Welcome to the Flash Bang list of Top Martial Arts Films. This list is completely subjective and biased towards my own particular tastes but it is a list which I believe any martial arts fan needs to have seen. As this list was inspired by a colleague looking to dip his toe into the world of martial arts films, consider this a good starting point. Just about all of these films are readily available on DVD in the UK, and a good portion of them should be available on the likes of NETFILX. I have chosen clips for each film which epitomize their style without giving away the climactic battles. So, in no particular order...
This is a hugely popular film, a dramatized biopic of Wing Chun master Ip Man, who would later in life teach kung fu to a very young Bruce Lee. Donnie Yen features a couple more times in this list but this film in particular showed off his acting skills alongside his martial arts. In this clip, Ip Man is forced to fight some japanese karate experts. Ten of them, in fact...
IP MAN 2
The success of Ip Man inevitably led to a sequel, but with no drop in quality. Now situated in Hong Kong, Ip Man finds he must defeat the local cabal of kung fu masters if he is to be allowed to teach in the region. This clip features the awesome Sammo Hung, one of my personal heroes and one of the reasons I got into martial arts myself.
BLACK BELT (KURO OBI)
This film is a must-see for any karate student. Karate usually gets short shrift in martial arts films, often portrayed as being overly stiff compared to the likes of Kung Fu styles. Set in Japan before WW2, Three karate students find themselves at odds with each other after the demise of their master, to decide who should inherit his black belt. In this clip, two ot the students fight against some soldiers after their dojo is annexed by the military. The second half of this duel is a text book illustration of using blocks as a strike.
TAI CHI MASTER
The first Jet Li film to appear on this list, but certainly not the last. Directed by Yuen Woo Ping (The Matrix), this has more wire-fu than any other film on this list, but it is just brilliant to watch and very inventive. Jet Li stars alongside Chin Siu Ho, whom he also stars with in Fist of Legend, and the awesome Michelle Yeoh (Police Story 3).
A COMPANY MAN
An action movie from Korea, A Company Man is about So Ji-sub a middle manager in his corporation. Except he's actually an assassin, and his company is just a front for a criminal organisation. When he is double-crossed, he is forced to take on the whole company. The fight scenes here are brilliantly shot and very inventive. Check out in particular the fight-scene inside the speeding car.
There have been some great cinematic partnerships over the years: John Ford and John Wayne, Scorsese and De Niro (and lately DiCaprio), John Woo and Chow Yun Fat...and to that list you can add Isaac Florentine and Scott Adkins. Special Forces was their first film together. Adkins plays a marooned SAS sniper in war-torn Eastern Europe. He's not the main character, that honor befaills Marshall Teague. However Scott made such an impression on director Isaac Florentine that he had his part fleshed out to the point where the big showdown between Marshall Teague and big badguy Eli Danker ends up sharing screentime with this epic scrap between Adkins and henchman Zaman (Vladislavas Jacukavicius).
DRUNKEN MASTER 2
This is the only one of two Jackie Chan films on this list (and he's not the lead in the other one!). This is arguably his best film, made just after he'd turned 40. The martial arts and acrobatic prowess in this film marks it as one of the best of all time - and its pretty darn funny too, with great support from Anita Mui and Shaw Brothers legend Ti Lung.
ONG BAK 2
When Tony Jaa made Ong Bak, it was a wake-up call to the rest of the martial arts genre. It was such a hard-hitting, stunt-laden film which harked back to the golden years of Hong Kong cinema. For me, Ong Bak 2 is even better, a prequel of sorts, it's set hundreds of years before the events of the first film and sees Jaa utilising not just his Muay Tai skills but a how mix of other types of martial arts. It's not perfect - the ending is just maddening - but it contains some hard hitting action plus you get the craziness of Tony Jaa running along the backs of a herd of elephants..
Welsh director Gareth Evans is best known for his films THE RAID and THE RAID 2, but his partnership with martial arts actor Iko Uwais began here. In Indonesia, "Merantau" is a period in a young man's life when he must strike out on his own and try to better himself. Iko Uwais undertakes such a journey but things don't go so well and he ends up trying to help a waitress escape the clutches of a human trafficking ring. This scene is an epic showdown against Yayan Ruhian, who Uwais would square off again in The Raid. This clip also features a favourite theme of mine, a fight scene in an elevator.
TIGER CAGE 2
Don't worry about not having seen the first Tiger Cage movie, as they are connected in name only. A Young Donnie Yen stars as a cop who's been framed of stealing a mobster's money and is trying to clear his name. This is one of the first films I got hold of when I started getting into the Hong Kong film scene and it solidified my love of the genre. It has a bit of everything - crazy stunt work (witness the guy falling off the moving bus onto the roof of a taxi!), over the top gunfights and amazing martial arts. Just check out the three-kicks-off-one-jump that Donnie performs at the 2;15 minute mark.
Shaolin is the Hong Kong equivalent to the Hollywood Blockbuster. It's got a big budget, big star names (Andy Lau and Jackie Chan) and huge action setpieces. It tells the tale of two brothers: one is a warlord, the other his ambitious younger sibling who betrays him. A tragic death sees Andy Lau pursuing a new path with the Shaolin monks, learning their martial arts skills and helping them repel an invading army.
An awful, westernized title for what was originally called Sha Po Lang. When this was originally released, Hong Kong cinema had been in a bit of a rut and this was just what was needed to shake things up. This isn't a martial arts film as such - it's a dark police thriller in which a detective (Simon Yam) is willing to go to any lengths to take down a criminal mastermind (Sammo Hung). The film introduced a new martial artist, Jackie Wu, who plays a psychopathic minion sent to kill the team of police officers. Donnie Yen stars as a new member of the team, who in his clip finally faces off against Wu.
Ninja 2: Shadow of a Tear
Scott adkins rejoins with director Isaac Florentine for this awesome sequel. Again, it's not too important to have not seen the first film. Adkins plays Casey, an American martial artist who has grown up in Japan. When his wife is murdered, he traces the killers back to Vietnam. The first film was more like a comic-book film, this one is just pure action. In this clip, Casey lets off a little steam in an outdoor bar...
Gareth Evans' Magnum Opus. Iko Uwais stars as a young SWAT Team member sent with his squad to take down a local drug lord in a rundown tenement building full of criminals. An incredibly tense and violent film, this is packed full of great action sequences. An American remake is in the works, but I doubt it will be anywhere as good as this. The following clip showcases the fluidity of the camera-work, Iko Uwais prowess as a fighter and his abilities as an actor. Just watch how his face hardens wehn he realizes he can't escape and has to fight...
THE PROTECTOR (AKA TOM YUM GOONG)
Tony Jaa is at it again. This time someone has stolen his elephant and he wants it back. This film can get a bit gimmicky at times - director Prachya Pinkaew had a thing for trying to find new hooks on which to hang martial arts so there's a scene where Jaa has to fight a bunch of kids on skateboards, bmx bikes and worse. However it also has one of the best martial arts scenes, a lengthy sequence as Jaa makes his way through different levels of a restaurant, all shot in one long take. In this clip, he's having to fend off another well-known martial artist, Lateef Crowder.
THE MAN FROM NOWHERE
Fans of Taken and Leon will definitely want to check out The Man From Nowhere. Cha Tae-sik is a former Secret Service agent now retired, hiding from the world by running a pawn shop. Inadvertantly he makes a connection with a young girl, and when she is kidnapped he finds himself sucked back into a very violent world. This clip sees him facing off against a shady CIA operative who's helping the badguys - this won't be their only encounter in the film!