Best Martial Arts Movies of All Time
While mixed martial arts might be one of the premier sports of our day, it doesn’t match the excitement of the greatest martial arts movies.
From the classic Yojimbo to modern marvels, martial arts movies continue to enchant and entrance audiences with deft displays of skill and discipline.
But with such a storied history that stretches back well over 70 years, which ones should you definitely check out and which can you pass?
To help you fill your day with butt-kicking action, we compiled a list of the 15 best martial arts movies of all times ranked not only on action but overall quality too.
15. Way of the Dragon
This movie may be iconic and might star two of the most iconic cinematic martial artists of all time, but there is a good reason it is so far down on our list.
Way of the Dragon was the first Bruce Lee movie where he played a major role in every part of the film’s development from writer, producer, director, and of course, actor.
That said, there is a good reason that this Bruce Lee movie is so far down on the list with the main one being that it varies in tone from comedic to dramatic in ways that jar the audience. However, the kung fu movie did quite well and was recognized for various production awards.
Still, there is little question that the reason Way of the Dragon remains so popular to this very day is the iconic battle between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris– the Karate International Karate Champion’s second film.
Way of the Dragon continues to influence martial arts with Lee’s “Oblique Kick” even making appearances in UFC MMA fights.
14. John Wick (Series)
Our first “modern” entry might leave fans feeling a bit snubbed that it did not make it higher on our list, but John Wick can only loosely be called a martial arts film.
While Keanu Reeves might thrill as the titular character, the series draws far more inspiration from spaghetti westerns and a noir action film than it does traditional martial arts films.
It also does not help that while John Woo’s Gun Fu might be noted as some of the most inventive martial arts choreography around, Keanu Reeves was already 49 years old when filming the first movie.
His physical prowess and capability notably declined in the following sequels, though his technique is still impressive.
That said, John Wick made our list more for its impact on culture and its amazing cinematic elements than its martial arts sequences.
Make no mistake, the action is amazing, but it is definitely more general action than a martial arts spectacle.
13. Ip Man (Series)
You can take any of the films in this series and they all stand up as modern masterpieces in the martial arts film genre.
It is a pseudo-biographical film based on the world-famous Wing Chun master, also known as Yip Man, the teacher and mentor of the martial arts phenom, Bruce Lee.
The series is noted not only for its excellent choreography, directed by longtime martial arts cinema virtuoso Sammo Hung, but for the portrayal of the titular character by Donnie Yen.
Yen used the method acting approach, speaking extensively with Ip Man’s living sons, training, and even eating like the Grandmaster.
Aside from the fact that the first entry more than doubled its budget at the box office, it spawned a whole series and multiple spin offs that follow the life of Ip Man through different periods of his life.
Beyond amazing choreography, the film received praise for its grim, accurate depiction of the Sino-Japanese War.
12. Ong-Bak (Series)
Unless you are a martial arts cinema aficionado or just a fan of Thai films in general, there is a reasonable chance you have not heard of Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior or its sequels. If that is true, let this list be the first step in rectifying that travesty as this is one of the best modern martial arts series out there.
Ong Bak is also the series that started Tony Jaa’s career with a breakout performance that highlighted the actors’ incredible athleticism and positioned him squarely with the greats.
Interestingly, the main reason Jaa wanted to star in the film was to bring the martial art Muay Thai to the world at large.
To be fair, the plot itself is nothing groundbreaking and centers around a rural villager with impressive martial arts skill retrieving an artifact stolen by unscrupulous criminals.
However, it is the film’s chases and fight scenes that make this a must-see martial arts film with a particularly acrobatic climax.
11. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
While not the first movie to use it, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon may be the movie that made the use of “wire fu” a worldwide name and phenomenon.
It is noted as being the film that catapulted Ang Lee to the top of the martial arts cinematic pantheon and won numerous Academy Awards.
While the film did not make star’s Chow Yun-Fat’s career, it did help cement him as one of the rising stars in martial arts cinema.
However, the movie certainly helped put the two female leads, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi, on the map both of whom won numerous acting awards for their roles.
So, why is Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon so far down on our list? While the martial arts is impressive, it is far more cinematic than action-packed, often seeming more like a dance or routine than actual combat.
That said, the combination of gorgeous cinematography and art direction, superb acting, and fantastic fight scenes still make this a great wuxia movie.
10. The Matrix (Series)
If you want a Keanu Reeves movie with spellbinding martial arts, you would be hard-pressed to find a better representative than The Matrix series.
From the opening sequence to the final battle, The Matrix delighted audiences in theaters and still holds up today as a shining example of great martial arts cinema.
While its broader cultural impact might center on questions of meaning, artificial intelligence, and what we value, it earns its martial arts chops both for its amazing use of “wire fu” and the ingenious development of the cinematic technique known as “bullet time.”
The choreography found its inspiration in the veritable martial arts choreography giant, Yuen Woo-Ping.
Rather than trying to hew the actors to his ideas, Woo-ping instead modeled the choreography after the actor’s natural talent and preferred styles.
While the sequels may not be as highly regarded critically, they still boast plenty of excellent fight sequences, like the battle with the Merovingian’s henchmen.
9. The Raid
If you only pay attention to the martial art movies coming out of the United States, Hong Kong, or mainland China, you will miss plenty of gems (as noted with Ong Bak).
The Raid is another similarly often overlooked diamond in the rough coming from Indonesia, granted an unlikely place.
One of the more impressive aspects of this movie is that the lead actor, Iko Uwais, is also responsible for the fight choreography despite having only worked on one film prior.
Regardless of his professional cinematic training, Uwais knocked this one out of the park with some of the most brutal fight scenes.
Unlike some of the entries on our list, The Raid does not shy away from blood with the movie’s protagonist often donning weapons.
While The Raid may not boast a sword fight for the ages or one of the better plots on our list, it is a fan-favorite that won numerous awards for those exact categories at multiple film festivals thanks two its “maximum carnage” approach.
8. Police Story
There are so many different films which we could slot into this spot from Frist Strike’s infamous ladder fight scene to Rumble in the Bronx’s gang hideout fight scene, but it is Police Story we chose to introduce Jackie Chan’s impressive ouvre.
A big part of the reason is that the actor himself considers this to be his best work, and who are we to disagree.
We suspect part of the reason Chan is so taken with this film is that it perfectly blends his mix of comedic slapstick with blistering action in a way only Jackie Chan can.
That said, this entry might err a bit too much on the side of gag humor, but it is a seminal work of Chan’s well-worth the viewing.
While Police Story may not have the refined edge of Chan’s 90s movies, it carries with it an authentic realness where everything feels grittier and truer.
While the martial arts choreography is top notch like with any Chan film, it is the other stunts which really catch our eye– some of them earning their own awards.
Jean-Claude Van Damme might have a long and storried carrier as an action star from the 90s, but it is his first starring role in the 80s that made his career.
Bloodsport takes all of the trappings of a classic kung fu film and puts them on the shoulders of a Western action star.
As a member of a martial arts clan invited to represent his school at an illegal, underground fighting tournament, Dux, Jean-Claude’s character, goes AWOL from the military to attend.
This movie has some excellent one-on-one fight scenes and has gone on to inspire numerous other properties.
For example, the character Johnny Cage from the Mortal Kombat series is based on Dux from Bloodsport and even employs his iconic splits punch.
While this movie may not have progressed the genre in any significant way, it captivated a generation of western audiences with some of the roughest fight scenes around.
6. Kill Bill (1 & 2)
Another modern classic, Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2 is Quinten Tarantino’s love story to the old kung fu movies he grew up watching as a kid. The movie places so much focus on the classic plot and martial arts sequences that few of the characters even have actual names beyond the titular Bill.
That said, part of what makes these films so great is that Tarantino managed to mix so many different genres together from blaxploitation to samurai cinema to spaghetti westerns.
While many of these genres borrowed from each other in kind, Tarantino was the director with the vision to weave them all together into a seamless whole.
This is another film on our list that does not shy away from gore as the Kill Bill series is arguably the bloodiest selection that we included with massive gouts of blood spraying across the screen.
While much of the first movie chronicles “The Bride’s” recovery, the second film includes more, if less spectacular, action.
Our first Jet Li movie followed closely on the heels of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and is arguably the only movie on our list to compare to its cinematic beauty.
However, Hero takes a bit more of a non-traditional approach with its art direction as each location feels far more focused as opposed to ambient.
The movie is gripping, following the story of Jing Ke and his hunting down three different assassins as part of a plot to assassinate their target.
However, the plot of the story remains somewhat uncertain as multiple tellings of the same events leave the viewer wondering what really happened.
Regardless of the truth, the action sequences are as thrilling and entertaining as anything else Jet Li performed and well worthy of being included on our list.
Regardless, this is one of the few movies on our list that has everything a martial art movie lover would want and then some.
4. Drunken Master (1 & 2)
Our final Jackie Chan movie is probably best known for Chan’s style of blending high-octane action sequences with heavy doses of comedy that are at once gripping and hilarious.
What is even more impressive is that the two movies premiered almost 15 years apart but still hold up as both a series and in general.
The first movie easily gets the highest praise as it is yet again another film choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping– though this time the master took up directing as well.
Drunken Master follows the Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung and is not even the only entry on our list to do so, though this movie takes a far less realistic approach to the legends.
These movies cement Chan as not only one of the biggest martial artist actors of all time but also highlight how expressive and genuine he is– even on set.
3. Once Upon a Time in China
While not a traditional Shaolin temple film, Once Upon a Time in China takes the Shaolin monk archetype and applies it to the Chinese folk hero, Wong Fei-Hung.
This film is single-handedly responsible for restarting the kung fu timepiece film renaissance of the 90s as well as making Jet Li a major player in the martial arts genre.
Taking place in the late 1800s, Once Upon a Time in China is another film on our list that not only provides excellent action scenes but provides a compelling plot with relatable characters as well.
In a time where much of the Western World grapples with the history of its colonial enterprises, this movie strikes a poignant nerve.
Granted, many of the characters are a bit over the top and portrayed one-sided, but Li more than makes up for some of these missteps with a presence that captivates.
Like many of the movies near the top of our list, Once Upon a Time in China is another film that manages to accomplish so much without the tricks of CGI.
2. Fist of Legend
You can go ahead and consider this entry an honorary title for Bruce Lee as it is a remake of his classic Fist of Fury, starring the incomparable Jet Li.
That said, Fist of Legend is definitely a better all-around movie and arguably a better action movie than the original with Li taking an active role in much of the film’s production.
Regardless of how influential Bruce Lee and his movies were on the kung fu films that followed in the 70s and 80s, the same could be said of Fist of Legend for martial art movies made in the 90s and 2000s.
Of course, it only makes sense that this movie would have such an impact on the genre as Yuen Woo-ping also choreographed this film.
In fact, the choreography in this movie would heavily influence that used in The Matrix which Woon-ping also choreographed.
Taking place at the beginning of WWI, Fist of Legend has an impeccable rating amongst critics and fans alike, often being considered one of, if not, Li’s best works.
1. Enter the Dragon (1973)
You knew this one had to be at the top of our list as Enter the Dragon is arguably the most iconic martial arts movie of all time starring the most iconic martial arts actor of all time.
While Enter the Dragon may not have started too many major trends in martial arts movies, it definitely put them in the limelight.
Legendary Bruce Lee is in full swing in this movie that spawned a generation of copycats and cemented some of the most common martial arts movie tropes around.
Everything from traveling to a foreign place to avenge the death of a loved one to competing in an underground fighting tournament to the death is here.
Not only did this movie help jump start the career of Karate World Champion Jim Kelly, but other cinematic martial artist greats like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung also make brief appearances.
This movie single-handedly started the “kung fu” craze of the 70’s as well as inspired numerous popular titles like Dragon Ball, Street Fighter, and Mortal Kombat.