Martial arts in movies can mostly be traced to Chinese kung fu movies. This Far Eastern genre originated in the theatricality of Chinese opera and “Wuxia” novels. Wuxia is a romantic genre of Chinese folklore, often featuring a lone sword-wielding hero on a chivalric quest. The oldest films in this vein date to the late 1920s, but many are lost.
It took until the 1970s, when Bruce Lee brought Chinese-style martial arts to Hollywood, for these types of films to gain worldwide recognition. Before that landmark moment, hand-to-hand combat in American films was unconvincing. The knife fight from 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause” is exciting in the context of the story, but it’s not exactly a ballet of violence. What kung fu brought to global cinema was the idea that combat could be a thing of beauty, too. These are some of the most influential martial arts movies of all time.
Jean-Claude Van Damme is action cinema’s most photogenic star, and “Kickboxer” is his best film from a pure martial arts perspective. No movie better captures the grace and athleticism of the self-styled “Muscles from Brussels” at his astonishing physical peak. It’s a wonderfully cheesy 1980s confection with a synthy soundtrack to match, but this martial arts melodrama also packs a serious slow-mo double punch to the gut.
Van Damme plays Kurt, the little brother of a cocky American kickboxing star (Dennis Alexio) who gets paralyzed in the ring by the vicious Thai boxing villain, Tong Po (Michel Qissi). Kurt seeks out a reclusive Thai master (Dennis Chan) to help him avenge his brother. The stakes are ratcheted up when gangsters assault his lover (Rochelle Ashana) and kidnap his brother. The final fight sequence has even more impact, as it’s intercut with a rescue mission.
If that all sounds like too much, it is, in the best ’80s way possible. As Kurt faces down Tong Po in “the old way,” the two combatants famously dip their gloves in resin and broken glass. This is pure Hollywood, but “Kickboxer” was the first film to bring genuine Thai boxing to American audiences. The brutal but simple style would later become central to real MMA strategy. Van Damme may topple Tong Po with flying movie kicks, but he also showed the world the superiority of the real fighters to Wuxia fantasies.
The elaborate hand-to-hand combat scenes in “The Matrix” are pure Hong Kong cinema. The original 1999 film’s wirework, known as “wire-fu,” is what allowed Keanu Reeves to catapult off that dojo wall and briefly get the drop on Lawrence Fishburne. “The Matrix” was the biggest film to ever bring high-flying Wuxia flair to a big-budget American action blockbuster and did so with classic Eastern flair. Wuxia lore always featured romantic figures like Neo whose mastery of fighting craft gave them superhuman powers.
As futuristic as is the premise of “The Matrix,” it’s the film that finally created a plausible playground for the physics-defying style of wire-fu. If Wuxia influences had been more present in American martial arts movies in 1999, the film’s stunts wouldn’t have seemed so revolutionary because many were not. Still, no film franchise has brought more eyes to these balletic cinematic traditions. Even though the sequels have left the franchise in disrepair, the original “The Matrix” assured that the martial arts genre would be viable for decades to come.
After Bruce Lee died in 1973, Hong Kong cinema pegged Jackie Chan as Lee’s successor, but Chan is a very different kind of performer. His breakout Chinese film, 1978’s “Drunken Master,” brought a light-heartedness to the self-serious Wuxia genre full of temples and grand standoffs. Wuxia classics are downright cheesy by modern standards, and Chan’s simple adjustment was to make fights feel real by admitting they hurt. He often shakes out his hand and cringes after landing a good punch. And the pain is often all too real. Chan is also arguably the greatest stuntman in cinema history, suffering a litany of horrifying on-set injuries that would send most mere mortals to the morgue.
Like Lee’s initial disappointing Hollywood run that brought him back to Hong Kong for “Enter the Dragon,” Chan also made an aborted stateside offensive. He returned to China in 1985 with an American flop on his back but took matters into his own hands and co-wrote and directed “Police Story.” The action-packed story about a cop who gets framed and must clear his name is a scathing critique of Hollywood’s lumbering and clunky fight scenes of the era.
“Police Story” was a smash in China and spawned multiple squeals that eventually landed Chan another crack at Hollywood distribution for his massive American breakout, “Rumble in the Bronx,” in 1995. Without “Police Story” there is no behemoth “Rush Hour” franchise.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Released in 2000, Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is the greatest Wuxia film ever made. Like “Enter the Dragon,” this masterpiece is a collaboration between American and Chinese studios. It’s also the highest-grossing foreign film to hit American theaters of all time — and by a massive margin. The film took home four Oscars in 2001, including best cinematography for Peter Tau’s breathtaking camera work, capturing the pastoral beauty of numerous Chinese provinces.
The film’s plot is both unusually sweeping and highly romantic for a martial arts film. It begins with a legendary warrior in feudal China, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat), who wants to walk away from his long life of violence. But when he retires his iconic Green Destiny sword, a precocious female warrior (Zhang Ziyi) steals the blade. She and Bai duel but eventually form a bond as they team up against a villain (Cheng Pei-pei) who murdered Bai’s master.
The action sequences of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” are among the most spectacular ever put on film and reintroduced the wonders of wire-fu stunt work to a global audience. Lee’s film is a peak achievement of martial arts cinema, and it requires no particular interest in action movies to embrace this beautiful film’s poetic power.
Once Upon A Time in China
If Jackie Chan was the successor to Bruce Lee, next in the lineage of Chinese martial arts stars is the great master of blinding kung fu fistics, Jet Li. In 1991’s “Once Upon A Time in China,” Li plays the Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung. The character is a bit like an eastern version of Robin Hood or King Arthur and was previously portrayed in Chan’s legendary Hong Kong hit, “Drunken Master.”
This time, Fei-hung is portrayed as a Hong Kong healer circa 1900 as the British cede the city to sovereign rule. Fei-hung must fight to protect his martial arts school from cartoonishly sinister colonizers and allied local baddies as he falls for a distant relative (Rosamund Kwan) who’s full of Western gusto after returning home from England.
Jet Li is half martial artist, half gymnast, and it’s incredible to see him tumble, twist, and climb through the film that revived Chinese martial arts movies. There are no computer graphics in this early ’90s adventure, just a lot of wonderfully staged wire work from choreographer Yuen Wo-ping and Western-educated, Eastern-schooled director, Tsui Hark. Li would go on to make numerous spectacular CG-assisted epics like “Hero” in 2002 and “Fearless” in 2006, but it all flows from this landmark revival of the genre.
The Karate Kid
Chinese kung fu brought martial arts to world cinema, but it was the Japanese-influenced “The Karate Kid” in 1984 that inspired a generation of older millennials to flock local strip-mall dojos and volunteer to wash the family car on the weekend.
Fatherhood is a key theme of this story about Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), the latchkey son of a single mom (Randee Heller) who wants to learn Karate to get back at a local gang of bullies. Pat Morita earned an Oscar nomination for his iconic role as Mr. Miyagi, cinema’s most sage sensei. Miyagi is the archetypal tough-love dad. He won’t simply hand over ancient tactics. “Daniel San,” as Miyagi calls him, using a Japanese honorific of mutual respect, must first learn discipline.
Every ’80s dad was nodding in quiet appreciation as Miyagi tricks his overeager teen pupil into washing an entire fleet of cars and then painting an endless backyard fence. But when we find these seemingly punitive chores were hidden lessons in ancient martial arts, the reveal is an unforgettable catharsis. We’d all been Miyagi’d. It’s a feeling of vindication and triumph that characterizes the best movies about underdogs fighting long odds. The film taps into this feeling repeatedly, right down to the All-Valley Tournament finale, but it’s only possible because the movie’s laconic father figure makes “The Karate Kid” earn it.
Enter the Dragon
Bruce Lee is martial arts cinema’s most revered star, and “Enter the Dragon” is the 1973 film that solidified his legend. It was the first joint production by Hong Kong and American movie studios. The result was a global smash that, decades later, still tops many lists of the greatest martial arts movie ever made.
“Enter the Dragon” is certainly Lee’s best film, but it’s also the last project he completed. Lee died suddenly on July 20, 1973, only six days before the Hong Kong premiere. The official cause of death was brain swelling from an allergic reaction to a prescription painkiller. Lee was just 32 and a perfect physical specimen, so this explanation never sat well with fans. Many conspiracy theories blossomed, playing on the themes of “Enter the Dragon.” The most prominent of these alternate explanations for Lee’s death is from the 1993 biopic, “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” in which the intensely driven star is depicted as being haunted by waking fever dreams about battling an ancient martial arts demon who crashes the set of his famous last work.
The impact of “Enter the Dragon” goes way beyond film. There are endless legends of Lee’s real-world dust-ups and genuine fighting prowess. His fighting theories are still being put to the test in MMA leagues like the UFC, where both real combatants and company heads alike often cite “Enter the Dragon” as a key inspiration.