it is Jackie Chan at his best.
Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, Chen Dao Ming, Zhang Ziyi and Donnie Yen
Watching this film is like falling through a rainbow. The scenes are saturated in one dominant colour, such as the blue scene where Li and Chiu-Wai battle on the water, and the effect is breathtaking. The film’s visual splendour is one of its many strong points. Hero is a rare gem – consisting of brilliant cinematography, exquisite costumes, rousing music, honest acting and a beautiful story. Hero is a remarkable wuxia film filled with excellently choreographed action sequences. With its predecessor Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero paved the way for future wuxia films that combined martial arts and fantastic visuals and reinforced the popularity of the martial arts genre in mainstream Western cinema. Hero also sees Jet Li and Donnie Yen paired up for the first time since Once Upon a Time in Chine 2 in 1992. This is a film with a lot to offer, not just in terms of martial arts, and is a must see.
AN EYE FOR AN EYE (1981)
Director: Steve Carver
Cast: Chuck Norris, Christopher Lee, Maggie Cooper and Mako
This film (and most of Norris’ work) doesn’t fit very well into the martial arts genre. However, due to his experience in and devotion to martial arts and his attempt to incorporate it into film, Chuck had to be included. Chuck plays a cop, Sean Kane, who is in search of vengeance and truth after both his partner and his reporter friend are killed while trying to uncover the suspects behind a drug-cartel. After a dispute with his boss, he turns in his badge and gun and turns to his old martial arts instructor for help. Loaded with cheesy dialogue and melodrama, this is a Chuck Norris movie and you can’t expect more than a hero story with Chuck saving the day and kicking some ass while he does it. However, he pales in comparison to Lee, Chan and Li when it comes to skill and technique, but it’s mostly due to the terrible choreography and bad direction. Having said that, Chuck’s instructor does emphasise concentration over brute strength and at least Chuck doesn’t resort to guns as he usually does, but rather uses his body as the ultimate weapon (as the movie slogan so aptly puts it). Don’t expect this movie to change your life or be very insightful towards martial arts, but rather just revel in the cheesiness, the Chuck, Christopher Lee and the dog who steals the entire show.
Photo credit: Martial Arts Action Movies
Originally published in A Look Away.