The American Taekwondo Association World Expo is in Little Rock this week. For everyone who isn’t capable of breaking bricks with their fists, we put together a list of the best martial arts movies for vicarious living. Martial arts movies have appealed to audienes for quite some time, and the sport’s rich, storied history is still bobbing up into mainstream consciousness. Directors like Sergio Leone display Akira Kurosawa as a great inspiration, while Star Wars and spaghetti westerns drew heavily on Kurosawa’s influence, with less name dropping. It’s only fitting that a good number of influential movies are tied to this ancient Eastern tradition.
The Legend of Drunken Master
The 1994 sequel to Drunken Master is 16 years removed from its original, but it delivers a tighter story with a better sense of Jackie Chan’s comedic skill. The movie’s production was a subject of contention for Jackie Chan and Chia-Liang Liu. Eventually, Liu would leave the production during filming, leaving Chan to pick up the direction for the final scene, which reportedly took months to film. The drunken boxing style depicted in the film is an actual martial art, although it is not normally used whilst drunk. All in all, Chan delivers the goods in the comedy department and drops jaws with amazing fight scenes.
Kurosawa might go down in history as the greatest filmmaker to ever live, and his magnum opus Seven Samurai is a perfect example of why. The film inspired The Magnificent Seven directly, shot to be identical side by side in certain scenes by director John Sturges, and inspired every filmmaker since with its mold-breaking attitude toward film. Samurai is often called the first modern action-adventure film.
Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2
Hearkening back to Asian film while blending western influence, Quentin Tarantino pays homage to both genres while forging something new from their melding. While drawing influence from other samurai movies, perhaps the greatest triumph of these movies is the influence siphoned from spaghetti westerns and Hitchcock. The eclectic blend serves to ground the movies and leave it accessible to cinephiles and laypeople alike. The quippy and inventive dialogue, as well as punctuating, expertly choreographed action and beautiful cinematography all make these films enjoyable for anyone with a strong stomach.
Enter the Dragon
No martial arts film list would be complete without an appearance by the venerable Bruce Lee. In perhaps his most famous role, Lee must face off against ruthless thugs while fighting for his life in the deadliest martial arts tournament on Earth. Lee’s incredible fighting skills make this movie enthralling to watch, to this day. Even though Lee died three weeks before the release of this film, he did appear in another movie posthumously. Jackie Chan appears in this film uncredited. This is the first martial arts film to be produced by a Hollywood studio.
This film might lack certain qualities, but if you’re looking for a straight action film, this movie is for you. Jean-Claude Van Damme’s first starring role showed the world how compelling the Muscles from Brussels could be. The story revolves around the kumite, an extremely deadly and illegal kickboxing tournament. Bolo Yeung plays the antagonist of the film to great effect, and fans of martial arts should enjoy this performance at least.
The Karate Kid
Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita are the only way to go if you’re wanting the story of a disheartened boy trying to learn martial arts from an evenhanded teacher. This movie gave the kids of America hope that they too could become great martial artists by performing chores. (Seems like it might have gotten funding from a parenting organization or two.) The Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith remake didn’t live up to the original, but is worth a watch for fans of the franchise.
Rumble in the Bronx
Largely on the back of Jackie Chan, this movie delivers an enjoyable and touching experience. The plot is thin and the budget low, but Chan takes the reins and drives the movie with some of the greatest fight scenes in film. Not technically as impressive as some others, Chan’s signature comedy is taken to a new level as he uses all weapons at his disposal to wreak havoc on his antagonists. This movie marks Jackie Chan’s first appearance in a United States production, although he had been making movies for 20 years prior.
The Raid: Redemption
A crimelord’s extraction is ordered and an elite group of police attempt to transcend the 15-story tenament that holds the criminal. When their cover is blown, many of the police are murdered by the criminals that rent rooms and protection from the crimelord, who offers them lifetime protection and residence for free. A rookie must fight his way to the top and accomplish the mission. The Indonesian production was directed by Welshman Gareth Evans. The pure action and relentless pace of this movie make it one of the best action movies in recent years.
The Bruce Lee of Muay Thai, Tony Jaa brings the pain in Ong Bak. Viewers might need ice for their knees and elbows after watching Jaa’s dismantling of his opponents with equal parts brute force, calculated movement and, of course, knees and elbows. Although all of the fight scenes are beautiful in their difficulty as well as aesthetics, the true selling point of this movie may be all of the stunts Jaa executes throughout the course of the movie.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Ang Lee’s masterpiece allows us to forget Hulk and reminds us that his immense talent made him a shining star from the beginning of his time in Hollywood. As time has passes, Ang Lee has proven himself as part of the Hollywood elite, but this movie brought him out of relative obscurity and into the spotlight. Lee showed us that a martial arts movie could have a complex story, supernatural effects and outside-the-box choreography. This film heralded a new era in martial arts moviemaking and paved the way for directors to inject other genres into their action, much like what Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai did.
Once again, Jackie Chan’s unique action-comedy blend has made its way into our hearts, but this time by way of a buddy-cop movie. Alongside Chris Tucker, Chan plays a relative straight man. Tucker’s wacky and over-the-top American persona is offset by the traditional and virtuous Chan. As the two grow closer, the audience is rewarded with laughs at the expense of the main characters. The laughs are broken up nicely by action that is almost as funny as the dialogue.
Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story
The movie is adapted from a biography penned by Lee’s widow and follows his life from childhood to his untimely death. The story of Lee’s life leaves fans of the genre wondering what the landscape of martial arts film would be like had he lived just a few years longer. Twenty years after his death, the movie allows fans of Lee to indulge once more on the enigmatic star’s mythos.
Tournament attendees and citizens who’ve just seen so many doboks that they need a martial arts fix will find something to enjoy on this list. When out on the town this week, keep in mind that guy that stepped on your toe might also be a black belt. If there is something missing or we got something wrong, feel free to comment and let us know.
Read Shea Stewart’s article about the ATA’s World Expo here.