I grew up on martial arts movies.
I didn't just watch the standard fare. Not only do I know Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, but I'm familiar with the work of Dragon Lee and Bruce Li. However, I freely admit that I am not such a devotee that I am an expert. For every movie that makes this list, I'm sure there is someone out there who knows of something that is more popular among martial art film fanatics.
You will notice, for example, that there are no Jackie Chan movies on this list. I think that the man's talent is without question. However, as entertaining as his movies are, they never really clicked with me on an emotional level.
You will also notice more American films than would normally make a list like this. It is important to note that I am grading what are the best films, not the films with the best martial arts. Now, the quality of the martial arts in the movie can elevate the whole film, but it is the whole film that is being judged.
So here is the list:
10. The Matrix
When the original Matrix was released it was a feast for the eyes. One of the things that made the action soar wasn't just the CGI, but the outstanding martial arts fights between Neo and Morpheus as well as Neo and Agent Smith. The former is particularly fun to watch as we see the different styles of fighting cycle through Neo's arsenal as the fight progresses.
9. Kung Fu Panda
I thought this was going to be a cheap PIXAR knock-off, but it is one of my favorite animated films. Not only it is beautifully directed, but the use of martial arts as a theme about gaining self-respect was very well done.
8. The Karate Kid
One of the reasons that this was such a big hit when it came out was that it showed how the martial arts can give you power. But this power was not like that of Cobra Kai, where it was simple force. It gave Daniel power over his life through strength of character. And the amazing performance by Pat Morita makes this movie incredibly rewatchable.
7. Rapid Fire
This is pure B-movie fodder except for the fact that Brandon Lee fills this movie with some of my favorite action sequences of this era. You can see in him a cross between his father Bruce's intensity and the innovativeness of someone like Jackie Chan. This should have been the opening salvo in a fantastic film career.
6. Invincible Shaolin
What makes this movie work so well is that the villains aren't villains. In this Shaw Brothers classic, our South Shaolin heroes train to take revenge against the North Shaolin men they think murdred their friends. Not only are the training sequences and fights so well done, but the build up to the actual final showdowns has real tension and stakes.
5. Kid with the Golden Arm
This movie was my first experience of a Shaw Brothers film and it is the lens through which I see all other movies from this studio. A security group must escort gold to an area hit by famine, but the deadly Chi Sa gang plans to steal it along the way. The heroes and villains are so colorful, that this could easily be a superhero film with names like "Golden Arm," "Silver Spear," and "Iron Robe." And Agent Hai Tao is one of my favorite on screen heroes. He is a deeply intelligent and pensive person who masks his inner pain with alcohol and buffoonery. But when the time comes, he unleashes all of his power. And through all the over-the-top action there is a hidden murder mystery.
4. Deadly Strike
I do not enjoy this movie. It is a bit too dark for me. But I have to admit that it is excellent. Bruce Li plays a police chief who is tasked with taking down an organized crime boss. However, the job is a suicide mission. So he gives pardons to deadly criminals in exchange for their help. This is a movie with real stakes as the roguish characters you come to love face fatal challenges along the way, making it clear that most of them are not going to get out of this alive. This also is Bruce Li's best movie and plays to his stoic strengths when he isn't trying to be a Bruce Lee imitator.
3. Enter the Dragon
There is a reason this movie broke through the way it did. It has an aesthetic that is still deeply rooted in the 1970's. However, rather than this being a detriment, it feels like a window into the past. You can see Bruce Lee's complete command of the screen and why this movie made him an international star.
2. The Chinese Connection
Originally titled Fist of Fury, the name was changed for an American release. This is easily Bruce Lee's best film. It has his best action sequences, including the classic scene where he takes on an entire dojo of karate fighters. This is a story of revenge and as such has deadly and violent consequences. In the end, you can see how his quest of vengeance removes all joy, with just a sliver of hope for the future. But the final seconds of the movie always get me.
1. Death Chamber
It took me years to track down this film because it is known by several names. But this is THE martial arts epic. Set in the Shaolin Temple, this movie follows an ensemble cast as they enter into the ways of mastering different styles of Kung Fu until it all builds with an invasion of soldiers. Rather than the fights being struggles for victory, they are intense battles for survival. Or if survival is impossible, then the fight becomes taking out as many enemies as possible to give your friends a chance to survive. I would put this movie up against any other action epic.