The Most Important Classic Martial Arts Movies
The line between reality and fiction often becomes blurred in martial arts movies; on the one hand, the flying characters in 2000 classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are not realistic, but the moves that they use are based on the real martial art of Wushu (or Chinese Kungfu). In seminal films like Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon or Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master, the protagonists are performing all of their own stunts and are accomplished martial artists. However, the storyline playing out around them is, of course, fictional.
This combination of fantasy and realism is what makes martial arts movies so compelling and so beloved by audiences over the past few decades. From the beginnings of the genre in 1920s China through to the hyper-stylised, super successful movies of today, martial arts movies have consistently pushed the boundaries of what can be achieved on screen both physically and narratively.
Whether you’re a newcomer to the genre and want to know where to start, or you’re a confirmed fan and want to check back over some firm favourites, you’ve come to the right place. Here we’ve assembled the ultimate roll call of the most important martial arts movies made from 1973 onwards.
Enter the Dragon (1973) and Drunken Master (1978)
Two of the most famous names in martial arts cinema, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, both acted in important martial arts films in the 1970s. This decade saw fanaticism about the genre reach fever pitch, and Lee raised to idol status. Sadly, his most influential movie, Enter the Dragon, was also his last as he died a month before audiences saw it. The film received positive reviews upon release, but its legacy has continued to grow and grow over the years until it too has now reached the coveted idol status of its star.
Conversely, Jackie Chan’s introduction to the world stage was five years later in the movie, Drunken Master. After a very minor part in Lee’s Enter the Dragon, Chan used the intervening years to hone his craft and discover his own technique. Though both men have entirely different styles, both in martial arts and acting, they have gone on to become two of the most recognisable figures in this movie genre. Both of these films remain celebrated classics, maintaining their popularity with modern audiences and inspiring the continuation of the martial arts genre in world cinema and Hollywood.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
When it was first released in cinemas, Ang Lee’s masterpiece received overwhelmingly positive feedback from audiences and critics alike. It was truly an influential moment in martial arts cinema as the film propelled the genre towards becoming a global phenomenon. The title remains a firm favourite with fans to this day, after picking up 4 Oscars, 2 Golden Globes, 4 BAFTAs, and countless other awards back in 2001. Its continued success has carried it right through to the present day and modern iterations of the same fictional universe.
Since the year 2000, things have changed and the internet has become an integral part of our daily lives, providing us with everything from messaging services to gaming, to television on demand or online shopping. Websites like WhatsApp, PokerStars and Amazon Prime are now the biggest names in the game, taking over from analogue versions of their services. Streaming service Netflix has become one of the most influential companies in television and film, and back in 2016 it released the sequel to CTHD, Sword of Destiny. Although it didn’t receive the same adoration as the original, it proved that there is still interest in the magical CTHD universe.
The Raid (2011)
The new, modern style of martial arts film – faster, more brutal, with themes of confinement and an urban setting – takes its cue from this surprise success, released in 2011. The Raid was a budget movie, filmed using handheld cameras and using the less well-known Indonesian martial art, Pencak Silat, for its many and varied fight scenes. Filmed entirely in Indonesia and with an almost completely Indonesian cast too, one of the movie’s most curious features is that it was conceived and directed by a Welshman.
Heavily influenced by the Indonesian martial arts movie genre, The Raid brought contemporary, modern style martial arts cinema to the world stage. It became something of an overnight success, championed by fans across the planet and picking up several awards along the way. Although we may recognise its distinctive style as more common within the genre these days, this movie marks a crucial moment in the evolution of martial arts on film. Moving away from the magical, mythical storylines of the late 90s and early 00s, The Raid ushered in a hot new take on the violence and ruthlessness of martial arts films in their heyday of the 1970s.