We love martial arts movies. Here’s our Top 10. We enjoyed ploughing through all 20 entries. Frankly, we enjoyed ploughing through our initial list of some 30-40 of our favourites. It was hard enough narrowing down to 20, let alone a top 10! We love them all. Each of them brought their own special flavour of martial arts to the screen. To us, these ten stand out.
Enter The Dragon for being the first movie to thoroughly brainwash us with the phenomenon of Bruce Lee and the martial arts movie mania that he would leave in his blood-curdling wake. Placed alongside the hundreds of martial arts flicks that followed ETD is relatively mild in kung-fu energy but it deserves a place because it gave the rest of them a ‘fighting’ chance before a global audience.
36th Chamber of Shaolin for being the quintessential kung-fu movie, set on most holy kung-fu ground - Shaolin! It was the sort of movie that wide-eyed kids watched and promptly embarked on plans to run away from home, bags and non-chuks packed for a long trek to China and martial arts heaven. This movie was different from the others because it worshipped at the altar of training and exercise, with fewer scenes of actual combat. What you remember most is the young man with fire in his eyes, steel in his hands training - alone, at night. His torso soaked in sweat, his limbs aching from wear and tear but his thirst for kung-fu excellence unquenched. His shame at repeated failure. Then, his joy in glorious success.
Jet Li deserves his own top 10, but we figured we’d pick some of his most outstanding work whether it was in the classical Chinese fighter mould as the immortal Wong Fei-Hung or in more contemporary milieu when he was dodging police-gang mafia in Paris as a Chinese intel agent out to clear his name. Like Bruce Lee before him Li had a class, a grace, a gravitas that set him apart from and above dozens of other fighter-actors. The movies we’ve picked showcased his prowess the best. Yeah, go ahead try picking your own Li’s top 10.
Some movies are all blood and gore and flying fists and elbows and knees with little time or space for script, character-building. For instance Donny Yen’s Ip Man for all his prowess was so beautifully, so sensitively portrayed - much like Li’s Fei-Hung. We’ve been partial to the movies that set drama and spectacle a tad above pure fighting. After all, these are movies not fighting rings! Still, we’ve honoured the ‘get out of my way’ movies too and Raid finds more than mention.
We had to pick Bloodsport because it was one where a visibly Western real-life fighter, Jean Claude Van Damme had burned those images into our brains as he did his insane splits and high kicks. No other Western star endeared himself to martial arts audiences the way he did in that one movie. And just as we’ve honoured a Western star amidst a galaxy of Chinese and Hong Kong specialists, we’ve also honoured the Thai fighter and star, Tony Jaa who fired to fame in Ong Bak.
We had to pick one Jackie Chan movie and we picked the one that unashamedly showcases kung-fu. Jackie’s slapstick is seen as his sin by some, his saving grace by others. We’re instead sold on his sheer brilliance in martial arts - defence, attack, defence, attack. He’s been unfairly ranked in the martial arts fighter hall of fame because of his weakness for the comic. Drunken Master couldn’t escape his comedic routine either but it showcased his speed, agility in a bewildering range of fighting styles and on kung-fu, beats his other movies by a mile. Watch it on the biggest screen you can find. That roaring music in your ears. Jackie’s retreat to one end of the screen as he fails and fails again against a formidable adversary at the other end. Then watch as he digs deep and comes roaring right back.