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20 Must-Watch Martial Arts Movies of All Time

Best Martial Arts Movies Ever

Fans of kung fu films in the twenty-first century have a deeper awareness and appreciation for quality movies than previous generations. This heightened interest can be attributed to three key factors: the global acclaim of Chinese-language martial arts films like Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and Zhang Yimou's "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" in Western countries; the incorporation of stylised Hong Kong action into Hollywood hits; and the worldwide success of martial arts icons such as Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Michelle Yeoh. Here are the 20 must-watch Martial Arts Movies:

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One-Armed Swordsman (1967)

One-Armed Swordsman

In an era dominated by musicals and romances, with female stars shining brightly on Hong Kong's cinematic stage, legendary director Chang Cheh made a groundbreaking entrance with "One-Armed Swordsman." This enthralling revenge thriller, steeped in themes of valorous sacrifice and intense violence, shifted the focus away from the then-popular Cantonese and Mandarin leading ladies. It marked a crucial turning point from wu xia (martial heroes) movies to kung fu cinema, introducing audiences worldwide to the stoic charm of Jimmy Wong Yu.

Ong-Bak (2003)


Winning accolades at the Thai Film Festival and featuring Tony Jaa, known for doubling for Robin Shou in "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation," this film stands out as the first to showcase an elaborately stylized form of Thai kickboxing. Its hard-hitting stunts and intense full-contact action serve as a serious homage to the mid-1980s era of Jackie Chan's movies. Watching this film might be a physically wincing experience, yet it nostalgically revives the thrill and admiration for classic Hong Kong action cinema.

Legend of the Fox (1979)

Legend of the Fox

Following the success of "The Five Venoms" (1978) by the renowned director Chang Cheh, he went on to create 18 additional films featuring the same cast, where each member alternately assumed the roles of villain, hero, and fight choreographer. While any of these 18 films could claim this spot, "Legend of the Fox" stands out for its exceptional, complex hand-to-hand combat and weaponry scenes, alongside its faithful representation of the deep bond supposed to exist among martial artists, even when they stand as opponents. Chang Cheh is distinguished as one of the few directors in the martial arts genre who consistently depicted this ethos.

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Three Evil Masters (1980)

Three Evil Masters

While "Masters" features the iconic Chen Kuan-tai, the film also marks the impressive debut of Yuen Tak as the underdog kung fu student Ko Chien, offering a special delight for fans. Yuen, a classmate of Jackie Chan in their kung fu school, is regarded by peer Corey Yuen as possessing the finest martial arts skills among the "Seven Little Fortunes." The climactic battles are fiercely captivating and masterfully choreographed, with the weapons duel between Yuen Tak and the Shaw Brothers' regular antagonist, Wang Lung-wei, standing out for its exceptional execution.

Prodigal Son (1981)

Prodigal Son

Helmed by Sammo Hung, this martial arts revenge narrative is hailed as the finest depiction of wing chun on film. While it features notable performances by Hung and Yuen Biao, it's the nuanced and resolute portrayal by the late Lam Ching-ying, along with his masterful wing chun technique, that truly captivates, as he moves through each combat scene with the grace of an Olympic figure skater. Additionally, Lam's portrayal of a female opera character is equally remarkable and compelling.

The Shaolin Temple (1980)

The Shaolin temple

"The Shaolin Temple," marking Jet Li's first appearance on the silver screen, is loosely based on the story of Shaolin monks saving the Tang dynasty's inaugural emperor. This film holds the distinction of being the first martial arts masterpiece produced in mainland China following the establishment of Communist rule. It played a pivotal role in showcasing wushu to a global audience. Beyond its cinematic achievements, the film's greatest contribution lies in revitalizing the cultural significance and historical importance of the Shaolin Temple.

Drunken Master (1978)

Drunken Master

This film is credited with catapulting Jackie Chan into the limelight of superstardom. Recognizing that Jackie Chan was not meant to follow in Bruce Lee's footsteps, Golden Harvest introduced him to director Yuen Woo-ping. Together, they produced the inaugural film featuring drunken kung fu, a style imparted to Jackie by Yuen Woo-ping's father, Yuen Siu-tien, who also portrayed Chan's mentor in the film. Thus, the foundation of kung fu comedy was established, marking a pivotal moment in martial arts cinema.

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The Blade (1993)

The Blade

Despite a lukewarm reception from Hong Kong viewers, Tsui Hark's intense reinterpretation of One-Armed Swordsman captivates with its raw, revenge-driven narrative. Featuring the mysterious Zhao Wen-zhuo, who stepped into Jet Li's shoes for Tsui's Once Upon a Time in China series, in a fierce confrontation with the unhinged Xiong Xin-xin, the film is a spectacle of martial arts mastery. Under the guidance of fight choreographer Yuen Bing, it showcases a stunning array of sword clashes, enveloping flames, swirling smoke, and visceral scenes of combat that cut to the core, ensuring an exhilarating cinematic experience.

Zu: Warriors From Magic Mountain (1982)

Zu: Warriors From Magic Mountain

This film sparked the "fant-Asia" phenomenon, blending elements of horror, fantasy, and science fiction with exaggerated martial arts sequences. It was also at the forefront of introducing "wire-fu," a cinematic innovation crafted by Hong Kong's Ching Siu-tung. "Zu" seamlessly merges Chinese mythology, stunning special effects, and vibrant comic-book style action. The movie takes viewers on a thrilling ride through a world of magical realms, towering guardian deities, menacing ghosts, and superhuman warriors endowed with extraordinary combat abilities.

Moon Warriors (1993)

Moon Warriors

Ching Siu-tung has an exceptional talent for transforming actors with no martial arts background into some of the most convincing fighters and swordsmen ever seen on screen. This expertise is brilliantly showcased in "Moon Warriors," a movie that stars Canto-pop icons like Anita Mui, Maggie Cheung, and Andy Lau. In this film, Ching turns swordplay into an enchanting spectacle, pushing the boundaries of what audiences expect from Hong Kong cinema. Just when it seems the movie has reached the peak of its creativity, it surprises viewers with a battle sequence that includes a real killer whale, elevating the level of cinematic audacity.

Police Story (1985)

Police Story

Just when Hong Kong martial arts movies were all beginning to look the same, Jackie Chan came along with Police Story. It gave the industry a face-lift by creating a whole new style of martial arts movies called wu da pian — a genre that mixed contemporary themes, fast-paced choreography, and the most dangerous and amazing stunts ever put on film. With no wires, no doubles and no holding back, Police Story cemented Jackie Chan as one of the world's greatest stuntmen.

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Tai-Chi Master (1993)

Tai Chi Master

While Jet Li is widely celebrated for his portrayal of the legendary folk hero Wong Fei-hung in the Once Upon a Time in China series, his depiction of tai chi pioneer Chang San-feng (also known as Zhang San-feng) in Tai-Chi Master showcases his most impressive martial arts performance to date. Under the direction of Yuen Woo-ping and alongside the exceptional combat scenes featuring Michelle Yeoh, this film demonstrates remarkable fighting artistry. However, its impact was somewhat diminished by its timing; released at a point when its genre had seen much of its popularity wane, it might have achieved greater success had it premiered a few years earlier.

Martial Club (1980)

Martial Club

Liu Chia-liang, the visionary director behind Spiritual Boxer (1978) which launched the kung fu-comedy genre, directed Martial Club. This film features Gordon Liu Chia-hui in the role of Huang Fei-hong and marks a unique turn for Wang Lung-wei, who steps away from his typical villainous roles. The climactic showdown between these two characters unfolds in a narrow alley only 3 feet wide, showcasing the precision and power of hung gar kung fu in confined spaces—without the aid of wirework. This meticulously choreographed sequence served as inspiration for Jet Li's memorable bathroom fight scene in his more recent film, Unleashed.

Duel to the Death (1983)

Duel to the Death

Helmed by Ching Siu-tung, renowned as the pioneer of wire-fu, this movie expertly navigates the boundary between reality and the supernatural. It features ninjas who transcend the ordinary, embodying elements of both the human and the ghostly. Ching's choreography of sword fights elevates decapitation to an art form for some, while others view it as a descent into a visually stunning form of carnage. This ninja film stands unparalleled, with no other coming close to its unique blend of action and ethereal storytelling.

Swordsman II (1992)

Swordsman II

Starring Jet Li as the title character, this mesmerizing film from director Ching Siu-tung gave "creative carnage" a new meaning while raising the sword-and-sorcery genre from the hollows of selfish individualism. It pays homage to the classic Chinese swordplay epics of yesteryear with imaginative special effects, meticulously choreographed fight scenes and acrobatics that defy the laws of gravity. It's a fine example of a movie that combines entertainment with spiritual substance, in which good battles evil and high-vaulting villains distinguish themselves as champions of the lowly. Ching's Swordsman I and Swordsman III were also popular.

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Come Drink With Me (1965)

come drink with me

Directed by the iconic King Hu, this seminal film features Cheng Pei-pei, the pioneering female martial arts star, in the role of Golden Swallow, a enigmatic swordfighter on a mission to rescue a captured official from a Buddhist monastery. "Come Drink With Me" raised the bar for martial arts cinema, turning its then 20-year-old lead into the most iconic female martial artist in the genre's history. With fight choreography by Hang Ying-jie, known for his role as the formidable boss in Bruce Lee's "The Big Boss," this movie not only set a precedent in martial arts filmmaking but also served as a major inspiration for Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Ang Lee's admiration for the film was such that he made it a point to cast Cheng Pei-pei as the villainous Jade Fox, paying homage to her groundbreaking role.

Legendary Weapons of China (1982)

legendary weapons of china

The best pure martial arts director of all time, Liu Chia-liang stars and directs himself as Lei Gong, a Chinese boxer who quits an evil sect of martial artists who think they can stop bullets from Western guns. The final 10-minute fight between the 50-year-old Liu and his real brother, Liu Chia-rong, features the most outstanding and authentic Chinese weapons choreography in the history of the genre. Each weapon is clearly demonstrated in one continuous scene that you wish would never end.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1977)

the 36th chamber o0f shaolin

Under the direction of Liu Chia-liang, his adopted brother Gordon Liu Chia-hui stars as a revolutionary opposing the Qing Dynasty in the groundbreaking Shaolin movie that unveils the temple's secretive training rituals. This acclaimed masterpiece not only altered the trajectory of Shaolin cinema but also depicted the transformation of Gordon Liu Chia-hui’s character from an inexperienced fighter to one of Shaolin's legendary figures, monk San Te. "The 36th Chamber" marked the inception of a new martial arts genre, guo shu pian, a movement that was firmly established with the release of "The Five Venoms."

The Chinese Connection (1972)

the chinese connection

This film catapulted Bruce Lee to the pinnacle of fame, igniting a surge of national pride among Chinese communities worldwide with its portrayal of a hero who combats and overcomes the specter of Japanese imperialism single-handedly. Drawing inspiration from the historical demise of the esteemed martial artist Huo Yuanjia, the unforgettable scene where Bruce Lee dispatches seven adversaries with a single, continuous take inside a Japanese karate dojo revolutionized the approach to fight choreography in cinema.

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Drunken Master II (1994)

drunken master 2

Jackie Chan reprises his portrayal of the legendary Huang Fei-hung in this sequel, which far surpasses the 1978 original. He battles traitors smuggling Chinese historical artifacts into the hands of the British. The final brawl with Ken Lo in the warehouse and the spear-and-sword fight with 60-year-old actor/director Liu Chia-liang under a train once and for all show why Jackie Chan is the best when it comes to using his environment in cinematic battles.

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