I grew up on martial arts cinema. Well, I've been watching old Kung Fu classics since the early 1980s, back when I was a kid and first started training in martial arts. I love them all.
So, as I compiled this list, I had the approach of your typical fan of Karate flicks. They can be hokey, I'm not excluding any cheesy ones. We all know, the cheesier, the better. But I am also including those legends of the fighting arts and their dramatic masterpieces.
Let's find out what are the best martial arts movies of all time.
This would seem like a recycled Kung Fu movie, but so what? Plots are not a strong point in these films, and they are rarely unique. Somebody gets killed, it was somebody the protagonist loved, so then comes the revengeful carnage. Jade Claw is no different. Son avenging his father's death. What is different are those classic, though unrealistic, Kung Fu moves. Choppy, with dramatic pauses, weird-shaped fists that somehow magically cause death just because of their shape, the odd verbal announcement by the fighters of what styles and techniques they are using in the middle of battle and the usual spectacular acrobatics. Jade Claw is the epitome of Kung Fu action film, old school style. Oh, and the star, Billy Chong, was a Hong Kong legend of this genre.
Wheels On Meals
This is classic Jackie Chan stuff. Add to that Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, his buddies from the Chinese theater that were together tortured and abused by their trainers, and you have a regular Kung Fu comedy troupe. These guys are legends in Hong Kong due to their choreography and comedy.
But that's not the only thing. American Kickboxing legend Benny "The Jet" Urquidez is in the movie. The fight scenes between him and Jackie are phenomenal. Two athletic, super-fast fighters going at it. Doesn't get any better than that.
Five Deadly Venoms
This one's right out of a comic book. Characters wear masks and have super-powers.
The master of the five deadly venoms worries his pupils will gain too much power and trains a lone soul to go after them. Problem is, they all have these unique powers. Each one trains in an animal or insect style and have taken on the abilities of those creatures. The Centipede is super fast. The Snake is fast and agile. The Scorpion has a deadly pincher grip. The Lizard can literally walk on walls. The Frog is nearly invincible.
The hero has to ally himself with at least one of them to defeat the rest.
Fun stuff. Like I said, something out of a comic book. Would love to see a remake from the people who brought us The Avengers.
Rumble In The Bronx
This movie definitely is cheesy. Maybe inappropriately cheesy in spots. But it's the fight scenes that make this movie spectacular. Jackie (Chan) outdid himself in this one. The fight in the grocery store when he squirts juice in the gangster's face and kicks him into a stack of display items is just classic. As usual, Jackie's fight sequences are exciting, intricate and his stunts are death-defying.
The story-line, though not totally unique, isn't bad. Jackie's character comes to his uncle's wedding in New York and no one knows he's a skilled fighter. The new owner of the store his uncle used to own finds out how good Jackie is when he saves her from a group of thugs who've invaded her store. From there on out it just gets more complicated and Jackie, as usual, has to think quick on his feet.
Great choreography, great stunts and great comedy. Worthy of the title "classic".
You know the story-line. The half-vampire half-human good guy who can walk around town in the daylight has to go out and kill the evil vampires with his powers, skills and special weapons. Makes for good fantasy. Also makes for good fight scenes. Especially with the help of John Salvitti. Salvitti made some incredible, fast-paced and pretty fight sequences for Blade 2, that's for certain.
This is one of those old-school Shaolin Kung Fu flicks. It's one of the originals, one of the ones that the others copied. Our hero has to figure out how he can teach regular people outside of the Shaolin Temple. He has to go through chambers of the temple, each one representing levels of training he must pass. The 36th Chamber is the ultimate. Training sequences used to be a stand-by in Kung Fu movies. Just wasn't a Kung Fu movie without cool training sequences.
We get to see fantastic use of the three-sectional staff in this one, the final fight with it is now a martial arts movie classic.
When Ong Bak, and Tony Jaa, came along with spectacular stunts and realistic fight scenes, fans were shocked. Looked like Tony Jaa was really tearing people apart and for certain the stunt men must have been getting hurt. Nothing quite like a Tony Jaa fight scene.
There's just something cool about Tony Jaa. Emotional and ferocious, he has all the elements of a martial arts superstar. While Jackie Chan is the ordinary guy just trying to survive, Tony Jaa is the ordinary guy ready to wipe everybody out for the sake of justice and love. Love both of those guys, but there's a bit of difference there.
In Ong Bak, he's fighting for the honor and love of his village against insurmountable odds. A simple man goes up against the Mob. Good stuff.
Legend Of The Drunken Master
This movie has a lot of elements: Stolen antiques, corrupt government officials, and family issues. But what's most fun about it is watching a skilled fighter fight when he's drunk. Jackie Chan's character fights best when he's had too much to drink, which makes for both amazing and hilarious fight scenes. The finale is just incredible.
Return Of The Dragon
This movie has one awesome scene after another. Bruce Lee beating up gangsters, Bruce Lee using nunchakus and, most of all, Bruce Lee fighting Chuck Norris. Does it get any better than Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris? I think not. The scene is by now iconic. Chuck getting his chest hairs ripped out, Bruce crippling him and then showing respect to a fellow martial artist at the end of the fight. That scene is all about martial arts.
The story-line isn't too bad either. The film represents Bruce's writing and directorial debut. Well, the first and last film that he wrote and directed.
It's about a country bumpkin who comes to the city to help his uncle (always an uncle) with his restaurant and he runs into mobsters and skeptical peers along the way. But in the end he wins. There's a bit of Spaghetti Western flavor to this movie that I just love.
Enter The Dragon
Operatic screams and faces, high kicks, brutal bone-crushing moves, Bruce Lee ferocity: This movie has the iconic super-star's trademark moves and theatrics.
British Intelligence asks a Shaolin martial artist to infiltrate a rogue Shaolin monk's drug operation. Just so happens the drug lord is responsible for Lee's sister's death. Well, our hero has every reason to want to go after the drug lord Han.
British Intelligence is late on the uptake and it's up to Lee and his friends to, sort of, save the day.
This movie is number one among martial arts classics. It has everything you need in a Kung Fu movie: Revenge, action, drama, martial arts weapons and the legend Bruce Lee.