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Great Martial Arts Movies (that aren't Enter the Dragon)

Updated: Nov 17, 2023

Growing up in the 70s, martial arts seemed to be everywhere. Even on the small screen, there were occasional brushes with what at the time was deemed exotic.

Whether it was Marcia Brady on The Brady Bunch taking Karate or Laurie Partridge taking Judo on The Partridge Family you couldn't help but notice that martial arts were becoming more popular. Without mentioning the most often talked about film of the era…yes, that one, I was hoping to throw some light on movies that I have always found interesting and often overlooked. Here are some films that you may want to check out if you have an urge for bell-bottoms, silk shirts open to the waist, and some vintage action.

The Killer Elite (1975)

With secret agents, Ninjas, and plenty of gunplay, The Killer Elite is an action film that satisfies fans of the genre. Released in 1975, starring James Caan, Robert Duvall, and directed by a giant of action cinema and an artist of on-screen violence, Sam Peckinpah, The Killer Elite is a neglected action film classic.

Caan and Duvall work as quasi-spies for a CIA-affiliated company. Caan is betrayed by Duvall who strategically injures Caan to force him to "retire." Caan embarks on the long road of recovery and ultimately seeks revenge. Shot in and around San Francisco there is some great cinematography plus it has both Mako and Tak Kubota in supporting roles. The climactic slow-motion Ninja battle aboard a mothballed warship is definitely worth seeing. It should be noted that James Caan is a legit Karate black belt and his work with the cane in the movie is an interesting twist.

Billy Jack (1971)

Tom Laughlin wrote, directed, and starred in this action-packed socially conscious martial arts film that is truly unique. Oh, and he did it on a shoe-string budget. While The Killer Elite featured Ninjas and Japanese martial arts, the hero Billy Jack doles out justice via Hapkido. The character Billy Jack first appeared in the film Born Losers (1967) and then subsequently in Billy Jack (1971). There are two other films in the series: The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977). In the cannon of martial arts films, especially of the era, I believe Billy Jack deserves more recognition as does Tom Laughlin. Check out the fight scene in the park, a classic.

Budo: The Art of Killing (1979)

When I first heard about the documentary Budo, I was expecting to see secretly filmed deathmatches or something akin to a grainy Bloodsport Kumite. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was an entertaining presentation of many of the major Japanese martial arts: Judo, Karate, Sumo, Aikido, and more. The film spends a few minutes on each martial art providing some background and featuring footage of students training. I still find it fascinating to watch and I think you will too.

Many of the mainstream action films of the decade had elements of Karate, Judo, and Kung Fu. The Mechanic (1972), for example, has a signature scene where star Charles Bronson takes his protégé, Jan-Michael Vincent, to his Karate class. They watch a duel as Bronson's teacher, the legendary Tak Kubota, dismantles a towering upstart. Although there is little empty hand combat in the film, the scene establishes the lethality of Bronson whether he's packing a piece or just staring menacingly while he smokes his pipe. He's calm and confident and why not? Like many 70s film icons, he knows martial arts.

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