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Andrzej J
Andrzej J's picture
Martial arts movie recommendations?

So I've already got a New Year's reading list, thanks to one of Iain's old podcasts about recommended books for martial artists. Now I'd also like suggestions for movies that I may have missed out on. I've never been that much of a straight-up 'chop-socky' film buff, so I feel like there's a lot out there that I still haven't seen. I'd prefer movies that offer a little more than just standard entertainment, but also give us some food for thought and don't rely excessively on wire-work. They don't have to be strictly traditional Asian martial-arts films - I've heard Iain mention "The 13th Warrior" a few times, for instance, so I'm thinking of checking that one out.

Some that I've already seen and enjoyed, for various reasons: 'The Karate Kid' (parts 1 and 2), 'Ong Bak', 'The Raid', 'Enter the Dragon', 'Kill Bill', 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon', 'Seven Samurai'. I've seen my share of Van Damme flicks, so I don't really feel like I need to add any more of those ...

Your recommendations?

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Andrzej J wrote:
I've heard Iain mention "The 13th Warrior" a few times, for instance, so I'm thinking of checking that one out.

Not a martial arts movie, but a great film! (#) It’s based on the book “Eaters of the Dead” by Michael Crichton; which is in turn based on Beowulf and the journeys of Ahmad ibn Fadlan. It has some great one liners!

That always reminds me of Bruce Lee’s, “Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one”.

There’s also a bit where they are about to be attacked and Ahmad ibn Fadlan (Antonio Banderas) remarks to one of his new Viking traveling companions that, “I am not a warrior”. His new companion rellies, “Very soon you will be”. Love it!

Great movie, but not a martial arts one.

I have to be honest and say I’m not a fan of martial arts movies. They all have the same plot:

Weak good guy is wronged – trains hard under demanding sensei – Good guys kicks ass of those who wronged him.

You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

Many movies today have martial arts in them as a default. It’s a skill set all good guys have these days.

Captain America

Jason Bourne

Black Widow

James Bond

The Expendables

And on and on!

It seems that martial arts skills are a given part of any action movie character's skill set these days. Maybe we have seen the end of the “martial arts movie” and from now on martial arts are just in movies?

All the best,


(#) - It is officially the biggest financial failure in movie history … but I like it!


Jordan Giarratano
Jordan Giarratano's picture

Of all things, the original Conan the Barbarian actually works as a pretty solid martial arts movie. The theme is about remaking yourself through your challenges and there's even a sword kata sequence. While not actual martial artists, the three lead characters were cast because of their physical excellence in other disciplines Arnold was obviously the bodybuilder, Sandahl Bergman an accomplished dancer, and Gerry Lopez a legendary surfer. It's not textbook perfect, but they don't look nearly as clunky as the typical muscle-bound actor swinging around a sword.

If you haven't see it, I also love Ip Man (with Donnie Yen). Didn't see it on your list, though it fits in with those "modern classics." Ip Man is great because it actually builds character and advances the plot through the fight scenes. The specifics of how they fight are integral to the story.

Katz's picture

A good parody with decent martial arts is Kung Fu Hustle. I found it way better than Shaolin Soccer, also by Stephen Chow.

The original "Drunken Master", with a young Jackie Chan is pretty good, too, I think.

Ip Man, mentioned above sits in my library, and I liked it. I like Donnie Yen, actually.

Also, not a "true" martial arts movie, but starring Jet Li kicking people's butt : Danny the Dog.

Similar to House of Flying Daggers or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there is Hero. Decent story, a nice parralel between martial arts and calligraphy... Although, like the two mentioned before, lots of wire-work. :) Not too fond of that, but I can accept it is part of the whole "martial arts mythos", the same way we used to have witches and dragons...

Finally, in case you want an old-style martial arts movie, with over-the-top acrobatics, pretty much so-bad-it's-good : Master of the Flying Guillotine.

andrewgjennings's picture

"Martial arts"?  Well... I hate when we call this martial arts.  I didn't see anyone shooting an M16 (with precision), indetectably laying Claymore mines, or doing the slaalom with a tank.  The fancy flip kicks are not martial arts.  Fun to watch.  But I think that gymnastic skills are a given part of any movie character's skill these days - not martial arts.

garth gilmour
garth gilmour's picture

The French movie "The Scorpion" is a favorite of mine:

Speaking of foreign cinema "Yamada - The Samurai of Ayothaya" is pretty cool:

Also the sword fights in "The Hunted" are good (the Christopher Lambert 1990's movie that is)

But for me all of the above are blown away by 'Ghost Dog' and 'Redbelt'

Marc's picture

In addition to the ones already mentioned:

Do you want them to be strictly about martial arts, as in MA is central to the plot? - Check out Black Belt (Kuro Obi), make sure you watch the extras on the dvd. And if you like the 80s: No Retreat, No Surrender is still fun to watch.

Are you OK with just some nice MA elements? - Equilibrium, a well played 1984ish plot with a few MA elements and of course the gun kata. I do like the fight scences in the Jason Bourne movies, because they're not glossy and the characters make use of their environment (again watch the extras).

The Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Jr. (2009) presents fight scences with a nice gimmick: clever visualisation. A bit like imagining applications when doing kata. And they utilise proper target areas. If you're only interested in that, here you go:

Another remark on the "13th warrior": I liked the way they depict how the arab gradually learns the vikings' language. Give it a go, it's fun.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Marc wrote:
Another remark on the "13th warrior": I liked the way they depict how the arab gradually learns the vikings' language. Give it a go, it's fun.

Yeah I love that bit too.

Marc's picture

Oh, I just remembered: Kiss of the Dragon with Jet Li.  

MCM180's picture

I really, really enjoyed House of Flying Daggers. It's a visually beautiful movie - I'm going to watch it again just for the camera work. The use of color is stunning. The final scene is very tense and very well acted, in my opinion. Zhang Ziyi is a treat to watch, not just because she's quite easy on the eyes, but also because she acts her part very well. She uses her smile like a scalpel.

That said: The MA is wire-work and entirely unrealistic, of course, and the while plot isn't exactly the revenge model Iain sensei describes, it's not the movie's strong point. So realism isn't what you get. Overall, though, it's a feast for the eyes and an extremely enjoyable 2-ish hours. 

I'll second (third?) Ip Man (and Ip Man 2) as well. Choreographed fights, of course, but decent story development and Donnie Yen is credible and sympathetic.

Finally, I thought the somewhat oddball Tai Chi Zero was a lot of fun. It's not Great Art, nor is it realistic MA, but it has some nice visual effects (video-game style) and a steampunk flavor that somehow fits into the whole thing. It makes great use of the secret style trope, and I thought it does a much better job with the bumbling-idiot-and-smooth-cute-girl motif than some other movies.

MCM180's picture

Dang. House of Flying Daggers seems to have disappeared from Netflix. I'm really disappointed  

I also enjoyed Red Cliff. It's more of a military strategy movie than individual MA, but good nonetheless.

Re: Iain sensei's remark that MA skills are required in action heroes, I'm not sure that's new. I mean, just about every good cowboy hero in the 1960's Westerns could throw down with the best of them. And 30-ish years ago, Indiana Jones was depicted as an archaeologist and professor who could go toe-to-toe with that Nazi bareknuckler under the airplane. (I teach at a university. We professors are not generally a pugilistically excellent bunch.) I always used to doubt I could do anything in life because I couldn't fight!

What I do think is probably new is the variety of skills shown. It used to be pretty much just trading haymakers and over-the-top revolver marksmanship, whereas now there's probably a greater range of skills and combinations. 

Kevin73's picture

I agree with Iain about the movie genre, BUT that doesn't mean I still don't enjoy watching them.

Here are a few of the ones I enjoy, in no particular order (leaving out the "old school kung fu" movies & movies already mentioned)

Fearless w/ Jet Li (kind of a chop socky, but very good philosophical journey)

Unleashed w/ Jet Li

The Transporter (1,2,3 not the "reboot")

Chocolate (surprised me)

The Raid

Last Samurai

Ian H
Ian H's picture

If you like swordfighting films as well, the 2003 version of Zatoichi is well worth a watch.

Andi Kidd
Andi Kidd's picture

Try Lone Wold McQuade - absolute classic for one liners and fun fights!

And I'm pretty sure 'Code of Silence' has the best one liner in a movie ever!