Top Ten Modern Martial Arts Movies

Guest-blogger Robert is back to share some of his favorite recent martial arts movies. Be sure to add your favorites in the comments. Enjoy!

I have been a fan of martial arts movies since I was a teenager. I remember distinctly the first time I saw a martial arts film and immediately being completely blown away. The movie was cropped to full frame, the channel wasn’t coming in terribly well and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, it was also dubbed. None of that mattered though because it was Drunken Master 2. I had never seen anything with that kind of kinetic action on screen before in my life and it had a lasting impact. To put this impact into perspective it is important to realize that the kind of big action movies that defined the 80’s and early-to-mid 90’s weren’t being made anymore. Arnold was going through the motions and not doing career defining work. Sly wasn’t in Rambo shape any more and wasn’t picking the best projects either (the less said about his Get Carter remake the better). Even action super star Jean Claude Van Damme was entering the sub-par direct-to-video period of his career. After being starved for several years of action on film that wasn’t shaky cam, brutally rehearsed CGI nonsense, Drunken Master 2 immediately filled the void. This just happened to coincide with the beginning of the era of the DVD, and enabled me to own movies with better quality and at a better price than was possible with VHS.

Hundreds of martial arts movies later, I want to try to introduce martial arts films to people who may feel the same about the action movies Hollywood is making today as I did back when I happened to catch Drunken Master 2 on TV and everything changed. I also understand that knowing where to start can be confusing. In light of that, I have compiled this list of ten martial arts movies made since the year 2000 that are a great place to start, making your journey an easy one, young grasshopper. This list isn’t a ranking though, as any one of these films are an excellent choice and would be a great first foray into the genre. With that in mind, onward to the list.

10_banlieue1310. Banlieue 13 AKA District 13 (2004)

You probably expected a film from Asia, but don’t let that put you off this great French language parkour action film. Parkour is the art of moving from A to B as quickly and efficiently as possible, usually in an urban environment. In the not-so-distant future, Paris authorities have walled off District 13 to keep its unruly residents in check. When a nuclear device is stolen by a powerful drug lord who is a resident of District 13, super-cop Damien Tomaso has to go in to disarm the device. He finds himself teaming up with parkour master and District 13 resident, Leito, to accomplish this mission. Not knowing whether to trust Leito or the government who sent him on this mission, Damien Tomaso has to discover the truth and bring the bad guys down. The martial arts in this film are fantastic and it has a great atmosphere and energy that is unique to the films of Pierre Morel and Luc Besson. Damien Tomaso uses a Savate (French kick boxing) style infused with practical Krav Maga-style disarming techniques, while Leito’s street running is incredibly kinetic and fun to watch.

9_blackbelt9. Kuro Obi AKA Black Belt (2007)

Set in the 1930’s when massive cultural changes were dividing Japan, this movie at its core is about two karate masters with opposite philosophies on what the meaning of karate is and their journey down those paths. I’m not going to go into the plot any more than that; I would much rather the movie be seen and the story unfold in the beautiful and elegant way it was intended. In my opinion though, Black Belt is THE karate movie. The karate is authentic and incredible to behold on screen in all of its brutality. At the same time, the karate is incredibly beautiful in its simplicity and deeper philosophical meaning. This is one of those special films that gets to the heart of why martial arts are still relevant today and why millions of people still seek out schools to learn these old ways of uniting mind and body with singular purpose. A must see film in the genre and I can’t say enough good things about it.

8_SPL8. Saat Po Long, AKA SPL, AKA Killzone (2005)

When a police detective finds out he doesn’t have much time left due to a brain tumor, he decides to do whatever it takes to bring down the crime kingpin he has been trying to bring in his entire career. With his unit behind him, he begins going outside the law to do whatever it takes, despite the protests of a new member in the department. What follows is an epic blood-letting that ends in two incredible action set pieces. With Simon Yam playing the detective with nothing to lose, Donnie Yen playing the new cop trying to do it by the book, and martial arts legend Sammo Hung as a deadly crime lord, this film has the best of old and new talent in the genre. Great action movies that also have great writing and performances aren’t common and this one is well worth any action fan’s time.

7. Ong Bak (2003)7_ongbak

In a small Thai village, black market antique traders steal the villages Ong Bak, which is a Buddha statue, and prompt the village to send their youngest temple monk, Ting, to Bangkok to get it back. Besides his vows to be virtuous and unattached to material things, Ting has also trained his whole life in the Muay Thai style of Nine Body Weapons. When the peaceful approach inevitably fails, Ting communicates in the only language gangsters are able to understand: blunt force trauma. Chances are if you follow action films you have already heard of Ong Bak. It’s impact on the industry was huge at the time of its release and it seemed to get more attention than most martial arts films do in the mainstream. This can mostly be attributed to the incredible martial arts depicted in the film and the excellent cinematography that captures it in a way that makes the fast and brutal movements so easy to follow on screen. Without a modest cultural understanding of why the Buddha statue that was stolen is so important to the people in this story, you may find the character motivations a bit confusing. But the movie does an excellent job of making these cultural concepts quite clear in the beginning and the action will sweep you away and have your jaw on the floor in short enough order anyway. If you haven’t seen Ong Bak yet, pick up this future martial arts classic as soon as you can. You won’t be disappointed.

6_flashpoint6. Flash Point (2007)

Set before Hong Kong’s reunification to China, Flash Point is the story of Hong Kong police Inspector Jun Ma and his fight against a powerful Vietnamese-Chinese drug ring run by three brothers. When Inspector Ma’s undercover operative is compromised, he goes on an off-the-books rampage to destroy the gang from the top down. Whereas the story is a typical one for a Hong Kong action movie, Flash Point puts it on film extremely well. The story services the action very well and this movie is all about the action. I want to avoid spoilers as much as possible, so I’ll just say that the sixteen minute bone-crunching conflict at the end is one of the best ever put to film. Not only does the film cement Donnie Yen, who plays Inspector Jun Ma, as one of the best martial arts actors of all time, but it also is an excellent showing for Collin Chou, who plays the eldest brother Tony, as an action star. In order to win the day, Inspector Jun Ma abandons his strict style for something more free-flowing and reactive. It is a subtle homage to the philosophy of Hong Kong action super-star Bruce Lee and his Jeet Kun Do; a nice touch. Must see for the incredible sixteen minute action climax alone.

5. Fearless (2006)5_fearless

Jet Li’s American films have been a mixed bag. But his body of work from China is some of the best of the martial arts genre. Way back in 1991, Jet Li filmed the classic Once Upon a Time in China, which would have him come back for two excellent sequels. It isn’t uncommon for fans to mention Once Upon a Time in China 2 as their favorite kung fu film. It is rare that any actor in any genre could make that kind of impact again, but Jet Li does with Fearless. If Once Upon a Time in China proved that Jet Li could perform as a kung fu artist on screen with some of the best, Fearless proves that he can act with some of the best too. Jet Li plays martial arts master Huo Yuanjia who is vain, lacks discipline and will fight any challenger for fame and fortune. His reckless vanity and ego lead to the loss of his family and self-imposed exile from his home. After being rescued by kindly people living in a simple farming community, Huo Yuanjia learns what the true meaning of kung fu is and uses his talent to defeat foreign oppressors in a tournament. Fearless is a near perfect kung fu movie. Its themes of the dangers of vanity and virtues of true kung fu have been staples in Chinese martial arts movies for decades, but are presented so eloquently here that it is a must see film. If at all possible, watch the director’s cut.

4_manfromnowhere4. The Man From Nowhere (2010)

Cha Tae-sik has retreated from the world due to past tragedy and lives a quiet life running a small pawn shop in a less than desirable neighborhood. His only friend is So-mi, a little girl who lives in the building with her heroine addicted mother Hyo-jeong. When Hyo-jeong steals heroine from the mob, gangsters kidnap her and So-mi. Cha Tae-sik then has to use deadly skills he acquired in his mysterious past to find So-mi and save her from a life of enslavement to a drug cartel.

South Korea has really emerged as a great film producing country. Thankfully, they are still producing martial arts movies too. The Man From Nowhere isn’t a typical martial arts movie in that it doesn’t ponder the real meaning of martial arts or anything of that nature philosophically speaking. The martial arts are present and are absolutely necessary to move the plot forward through martial conflict, but are just a tool the main character uses on his mission. The movie is shot beautifully and has a documentary feel to many of the scenes, giving a gritty and urgent feel to the movie without shaking the camera and losing the audience. Not only is the martial arts action in this film excellent, but the story is incredible as well. The standout performances by Bin Won, who plays Cha Tae-sik, and Sae-ron Kim, who plays So-mi, really do prove that not all movies that have a child as an integral character need be cringe-worthy. Definitely track The Man From Nowhere down and watch it. And then watch it again.

3. 13 Assassins (2010)

When the cruel son of the ruling lord mutilates a young woman, it becomes clear to a small group of retired samurai that if he is allowed to inherit his father’s position a new feudal war will wreak havoc upon Japan and its people. Mustering their group of thirteen to assassinate him as he travels through a small village, the thirteen assassins must overcome impossible-looking odds to complete their mission.

A list such as this cannot be complete without a samurai film on it. I saw 13 Assassins in theaters during its limited release and was blown away by it. Directed by Takashi Miike, whose work tends to be more toward the small budget horror side of the spectrum, 13 Assassins is the opposite of anything that can be described as small. This period action film portrays hundreds of foot soldiers and enough blood to make even the iron-stomached cringe. Bringing to mind the best of the samurai films by the likes of master filmmakers Kurosawa, Gosha, and Inagaki, 13 Assassins is a breath of fresh air in the martial arts genre. The struggle of the retired samurai to decide the right action makes the build interesting. Is bringing the horror of war upon a small group of soldiers and breaking the law really the right thing to do if it means preventing a war of enormous scale and suffering? Watch and decide for yourself.

2_raidredemption2. The Raid: Redemption (2011)

In Jakarta’s slums, an apartment building is run by a notorious gangster who sells shelter and contraband to the criminal element of the city. A SWAT team is sent to raid the building and clean out the underworld element flourishing there. When the mission goes pear-shaped, novice SWAT operative Rama must fight his way out of the building, full of criminal residents trying to kill him and his team, if he ever hopes to return to his home and family.

I saw this film when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and was shocked at how such a simple premise could be turned into such a compelling martial arts film. There are more fights in this movie than perhaps any other film I’ve ever seen. The variety is also welcome as guns, batons, hammers, axes, machetes, knives and empty handed fighting all wind up in the mix. The martial arts in the film is Indonesian Silat and it is effective looking as well as pleasing to the eye. Described by its director Gareth Evans as a martial arts survival horror hybrid, this one isn’t for the faint of heart. The violence is brutal and wince-inducing. And in a weird way that is why you won’t be able to look away when you watch it. The spectacle is truly jaw-dropping and if bone-crunching martial arts madness is what you crave, The Raid: Redemption is the right ticket.

1_ipman1. Ip Man (2008)

Ip Man is a quiet and independently wealthy man living in the town of Foshan in Southern China. Aside from the occasional closed door sparring session with other kung fu masters of Foshan, Ip Man is content to practice his Wing Chun kung fu, drink tea with friends and spend time with his wife and son. Even defeating the occasional Northern kung fu brawler looking for trouble doesn’t shake the pleasant routine Ip Man enjoys in Foshan. Then the Japanese invasion of 1937 changes everything and Ip Man must then apply his skill in Wing Chun to defend his fellow mistreated Chinese and defeat the Japanese who challenge him to a martial arts duel to determine Japanese superiority.

In the opening remarks for this list, I mention that this list isn’t a ranking of these films but just a list, with any of these films being worth your time. But if it was a ranked list, Ip Man would still be in the number one spot. It successfully combines the themes that define the perfect kung fu movie, themes concerning the true meaning of kung fu, friendship and the Chinese cultural identity. The Wing Chun is a joy to watch on screen and the action is top notch. Ip Man is the defining kung fu movie of the new millennium so far. If you could only watch one movie on this list I would suggest this one.


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