What are the best martial arts movies? Over the years, we have seen many different interpretations of this genre. Now, if you’re thinking that this particular genre is one-note then this list will show you just how diverse it can be. From police thrillers, comedy, to even high fantasy; we’ll introduce you to 30 of the best movies in the genre.
What Defines the Best Martials Arts Movies?
The best films in this genre showcase Chinese martial arts styles and can be realistic or highly-stylized, depending on the film itself. Think Bruce Lee in Way of the Dragon vs. Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. It may also borrow certain concepts from acrobatic performances, ballet, and Chinese theater. Another trademark of the genre is its focus on the skills, philosophies, and various exploits surrounding the particular fighting style featured.
There is a great emphasis placed on the martial arts, as opposed to simply using it as an embellishment to the story. This is also the very thing that sets apart martial arts films produced in Asia. Aside from fighting techniques, swordplay and the use of other traditional weaponry is highlighted in these films. Some might even go into its history, which is very common when it comes to Wuxia films.
The Best Martial Arts Movies – Early Beginnings
For a period of time, Hong Kong and China had a monopoly on martial arts movies. Studios like the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest churned out hundreds of movies annually. However, when the 90s came, other Asian countries saw the opportunity to introduce their own take on the genre. Aside from Chinese martial arts, Japan, Thailand, India, and South Korea also began producing their own movies to fill the gap. In doing so, they introduced the world to some new rising stars such as Jeeja Yanin and Tony Jaa.
Western movies like Star Wars also incorporated certain motifs and fighting styles found in Kung fu movies. This can be seen in the fighting style of Jedi like Obi Wan Kenobi, who is portrayed by actor Ewan McGregor.
Top 30 of the Best Martial Arts Movies You Must Watch
Now that we’ve looked at the colorful history of martial arts films, it’s time we introduced you to some of its greatest examples in cinema. This list will include a mix of Asian and Western movies that exemplify the true spirit of the genre.
Mortal Kombat (2021) – Simon McQuoid
Let’s start things off with one of the most recent action movies from this genre. Mortal Kombat (2021) is a reboot of the entire film franchise. Something that we’re sure many fans of the original movies have been anticipating for a while now. Unlike its predecessors, however, the reboot doesn’t shy away from the violence and exaggerated depictions of it. It brings to mind Quentin Tarantino and his use of blood geysers, which can be effective but also risks a degree of campiness when overused. The fight scenes can be very brutal, which is exactly what the film’s main market is after. It’s entertaining, but not quite the martial arts think piece others might be looking for.
Shaolin Soccer – Stephen Chow
Stephen Chow may not have broken into the international scene in the same manner as his contemporaries like Jet Li and Jackie Chan, but his legacy is just as encompassing. For the uninitiated, 2002’s Shaolin Soccer might be overwhelming, considering all the larger-than-life characters, impromptu dance numbers, and good old-fashioned Hong Kong satire. However, beneath all of that is a heart-warming tale that reflects many regular folk’s struggles. In this case, however, our protagonist doesn’t take things sitting down. He kicks it straight into the goal.
The Prodigal Son – Sammo Hung
This Sammo Hung classic is one of Hong Kong’s most recognized martial arts comedies. While The Prodigal Son was meant to elicit laughs, the movie never once waned when it came to delivering some of the best fight scenes in the genre. Think beautifully choreographed martial arts, with plenty of comedic moments tossed in. It starred Yuen Biao and managed to gross close to HK$10 million at the box office!
Master of the Flying Guillotine – Jimmy Wang Yu
This 1976 film is one of the prime examples of really great Wuxia movies. It stars Jimmy Wang Yu, who also wrote and directed the entire thing. Needless to say, this approach made for a total masterpiece when it comes to the genre. While there are many over the top moments, not least of which is the flying guillotine itself, the story will keep you glued the whole time. Even Quentin Tarantino cites this as one of his favorites of all time.
Kill Bill – Quentin Tarantino
Since we’re on the topic of Quentin Tarantino, let’s talk about his contribution to the genre. Even among fans of Asian classics, Kill Bill holds its own as one of the best martial arts movies in recent years. It’s got the same wild energy and campiness as the originals, but branded with Tarantino’s often dark humor. The fight scenes are cinematography gold and it also gave us some of the best movie quotes!
The Way of the Dragon – Bruce Lee
No list would be complete without this classic. Written, directed, and starring the legendary Bruce Lee, it is one of the finest examples of what martial arts movies can be. In the film, we see a different, more humorous side to the martial artist. This is particularly unique as his movies are often defined by restraint and a degree of reverence. Of course, the most notable thing about this movie is the fact that Lee faces off with another legend in the genre: Chuck Norris.
Ip Man – Wilson Yip
Think of the Ip Man movies as Hong Kong’s answer to Rocky. The film is named after Ip Man, a grandmaster of Wing Chun and Bruce Lee’s teacher. It is a biographical martial arts film, focusing on the master’s life during the Sino-Japanese War. It stars one of Hong Kong’s biggest stars, Donnie Yen, in the lead role. Sammo Hung choreographed the gorgeous and sometimes emotional fight scenes, which really gave the Ip Man movies their distinct color.
Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior – Prachya Pinkaew
Ong Bak is one of Thailand’s best martial arts movies and it beautifully highlights the power of Muay Thai. The film is also actor Tony Jaa’s breakout film, which led to him becoming one of Hollywood’s major martial arts stars. The success of the first film also spawned two sequels, which were both received well. It shares many similar motifs with classic Wuxia, but injects more powerful fight scenes that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Drunken Master – Yuen Woo-ping
Drunken Master is one of the pioneers when it comes to Hong Kong comedy martial arts films. It stars Jackie Chan and also helped with popularizing the Zui Quan, also known as the “drunken fist” fighting style. This film stands out because even the fight scenes infused humor, despite using some very traditional techniques such as the Hung Ga system. As with many Jackie Chan movies, he did all of the stunts himself, nearly losing an eye after his brow ride was injured while filming.
Enter the Ninja – Menahem Golan
If you’ve ever wondered how the stereotypical ninja tropes became widely recognized in the West, you have this movie to thank. It starred Japanese martial arts master, Sho Kosugi. Think of it as the blueprint for all the ninja movies to follow. In fact, you can easily list down all of its elements that many other similar action movies have copied.
House of Flying Daggers – Zhang Yimou
This 2004 Wuxia movie proves that the best martial arts movies aren’t always about the action. Starring Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau, and Takeshi Kaneshiro, its story revolves more around the romance between two of the characters instead of being a straight-up action film. Despite that, it delivered some of the most breathtaking interpretations of Wuxia in recent years, even receiving a nomination for Best Cinematography during the 2004 Academy Awards.
Man of Tai Chi – Keanu Reeves
Actor Keanu Reeves has starred in a number of amazing modern martial arts movies, such as The Matrix and John Wick. For now, however, we’ll look at his work as a director because Man of Tai Chi certainly deserves its own slot on this list. This Chinese-American martial arts film stars Reeves himself, along with Tiger Chen, Karen Mok, Iko Uwais, and Simon Yam. It didn’t do well in the box office, but Reeves received plenty of praise for his direction. It is a callback to old-fashioned martial arts films, especially when it comes to its thrilling fight scenes.
Furie – Lê Văn Kiệt
So far, we’ve only seen male-led films on our list. This time, let’s turn our focus to one of the best martial arts movies to come out of Vietnam in recent years. Starring Veronica Ngo in the lead, Furie gives audiences beautifully choreographed fight scenes that highlight the power of Vovinam. On top of that, it is also incredibly cinematic. From the lush countryside to the gritty big city, the deliberate choice in shots and lighting creates a surreal backdrop for this thriller.
The Karate Kid – Jerry Weintraub
Sure, purists may scoff at the fact that The Karate Kid is on this list, but no one can deny its impact. Not only did it introduce an entire generation to Karate movies, it is also one of the most successful franchises in the genre. It isn’t without its great moments either, including the fact that it stars Noriyuki “Pat” Morita in the role of the legendary Mr. Miyagi. The film also has many of the hallmarks of classic martial arts movies, including a master and apprentice relationship, training, and eventually competing with a seemingly insurmountable foe. This is one of the best movies on Netflix you can watch today!
Iron Monkey – Tsui Hark
Iron Monkey is largely considered to be one of the best martial arts movies, thanks to its story and the unique way its fight scenes were shot. It is a dramatized account of the period when Wong Fei Hung and his father Wong Kei-ying encounter the masked martial artist known as “Iron Monkey.” Do note that many of its scenes were changed in the United States release, so we recommend checking out the Hong Kong original.
Fearless – Ronny Yu
Loosely based on the life of Chinese martial artist Huo Yuanjia, this martial arts epic isn’t just beautifully choreographed, it also evokes a degree of emotion rarely seen in the genre. It also marked the final film in Jet Li’s quarter-decade of starring in martial arts epic films. To fully appreciate this one, we suggest watching the 140-minute director’s cut as it contains Yu’s original vision. It may not have the same level of fighting grace as House of Daggers, but the film will keep you glued to the screen.
So Close – Corey Yuen
If you’re looking for the best martial arts film led by a female cast, So Close will certainly deliver. It stars three of Hong Kong’s most popular action heroines, Zhao Wei, Karen Mok, and Shu Qi in this fast-paced crime thriller. The action hits you early on and the fight scenes will leave you breathless. There’s much to be said about the film’s cinematography and masterful close-up shots, which really bring you into the scenes itself. So Close’s story isn’t lacking either and provides emotional pauses, while making sure the energy of the film doesn’t drop.
Kung Fu Panda – John Stevenson
While Kung Fu Panda is largely marketed for children, the reverence it has for its source material makes it deserving of a spot here. Po, portrayed by Jack Black, is every bit a classic protagonist in old-school martial arts movies. Any fan of the genre would be able to easily recognize all the familiar elements, especially that of Wuxia movies. It is a refreshing take on it, making for one of the most entertaining action movies that can be enjoyed by both kids and even adults alike.
Police Story – Jackie Chan
Police Story is one of Hong Kong’s most successful franchises. It has also produced some of the best martial arts movies, but we have to give credit to the first movie in the series. Jackie Chan starred in and directed this 1985 movie, which elevated his stunt performances to an entirely new level. This is what you’ll be watching the film for, because the story follows the usual cop versus bad guys plot.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Ang Lee
This Wuxia epic is the only Oscar-winner on our list and for very good reason. Not only did it elevate the artistry of Wuxia movies, it was able to seamlessly combine action with storytelling. It features superstars Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, and Chow Yun-Fat as warriors whose loyalties and skills are tested by a series of challenges. Perhaps the most notable thing about it is the fact it never once tried to bend to Western audiences’ whims.
Kung Fu Hustle – Stephen Chow
Just one look and you’ll instantly know it’s a Stephen Chow movie. That is how memorable the actor and director’s style is when it comes to his comedy martial arts flicks. Kung Fu Hustle will provide a refreshing break from most of the serious action we have covered, so far, on our list. It delivers Kung fu parodies and an entire cast of kooky yet memorable characters, which is a trademark of his many films. The movie is meant to be enjoyed, not analyzed.
Baaghi – Sabbi Khan
Bollywood might be best known for their vibrant dance sequences and gorgeous costumes, but they are also steadily gaining a reputation when it comes to martial arts movies. Just take Baaghi, for example. It stars Tiger Shroff and Shraddha Kapoor in this movie that greatly highlights the indigenous martial art of Kalari. Shroff did many of his own stunts, training for months just to get the fight scenes as close to perfect. It certainly paid off and he even gets to showcase his dancing in the lavish dance numbers peppered throughout.
Sister Street Fighter – Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
While the first Street Fighter movie is more iconic, we have to give props to this sequel due to Sue Shiomi’s performance. It’s hard to imagine Sonny Chiba playing second fiddle to anyone, but he does it well and gives his role justice alongside that of Shiomi’s. It is more understated than the original, but the fight sequences are no less exciting. The story is just as satisfying and you’ll be treated to a wide array of martial arts techniques.
Bloodsport – Newt Arnold
This is the film that introduced Jean-Claude Van Damme to the world and helped cement his status as Hollywood’s go-to action star. It did really well at the box office, with due credit to Van Damme’s athletic skill and the expertly choreographed fight scenes featured in the film. While some may question its storyline, there’s no denying that the actor’s fluency when it comes to his martial art elevated the movie’s artistic credit. Even today, it is considered a cult classic.
Executioners from Shaolin – Lau Kar Leung
In Kill Bill, there is a scene where the characters of David Carradine and Uma Thurman sit around a bonfire and talk about the story of Pai Mei. For fans of Kung fu cinema, this must have been a major “aha!” moment, as it references one of the best martial arts films from the 70s. Executioners from Shaolin stars Gordon Liu as its iconic villain, Pai Mei, who has near invincibility with decades of training under his belt. Even the worst Disney villains have nothing on this guy.
Flash Point – Wilson Yip
Flash Point follows the old cat and mouse storyline, but it’s the brawls in between that will keep you hooked. Starring two juggernauts when it comes to the martial arts genre, Donnie Yen and Collin Chou certainly didn’t hold back while doing its many brutal fight scenes. If you’re not a fan of fast punches and swift escapes, then you’ll appreciate this film even more.
Fists of Fury – Lo Wei
In terms of budget, it falls short as one of the best martial arts movies, but the action certainly makes up for all of that. With Bruce Lee in the lead, you probably won’t even notice its little imperfections. This is Lee’s first Hong Kong action flick. One that is set in modern time instead of being a period piece. Watch it to witness his early beginnings in the genre. You will realize just how incredibly electrifying his performances are even from the get-go.
The Matrix – Andy and Lana Wachowski
It’s safe to say that this masterpiece helped make martial arts films even more popular outside of Asia. Plenty of thoughtfulness is put toward creating the fight scenes and much reverence is given to its influences. Even purists in the genre cannot resist the allure of The Matrix. Of course, Keanu Reeves’ impeccable performance and the special effects used to put everything together makes this one a Kung fu classic.
Dragon Gate Inn – King Hu
Dragon Gate Inn is often cited as the pioneer of modern Wuxia epic movies. The film was made in Taiwan and features your usual Wuxia characters, but the protagonists come in a pair. If you’re looking for films with excellent swordplay, this is one you shouldn’t miss. Despite the fact that it is one of the older films on our list, its action scenes still hold up to its modern counterparts.
Wing Chun – Yuen Woo-ping
This is one of Michelle Yeoh’s best martial arts movies before she was part of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Not many might know this, but she was one of the genre’s biggest stars, especially during the 1980s. Wing Chun fully highlighted both her athletic and comedic skills, though it also had a bit of romance sprinkled in. The story is as charming as its location and the fight scenes will certainly not disappoint.
The Best Martial Arts Movies Will Always Have a Place in Cinema
Movie trends will come and go, but the thing about this genre is it can easily adapt. Its diversity means there will always be something for every type of moviegoer. We’ve only listed 30 of the best films you should watch, but there is plenty more to discover when it comes to this genre!