~posted by Di Z.
Martial arts have been in film for almost as long as major motion pictures have existed. First appearing in Shanghai in the 1920s, martial arts flicks have become a major genre in film with worldwide stars such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Jean Claude Van Damm, Jet Li, and many more. This list is not at all exhaustive, it is merely a start on your journey to discovering great martial arts movies. Each of the fight scenes mentioned has a link to view the fight, and the full film is available for a free rental through the Seattle Public Library.
The Legend of the Drunken Master (known in the East, and to hardcore fans, as Drunken Master 2): Jackie Chan and the best fight scene ever. The late great film critic Roger Ebert has placed Jackie Chan’s blend of amazing physicality and comedic timing up on a pedestal with the likes of Buster Keaton. Ebert said of the final fight scene in Drunken Master 2: “It may not be possible to film a better fight scene.” Nuff said.
Hero: visually unparalleled. Every scene in this film overflows with elegance and stunning beauty, thanks largely to the direction of Zhang Yimou, mainland China’s finest director. The fight scenes are balletic in their drama and grace. Donnie Yen and Jet Li defy gravity in this fight to the death.
Kill Bill Volume 1: The Bride versus Gogo. Quentin Tarantino draws inspiration from seemingly every iconic martial arts movie ever in his brilliant Kill Bill series. Here, The Bride is outmatched and left defenseless but finds a way to blindside her opponent with a surprise attack. What follows is The Bride’s rampage against the Crazy 88. Simply glorious.
Iron Monkey: fire fight. Donnie Yen solidified himself as a big action star in this film about Wong Fei-Hung, a folk hero often celebrated in Chinese films. The fight scenes in Iron Monkey are unbelievably well choreographed in the Southern Hung Ga fighting style. In this scene, there’s an added level of danger as three fighters battle it out on top of sticks, on top of fire, with sticks on fire.
Kung Fu Hustle: tone death. This wonderful scene is full of gravitas thanks in no small part to the solemn guzheng music being played. What makes this even more awesome is that the musicians are actually blind assassins hired to kill three of the film’s martial arts masters.
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: a full arsenal. This scene featuring Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi beautifully showcases the Northern styles of wushu, Chinese martial arts, which have a fluidity punctuated by swift directional changes and attacks. Yeoh’s character demonstrates several traditional chinese weapons, including the Chinese broad sword, spear, hook swords, and monk spade.
Kill Zone: knife versus stick. This is an amazing fight scene with some of the best close combat weapon work I’ve seen. Much of the scene was improvised between Donnie Yen and Wu Jing, and it worked in their favor. You can really see the utilization of fakes and feints by each fighter, and their opponent’s reactions, in a way that would be difficult if not impossible to rehearse. When it comes to fight choreography, Donnie Yen just gets it.
Flashpoint: a blend of styles. One of the most well rounded fight scenes I’ve seen. As mixed martial arts (MMA) has continued to evolve, Donnie Yen has incorporated MMA techniques into his fight choreography since the mid-2000s. Here, Yen’s character throws everything but the kitchen sink at his opponent, from double leg take downs to scissor sweeps and heel hooks.
The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk: fighting blind against 100 swordsmen. Although martial arts movies are full of one versus many scenarios, nothing seems more outlandish than fighting 100 swordsmen blindfolded. But suspending your disbelief and witnessing the impossible unfold can be a beautiful thing.
The Way of the Dragon: Bruce Lee versus Chuck Norris. A classic battle between the Jeet Kune Do of Bruce and the karate of Chuck. More than 40 years later, fans of each martial artist are still debating about who would have been victorious in a real fight.