Martial arts demonstrate some of the most spectacular feats of physical ability. Whether they’re practised for self-defence, spiritual development or cultural heritage, Hollywood discovered early on that martial arts make for compelling viewing.
For most of us in the West, films were our first encounter with martial arts. With this in mind, we’ve put together a list of the most impressive martial arts movie fight scenes.
Fist of Legend (1994)
In this scene, Chen Zhen (Jet Li) is given an ultimatum by Huo Ting-en (Chin Siu-ho), the disgruntled son of Chen’s deceased master.
Chen must choose between leaving his lover Mitsuko or leaving the Jingwu school of martial arts he’s known all his life. Chen opts for the former, and Huo challenges him to fight.
This is the quintessential fighter’s fight scene. Look out for Jet Li switching between Kung Fu, Karate (potentially a nod to Mitsuko being Japanese) and even boxing.
Fist of Legend inspired film directors the Wachowskis to hire its lead choreographer, Yuen Woo-ping, for the fight scenes in The Matrix franchise. He would later go on to choreograph Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Ip Man (2008)
Ip Man is a biopic based on the life of Ip Man (Donnie Yen), who was Bruce Lee’s teacher and a grandmaster of the Wing Chun style of Kung Fu native to Southern China.
In Foshan, a Chinese city occupied by the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese war, obsessive Karate master General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) hosts a fighting arena for native martial artists. The prize for defeating one of Miura’s karateka is a bag of rice – a highly appealing reward for the poverty stricken city.
When a friend of Ip Man’s goes missing after entering this competition, Ip Man enters to find him and discovers Miura isn’t a man of his word.
In this scene, Ip Man realises his friend was likely cheated and killed. Infuriated, he demands to fight 10 black belt karateka at once, as Miura looks on.
In testament to Ip Man’s skill and legend, he’s only struck twice during fights throughout the film.
The Raid (2011)
The Raid follows Rama (Iko Uwais) and an elite police squad as they fight their way through a Jakarta slum apartment block to take out drug lord Tama Riyadi.
In this scene, Rama and his brother Andi (Donny Alamsyah) encounter Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian), one of Riyadi’s volatile lieutenants. What ensues is an exhausting, raw and meticulously choreographed display of Pencak Silat – a class of martial arts indigenous to Southeast Asia. There are no pyrotechnics or props here, just hand-to-hand combat and visceral skill for five intense minutes.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Yayan Ruhian trained the Indonesian Presidential Security Forces and Indonesian Military Police Corps in Pencak Silat.
In Redeemer, former hitman Nicky Pardo (Marko Zaror) is tormented by his past after accidentally killing the son of a rival hitman named The Scorpion.
In retaliation, The Scorpion murdered Pardo’s family and left him for dead in the desert. Pardo survived, however, and goes on to spend his days targeting the drug gangs he once served, offering them repentance or death.
After a while, The Scorpion learns that Pardo is still alive and sets about hunting him down. In this incredible scene, one of The Scorpion’s henchmen, Icaro (Nuñez Nelson), catches up with Pardo. This culminates in perhaps the most faithful and authentic Brazilian jiu jitsu fight ever made for film. For a breakdown of this fight, check out this video.
Marko Zaror also holds a black belt in Karate and Taekwondo and trains in several other martial arts.
Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003)
Ong Bak follows Ting (Tony Jaa) on his mission to retrieve the head of the ancient Buddha statue that was stolen from his provincial Thai village.
In this scene, Ting visits a fight club in Bangkok’s criminal underworld. Here, he attracts a series of challengers after naively knocking out an aggressor moments earlier. Watch as Ting combats each fighting style with his mastery of Muay Boran, a bare-knuckle style of Muay Thai.
Many of the bad guys in Ong Bak wore longer wigs. This was to hide the padding they wore underneath to cushion blows from Tony Jaa’s lethal elbows.
Dragon Tiger Gate (2006)
In Dragon Tiger Gate, an eponymous martial arts academy is established to uphold justice and fight the Triad.
One of its founders has two sons, Tiger Wong (Nicholas Tse) and the estranged Dragon Wong (Donnie Yen), who was taken in and raised to be a bodyguard by Triad boss Ma Kun (Chen Kuan-tai).
In this scene, Tiger interrupts a meeting between Ma Kun and another gang and fights his way through waves of gangsters with his signature taekwondo style. That is, until Dragon turns up to challenge him.
Wong Yuk-long, the creator of the Hong Kong comic Oriental Heroes which Dragon Tiger Gate is based on, makes a cameo appearance as Master Qi.
Drunken Master II (1994)
Drunken Master II is about an unwitting hero, Wong Fei-hung (Jackie Chan). The character is loosely based on a real-life Chinese folk-hero of the same name who, in the film, discovers he possesses incredible Kung Fu abilities – except only when drunk.
Wong becomes mixed up in the British consul’s attempts to smuggle the Imperial Seal – an ancient Chinese artefact – out of China. The scene above, where he attempts to retrieve it, became one of the most revered martial arts movie fight scenes ever. Famously tough film critic Roger Ebert even remarked:
“Coming at the end of a film filled with jaw-dropping action scenes, this extended virtuoso effort sets some kind of benchmark: It may not be possible to film a better fight scene.”
Wong’s fighting style in Drunken Master II is based on Zui Quan – a martial arts discipline with long folkloric history, which imitates the movements of a drunken person in order to move and strike in a way the opponent least expects.
This scene took nearly four months to shoot, with Chan himself saying that one day’s filming typically produced three seconds of usable film.
The Prodigal Son (1981)
The Prodigal Son is the story of Leung Chang (Yuen Biao), the spoilt martial arts obsessed son of a rich and doting father who, unbeknownst to Chang, bribes opponents to lose fights to him.
Chang’s arrogance grows until one day he faces an opponent who can’t be bought – Leung Yee-tai – and the truth is revealed.
Chang joins Yee-tai’s theatre troupe and begs Yee-tai to teach him Wing Chun, the primary martial arts style displayed in The Prodigal Son, but Yee-tai refuses. One night, the troupe is massacred by Lord Ngai Fei (Frankie Chan) and after Chang and Yee-tai escape, Yee-tai agrees to teach Chang Wing Chun.
This scene is the inevitable confrontation between Chang and Ngai, which puts all of Chang’s training into practice.
Connoisseurs of the genre may notice that the depth of the shots of the fight scenes in The Prodigal Son were innovative for martial arts films at the time.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
In 18th century China, Li Mu Bai is a master of Wudang swordsmanship, and his long-standing confidante and love interest Yu Shen Lien (Michelle Yeoh) is head of a security firm.
Li Mu Bai is retiring and entrusts Yu Shen Lien to transport his mystical sword, the Green Destiny, to a benefactor in Beijing. In this scene, the sword is stolen and Yu Shen Lien attempts to retrieve it from masked thief Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), who seeks the sword’s power for herself.
Though wires were used extensively throughout the film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s mythical vision of China took on-screen martial arts to stunning new places. The film received unanimous international acclaim for its astonishing choreography and cinematography.
The phrase “crouching tiger, hidden dragon” is a quote from Chinese mythology. It refers to concealed strength, which is a theme in the film.
Fist of Fury (1972)
This article couldn’t claim to capture the most impressive martial arts movie fight scenes without including one from Bruce Lee.
Fist of Fury is the original on-screen adaptation of the story of Chen Zhen – Fist of Legend above is just one of many reinterpretations.
This scene appears earlier in the story, just after Chen Zhen (Bruce Lee) and a group of Chinese students were taunted by Japanese students of a nearby dojo, who then left a sign reading “Sick Man of East Asia” to mock them.
In this most iconic of martial arts movie fight scenes, Chen is returning the sign and winds up single-handedly defeating every member of the dojo – including the sensei – using his famous brand of Wing Chun.
Jackie Chan made an early appearance in this film as both a stunt double and one of the Chinese students mocked by the Japanese.
In nearly every one of the martial arts movie fight scenes above, actors performed their own stunts and sustained injuries during filming.
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