When I was a kid I loved karate movies. We called them karate movies back then. I learned later that it was Kung Fu for the most part. My friends and I would go down to the local multiplex to see the latest Shaw Brothers feature or Shaolin picture. We all had our favorite actor. Your favorite martial arts superstar was a personal choice that you had to defend everyday but the argument ended when somebody mentioned Bruce Lee.
More often than not, when a karate movie ended, there would be a fight in the lobby or in front of the theater. A bunch of kids would be kicking wildly at each other while making “karate” sounds. Not a fake fight mind you. Full Contact – but with hilarious sound effects. When you saw a blaxploitation film, you went to the theater expecting a shooting, Horror movies always had a chick fight in the middle that forced the manager to stop the movie and pull the girls apart. But karate movies always ended in a fists & feet flying gang battle that spilled out onto the street. So much fun. We all loved that adrenaline rush.
Sadly, most of those movies were crap. I’m sorry to say they don’t hold up to any amount of scrutiny. The choreography was shoddy. The sound was awful. The dubbing was the source of ridicule even to 9-year-old kids on a raisinet buzz. But mostly I discovered that these movies were dumbed down for western audiences. References to Buddhism were changed to soft mysticism. Political tensions were changed to battles over money and pride. Themes were watered down. And every other character was made to sound ignorant. It’s insulting how much was changed. These days I only want accurately translated subtitles or I can’t even watch. So suffice to say the following list of Martial Arts films should be watched in the original language with subtitles or not at all. (and try not to get into any street fights after watching… I’d feel responsible)
These are my top 5 favorite martial arts films
What I didn’t include on this list are the recent romantic martial arts movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of Flying Daggers, nor the hysterical movies of Stephen Chow like Shaolin Soccer or Kung Fu Hustle nor did I include Samurai films like Yojimbo or Zatoichi and Hong Kong action Gun-fu like those of the great John Woo (or for that matter big budget Hollywood movies with martial arts like Matrix or the Bourne movies). Nope. These are karate movies and just karate movies. My younger self would have enjoyed them all.
#5 Enter the Dragon (1973)
No martial arts movie list is complete without Enter the Dragon (directed by Robert Clouse). The only Hollywood movie on the list. The Tournament. The three lead actors, one white, one black, one Asian. John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Bruce Lee. The team up. The hall of mirrors battle… But the best thing about this movie is the man himself – Bruce Lee. With this film he went from star to superstar (but sadly it was his last). The shot where he gets cut, dabs the blood with his finger, tastes it and it steels his resolve to kick some ass, is worth the price of admission. This is an immensely enjoyable movie.
#4 Chocolate (2008)
Speaking of Bruce Lee, the lead actress in Chocolate (directed by Prachya Pinkaew) – Jeeja Yanin (or Yanin Vismitananda) reminds me of the man himself. She has the presence and star quality of Bruce Lee, the flexibility & fluidity of Jet Li and the timing & environmental awareness of Jackie Chan. I want to see a lot more of her. She kicks some serious ass in this very good film. She plays the autistic daughter of a former mob bosses’ girlfriend who has superhuman reflexes and can mimic the styles of martial arts stars. She’s a good actress, a fine athlete (doing her own BRUTAL stunts) and she’s beautiful. This a fun movie.
#3 Drunken Master (1978)
Just like you can’t have a martial arts list without Bruce Lee, you can not have one without Jackie Chan. This is my favorite of his traditional martial arts films (as opposed to his action/martial arts films). Drunken Master (directed by Woo-Ping Yuen) is a story from the life of Wong Fei-Hung and about the development of Drunken Boxing (any martial arts style that requires one to be drunk… can include me as a fan). Jackie Chan is sensational as Wong-Fei Hung. If you took Robin Hood, the Lone Ranger and Zorro then took away their bow, gun and sword, respectively, and then joined them together into one guy – a real person – you’d have Wong-Fei Hung. This is one the first films directed by Woo-Ping Yuen, the best fight choreographer and one of the best action directors in martial arts. This is also a fantastic and funny story.
#2 Fist of Legend (1994)
Fist of Legend (directed by Gordon Chan) is a remake of the Bruce Lee classic Fists of Fury (1972) and it is far superior. The classic story of rival schools and the revenge of a murdered teacher is made more tense when the rival is a Japanese school in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. This one is also choreographed by Woo-Ping Yuen. Jet Li is amazing and intense in this gripping and dramatic revenge story. This is a really good movie and not just a good martial arts movie.
…and at number one.
#1 Iron Monkey (1993)
Another remake on the list, this is not to be confused with the 1977 movie of the same name. Iron Monkey from 1993 (directed by Woo-Ping Yuen) is another tale from the life of Wong-Fei Hung but as a child and most of the focus is on his father Wong Kei-Ying (a doctor and martial arts teacher) and the mysterious masked vigilante from the title. I’ve never been a big fan of wire-effects (or wire-fu) but when done well they can turn a fight sequence into an aerial ballet. Woo-Ping Yuen uses wire-work to perfection. Combatants float, fly and fight across rooftops like Marvel Comics superheroes. There was a time when I was a staunch realist when it came to fight choreography. The fighters needed to be grounded and the laws of physics securely in place but this movie changed my mind. It is my favorite film of a genre that misses the mark most of the time.
All but Fist of Legend are available to stream from Netflix right now. Check them out.