Weekend Roundtable: Favorite Martial Arts Movies

A great poet once penned the immortal verse: “Go Ninja, Go Ninja, GO. Go Ninja, Go Ninja, GO.” This week’s Roundtable is all about movies that involve martial arts. What are your favorites?

Shannon Nutt

My pick for this week’s Roundtable will go slightly off the beaten path and arrive at one of my favorite John Carpenter films: ‘Big Trouble in Little China‘. It’s really more of a sci-fi movie, but I just loved the way Carpenter takes his passion for martial arts films and mixes in the supernatural. Although star Kurt Russell (in one of his best roles as truck driver Jack Burton) wisely avoids any Eastern moves of his own, he’s surrounded by a number of thugs (led by the evil Lo Pan, played by James Hong) who not only go after Jack with their physical skills, but by conjuring magic as well (usually in the form of electricity, fireballs or another form of energy). Of course, the movie is, at its heart, a comedy, so none of this is to be taken too seriously. It’s just a whole lot of fun.

Junie Ray

I’ve always had a sweet spot for Sammo Hung and one movie where he really shines is ‘Pedicab Driver‘. It’s not a perfect movie overall, but the fight scenes are just amazing, with great hand-to-hand choreography based on traditional kung-fu, great athleticism, acrobatics, and a bit of humor. There’s a particular scene in a gambling hall that might just be my favorite fight scene ever.

Sammo proves that martial artists can be amazingly agile in any shape and size. This isn’t an over-the-top wirework movie (though I love that style too). It’s not particularly well shot, and it has subtitles. Going into these Hong Kong kung-fu/action movies of the ’80s and ’90s, you have to know that they’re all about the fight scenes and crazy stunts. Just ignore all the other stuff.

In his youth, Sammo Hung studied at the China Drama Academy with Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao. Later, those three made a number of movies together including ‘Dragons Forever’ and ‘Wheels on Meals’. Those are also must-sees if you’re interested in kung-fu style martial arts and slapstick comedy. These guys are magic together.

Some other Sammo trivia: He was in ‘Enter the Dragon’, where he played the student that Bruce Lee faced at the beginning of the movie. He also later made a movie parody, ‘Enter the Fat Dragon’, where he played Bruce Lee.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

Back when I was in junior high and high school, I lived to dive through VHS and Laserdisc cut-out bins. My dad and I would basically just look for the first movie or two that’d crack us up, and that’s what we’d buy that week. Like a lot of kids, I’d watch kung-fu flicks on one of the local UHF stations along with whatever ‘American Ninja’ sequel my cousins had rented, but it was one of those bargain bins that got me really into martial arts cinema. My all-time favorite chop socky discovery was ‘Mad Monkey Kung Fu‘, a movie whose plot, yes, hinges on avenging a pet monkey. It’s spastic, gloriously insane, and has the most entrancingly bizarre fighting styles I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Brian Hoss

Though it’s tempting to pick something classy like ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, ‘Best of the Best‘ is currently my favorite martial arts movie. It’s packed with ’80s clichés and channels everything from ‘Bloodsport’ to ‘The Karate Kid’ and even ‘Rocky IV’. Ultimately, that’s what makes it great. It’s the culmination of the all underdog rah-rah movies of the ’80s, but with serious Tai Kwon Do action as opposed to say, ‘The Mighty Ducks’, or something else Disney. The last two fights in the movie, where the “America, F*** Yeah” spirit crescendos into something more rational, is can’t-miss cinema, and the martial arts are key to both the entertainment and the transcendence of those scenes.

Tom Landy

When I watch martial arts movies, I want to see the kind of action that makes you sit on the edge of your seat, duck with the blows on screen, and stand up and cheer when the hero defies gravity and sends the villain (who had it coming) straight to the hospital. The best of the bunch has to be the live-action ‘Street Fighter‘ — because it has all that plus Jean-Claude Van Damme in a beret! Okay, I’m kidding, even though the beret did have the best performance in that travesty of a film.

Anyway, part of me wanted to go with a Tony Jaa actioner like ‘Ong-Bak’ or ‘The Protector’ since that dude is just phenomenal, but the truth is that my absolute favorite martial arts flick is another Thai movie called ‘Chocolate‘. Sure, it doesn’t make much sense, but there’s just something special about a little girl (the amazing JeeJa Yanin) kicking the living shit out of grown men three times her size.

Luke Hickman

I’ve never been huge into full-on martial arts flicks. The ‘Matrix’ movies were probably my first love when it came to the genre. While I thorough enjoy all three entries in that trilogy (yes, I’m one of those guys), they were trumped out of the top spot when Quentin Tarantino made the ‘Kill Bill‘ movies. The martial arts in ‘Kill Bill’ is always fun. ‘The Matrix’ has fun martial arts moments, but isn’t as consistently entertaining as, say, the long House of Blue Leaves scene in ‘Vol. 1’. And nothing in ‘The Matrix’ comes close to the level of enjoyment that the Bride’s training with Pai Mei offers in ‘Vol. 2’. The ‘Raid’ movies came close to dethroning ‘Kill Bill’, but the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique always wins.

Josh Zyber

I was all set to sing the praises of the great Sammo Hung when Junie beat me to it. Watching Sammo’s portly frame move with such inconceivable agility and grace is truly a sight to behold. One of my favorite of his movies is ‘The Magnificent Butcher‘, in which Sammo plays a likeable dope who inadvertently starts a feud with a rival kung-fu school. There’s very little plot in this one. It’s essentially an all-fight movie filled with silly slapstick humor, but those fights are so awesomely choreographed that you can watch the movie dozens of times and still not catch all the details.

For a more serious martial arts movie, I was also a fan of David Mamet’s ‘Redbelt‘. You’d never expect the playwright and filmmaker famed for his intellectually challenging stories and convoluted dialogue to make a movie about Mixed Martial Arts, but he does a pretty great job with it. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as a high-minded Jiu-Jitsu instructor who’s forced to compete in a flashy MMA tournament when his martial arts studio fails to make ends meets and a douchebag Hollywood star (Tim Allen, of all people!) cheats him out of a potentially lucrative movie contract. Although seemingly an unlikely setting for the writer of ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’, ‘Redbelt’ is a tale of conflicted men struggling to define themselves, and explores the themes of masculinity, morality and the failure of words to communicate honestly that run through all of Mamet’s works. And it has some pretty fascinating, highly technical fight scenes that emphasize martial arts technique rather than just showy finishing moves.

Tell us about your favorite martial arts movies in the Comments below.


  1. Ryan

    If we can include MIXED Martial Arts, Warrior is probably my favorite….followed closely by Crouching Tiger.
    Two very different films, but both are fantastic in my opinion.

    Special Shout Out – Kung Fu Panda 🙂

  2. Kashtarreaper

    Being a kid in the 90’s, I have to go with the movie that gave us the greatest song of the decade as well: MORTAALL KOMBAT!!! Hell I even dressed up as Scorpion for halloween the year the film came out.

  3. Most anything from Jackie Chan, once Rumble in the Bronx hit the theaters I really got into the Kung Fu world, quickly accumulating any Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao movie I could find, and man was it a bitch to get some of those movies at that point in time, I got lucky finding some at conventions where they had over seas VHS tapes. Then once Jackie started getting bigger, they started re-releasing all his best stuff, Police Story 1 & 2 (love the fight scene in part 2 at the playground), Meals on Wheels, Operation Condor and Armour of God and of course stuff like Supercop, First Strike and probably one of my favorites Who Am I? The big fight scene on top of the roof at the end of that movie is required viewing for all fight fans, his battle with two guys with completely different fighting styles was just amazing.

    Its a shame that we all get older and that a legend like that cant do the stuff he used to but I am glad that guys like Tony Jaa and movies like The Raid (which is one of the better martial arts flicks out there) are getting made and they are focusing on the quality of the fight scenes and showing you whats going on, being a big fan, I cant stand the shaky/cut cam that has taken over so many fight scenes and action movies anymore, when I watch something so amazing in a Jackie Chan movie and then get so pissed off at something like any of the Bourne movies, its really a shame what they do with fights in movies in Hollywood

  4. Can’t just name one:
    The Big Boss- first Bruce Lee flick I ever saw although I saw it as Fists of Fury.
    The Five Deadly Venoms- used to watch Kung -fu theatre on USA network every Sunday and this one really stuck with me
    Silent Rage- you can’t mention martial arts movies without Chuck Norris, it’s kind of sci-fi/horror but this one features Chuck using his martial arts skills to take down a lab created killer. AWESOME!
    Revenge of the Ninja- bad ass Sho Kosugi fights a silver masked ninja on a roof top. HELL YEAH!
    Pray for Death- bad ass Sho Kosugi flips over a truck and has the coolest ninja armor ever. HELL YEAH!
    Gymkata- if you want to see the funniest review for this flick, go to amazon and read Vic G Sarjoo’s review. HILARIOUS!! Waiting for this one on blu!
    No Retreat No Surrender- A mediocre martial artist gets trained by the spirit of Bruce Lee to take down evil Van Damme doing the splits. Best acting ever!!
    The Karate Kid- even the chicks like this one
    Shogun Assassin / Lone Wolf and Cub- maybe some day, someone will give these movies a proper restoration for blu.
    The Raid- freakin awesome, best part is when the guy jumps through the hole in the ceiling and gets tossed out the window before he can even touch the floor!
    The Raid 2 is no slouch either
    There’s so many more but these are the ones that came off the top of my head. Can anyone tell me if they know the title of a movie ( Kung-fu flick) about a guy who pretends to be slow or retarded but is really a Kung -fu master. If I remember correctly he has to take down three evil masters, a girl who swings her braid around like flail, a guy who makes heat with his hands, and I can’t remember the last evil master’s power. Now I may be confusing this with two movies, but that’s the way I remember it. I’ve tried to track down this movie but can never find it. Does this sound familiar to any of you?

    • I knew I had some of my movies mixed up, but I found one called 3 Evil Masters or The Master (another Shaw Brothers) which one of the baddies swings his braid around with a blade at the tip. I also remember the student tied his braid around his neck. This is definitely one of the movies I had in mind, but I still haven’t figured out if this is the one where he pretends to be slow. I think it might be. I’ve only found bits and pieces of the movie. I know there was one where a female swung her braid around, but this wasn’t it. Maybe I should go through all the Shaw Brothers catalogue. I’m thinking the other movie I had in mind, one of the masters controlled wind, the other had the hot hands, and maybe the braid chick.

  5. Timcharger

    Not that these are the best, but I have fond memories of
    watching them an a lazy Saturday afternoon.

    Anybody know of the names of this:

    A kung fu flick where the primary weapons were flags.
    Giant flags taller than 6 six long. Sometimes the fabric
    part would be curled around the pole and they are used
    just like a staff is used. But sometimes, the flag is opened
    and had to be manipulated around to bind their adversary.

    Another kung fu flick where long hair was the prominent
    weapon used. The hair masters would twist and spin their
    heads in all sorts of way to swing their long braided hair
    and club their opponents. I think the big bad guy had
    blades tied into his long hair.

    I think a bunch of films had this. Animal styles kung fu
    was the primary showcase. A student basically had to go
    through the learning of a zoo collection of animal fighting
    styles. Eagle versus monkey versus snake versus tiger
    versus crane, etc. In order to get his vengeance he had to
    obtain a menagerie of animal kung fu knowledge.

    I’d probably be so embarrassed and not be able to watch
    the poor picture quality of these films anymore.

    • So as I was searching for my lost Kung-fu movie, I sort of stumbled into one called Flag of Iron which was a Shaw Brothers production that seemed to fit your description. I’m sure there’s plenty others with flag fighting, but give this one a look.

      • Timcharger

        Thanks. I saw a short clip of it on Youtube. It certainly can be it. I probably watched it once 30 years ago, and grabbed a flag to “practice” my kung fu on my younger brother with it. Thanks again, I appreciate the walk down memory lane.

  6. Chris B

    Gotta agree with Shannon about “Big Trouble in little China”, one of the all time great hangover movies there is. With the exception of “Starman”, John Carpenter’s run of 80’s films is rock solid.

    Although I’m not sure it completely qualifies as a martial arts movie (it’s more of an action flick with martial arts in it), I love the South Korean flick “The Man From Nowhere”. It’s like an asian version of “Man on Fire” but waaaayyyy better and features the most badass knife fight I’ve ever seen.

    As far as straight martial arts flicks, I was really impressed with Donnie Yen in “Ip Man” which traces the story of the man who would eventually train Bruce Lee. Although I haven’t had a chance to check out the sequels, the original is absolutely worth watching.

      • Chris B

        Yeah I effin love that movie, the sequence near the end when Pawnshop takes on a small army of henchman is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.

        Although I’ve never checked out the special features on that disc, I’m always curious as to how they pulled off that long uninterrupted shop of the hero running down a hallway, jumping out a window, and landing on the street below. I’m assuming they used some CGI or really clever editing trick but I can’t detect it, the sequence is totally smooth…know what I mean? I suppose I should watch those special features after all…lol.

        • Timcharger

          I want to watch it again.

          As for the special features, I remember that it was pretty light and superficial. Maybe I need to shop for some special import version with hours of bonus features.

          • Chris B

            I actually need to buy the blu-ray, I only own the DVD. I was on vacation in Vancouver a few years back and blind-bought a few foreign movies from this little market in chinatown…I really need to upgrade.

  7. Opinionhaver

    Granddaddy: Enter the Dragon
    Best Actual Film: Crouching Tiger
    Best Overall Fights: Drunken Master II
    Best Fight Scene: Who Am I, rooftop fight
    Most Intense: The Raid 2, kitchen fight
    Most Satisfying: Ip Man, vs Japanese for bags of rice

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