With the new release of the G.I. Joe reboot, we’ve narrowed down 10 of the best martial arts movies of all time.
With Snake Eyes getting his fu on in the new G.I. Joe reboot, what better time to look at the moments when Hollywood tried its hand at a five-finger death punch and jumped on the martial arts bandwagon.
From Keanu Reeves and JCVD to Jack Black and Bruce Lee, here are 10 of the best.
Enter The Dragon (1973)
Riding on the Funkadelic wave of Blaxploitation films that was flooding the market in the early ’70s, Enter The Dragon saw Bruce Lee getting his groove on with the Hollywood big leagues.
After a succession of films made in his native Hong Kong had seen Lee become a big star, Warner Bros. famously bankrolled the biggest martial arts movie of all time. The huge success of which Lee couldn’t enjoy as the film was released after his death.
Fusing a Bond-esque globetrotting plot, Jim Kelly’s stick-it-to-the-man attitude, Lalo Schifrin’s funky score and a martial arts tournament that sees some of its finest exponents taking on Lee at his own game, Enter the Dragon is the most fun you will ever have watching bones break.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)
Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to Meiko Kaji and Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood sees Uma Thurman’s vengeful assassin bloodily ticking names off her “Kill List Five”.
From the astonishing bloodletting at the House of the Blue Leaves as The Bride slashes her way through the “Crazy 88” and Chiaki Kuriyama’s meteor hammer wielding Gogo Yubari, to her almost peaceful snowy showdown with Lucy Liu’s O-Ren Ishii, the first instalment of QT’s bloody affair is an astonishing achievement.
Tarantino gets bonus points for casting Gordon Liu, Kenji Ohba and the legendary Sonny Chiba.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Kurt Russell’s fourth film with John Carpenter after Elvis (1979), Escape from New York (1981) and The Thing (1982) sees the actor playing loudmouthed truck driver Jack Burton.
The blowhard accidentally finds himself in a turf war beneath San Francisco’s Chinatown when he helps his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) rescue Wang’s green-eyed fiancee from the ancient sorcerer named David Lo Pan (James Hong).
Carpenter had long wanted to film a martial arts movie and this action-comedy fuses ILM’s customary top-notch effects with fantasy fuelled martial arts mayhem.
The Karate Kid (1984)
Wax on, wax off! Daniel-san! The Karate Kid was the film that started it all, spawning three sequels and four seasons of the Netflix spin-off Cobra Kai.
This very ’80s feel-good martial arts film plays like Rocky junior as Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio), a young boy from the wrong side of town overcomes bullies, led by Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), wins the girl (Elisabeth Shue) and kicks arse at a tournament beating the cads at the evil Cobra Kai dojo using a “crane kick”.
All thanks to his sensei, and next-door neighbour Mr. Miyagi, played by an Oscar-nominated Pat Morita.
John Wick (2014)
John Woo turned the action film on its head with films like A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992).
The term “gun-fu” was coined and every Hollywood action hero used the double-handed pistol technique.
For the John Wick trilogy, gun-fu is much more than heroic bloodshed, for Wick, as director Chad Stahelski describes, it as a combination of “Japanese jiu-jitsu, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, tactical 3-gun, and standing Judo”.
And Keanu Reeves. The beloved actor plays an ex-hit man forced out of retirement to take on the Russian mafia who killed his dog. The stunts are incredible, the pace breakneck and the gun-fu is … ballistic.
Rush Hour (1998)
With his slapstick acrobatic fighting style, comic timing and innovative stunts in films like Drunken Master (1978), Project A (1983) and Police Story (1985), the ever-likeable always smiling Jackie Chan had become one of the most loved martial artists in Hong Kong.
He had a taste of Hollywood with a small appearance in The Cannonball Run (1981) and Supercop (1992) and Rumble in the Bronx (1995) had achieved a cult following but it was Rush Hour, co-starring wisecracking Chris Tucker that proved to be his big breakthrough in the US.
A cop buddy movie and fish-out-of-water comedy rolled into one, complete with insane fight scenes thanks to Chan, this action-comedy became the template for Chan’s Hollywood career.
Bloodsport was the first in a long line in Jean-Claude van Damme and Cannon Films collaborations including Cyborg (1989) and the disco-dancing Kickboxer (1989).
The Muscles from Brussels plays US soldier Frank Dux. The military man is trying to infiltrate a forbidden underground tournament, sanctioned for centuries by the Black Dragon Society, that sees the world’s best martial artists duking it out.
JCVD does the splits like no other and high kicks his way into the clandestine competition.
The bone-crunching fights sees the former Mr. Belgium clash with a succession of fighters, including Bolo Yeung who played one of Bruce Lee’s formidable opponents in Enter the Dragon.
The Man with The Iron Fists (2012)
Boasting an all-star cast including Lucy Liu, Russell Crowe, Jamie Chung, Dave Bautista and the RZA who also directed this lavishly staged ultra-violent martial arts gorefest, The Man With The Iron Fist punches above its weight.
Co-written by rapper RZA and torture porn exponent Eli Roth, the film channels spaghetti westerns by way of the infamous Hong Kong filmmakers the Shaw Brothers and their unique brand of martial arts madness.
RZA plays a village blacksmith who forges deadly weapons for the feuding clans to pay for the freedom of his lover. He must turn himself into a human weapon when the deal turns sour. No clues what part of his body he augments.
Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins (2021)
If you ever wanted to know how one of Hasbro’s most famous sons got their mask and motorbike, then Snake Eyes is the movie for you.
On a hateful quest for vengeance after witnessing his father’s murder as a child, our titular hero, played by rom-com darling Henry Golding, finds his allegiances tested between the Arashikage Clan and a wealthy Yakuza boss who has offered to help the troubled fighter find his quarry.
Also starring Andrew Koji as Tommy, who will later become Storm Shadow, and Iko Uwais from The Raid as Hard Master, Snake Eyes delivers when the warring factions clash.
Kung Fu Panda (2008)
A rotund panda called Po, perfectly voiced by Jack Black, puts the mirth into martial arts in this bright, vibrant Dreamworks animated comedy.
Po accidentally becomes the chosen one, the Dragon Warrior, much to the chagrin of the Furious Five – Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross) – a quintet of kung fu warriors trained by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). Soon everybody is kung fu fighting to defend their home against villainous snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane).
Expect wise cracks and cartoonish violence aplenty.
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Originally published as Top 10 best martial arts movies of all time
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