Top Martial Arts Films of the 21st Century
For Black Belt's September 2005 issue, I wrote "Top 20 Martial Arts Films of All Time." I based my selections on each movie's impact on martial arts cinema, not necessarily on its acting or fight choreography. It wasn't an easy process then, and it wasn't any easier when the editor of Black Belt asked me to write this piece on the top films that have been released during this century. Nevertheless, I agreed. Here's my top-21 countdown.
21. Baahubali: The Conclusion 2017
This Bollywood hit is so outrageous and stunning that I laughed at its bravura. It's Ten Commandments meets Ben-Hur in ancient India. The plot revolves around a queen who chooses her adopted virtuous son Baahubali as her heir over her contemptible birth son Bhalla. Subsequently, Bhalla's venomous deceit causes Baahubali to be exiled. As Bhalla becomes a power-hungry ruler, Baahubali returns, leading a stampede of flaming bulls with horns afire to destroy a dam and wash away the army that surrounds the city. Holy cow! When Baahubali wields a half-ton chain with each arm, no soldier, statue or wall at Bhalla's palace is immune to the chain reaction. The fights feature plenty of speed-ramping, which accentuates the emotions.
20. Flying Swords of Dragon Gate 2012
Directed by Tsui Hark and starring Jet Li, this is the best 3-D film ever made. Even though I saw it in a theater that didn't have tiered seating, the hairdo of the person in front of my wife didn't block her view of the subtitles — they jumped off the screen! One engaging scene in the movie had a murder of crows seemingly fly from behind, over our heads and into the screen. That had the people turning their heads to see whether any more birds were sneaking up on them. When that technology is used to depict Li and the villain engaging in a sword fight inside a tornado, it makes your head whirl.
19. Shadow 2019
Palace intrigue, deceit, power plays, doppelgangers and a wonky love triangle — these are the elements that put director Zhang Yi-mou's Shadow on this list. The fate of Commander Yu's (Deng Chao) home of Jing City hinges on defeating Gen. Yang's (Hu Jun) signature skills in a duel. Yang's weapon is the masculine da dao, a heavy blade that requires great power to wield. His secret skill is revealed when, in slow motion, he sprints away from his opponent with his weapon scraping along the rain-swept ground, bringing out the poetry of the movement. Yu's weapon is feminine: an umbrella forged with slashing steel blades. When wielded with an exquisite touch, it becomes efficient at reminding male warriors what it feels like to get in touch with their feminine side. The yin-yang aesthetics are hypnotizing.
18. Azumi 2003
Starring a 17-year-old non-martial artist named Aya Ueto (Azumi), this movie has a psychotic opening, offbeat characters and a wry sense of humor thanks to director Ryuhei Kitamura. It adds up to exciting, stylized violence captured by bizarre camerawork and presented with outrageous sight gags that make it one of the best samurai films ever. Two items separate Azumi from other entries in the genre: the finale in which Azumi slices and dices 200 samurai (compared to the usual one-on-one bouts) and a reverent note about Japanese women refusing to stay at home only to be culled by their male counterparts. With two months of fight training, Ueto exhibits skills that are spellbinding. It's easy to understand why Azumi re-energized Japan's waning fight-film industry.
17. Paradox 2017
In the vein of Chang Cheh's male-bonding kung fu films of the 1970s and John Woo's male-driven melodramas, director Wilson Yip's Paradox mixes Tony Jaa's frenzied elbows and Louis Koo's angst with Sammo Hung's superlative choreography — and manages to reinvent the melees that were popular in the 1980s. In Paradox, Hong Kong cop Lee (Koo) teams up with Chiu (Wu Yue) and psychic Tak (Jaa) to hunt down illegal organ traders in Thailand who plan to "dis-organ-ize" Koo's daughter. Although Koo is not a fighter, Hung weaves charged fight choreography with sleight-of-hand camerawork and edgy editing to make Koo ultra-kool. Brilliant combative action climaxes during the rooftop battle between Tak and henchman Sacha (Chris Collins) and during the high-octane meat-cleaver brawl that pits Lee and Chiu against Sacha and his gang.
16. Chocolate 2008
When watching 14-year-old Yanin Vismitananda's performance as the autistic character Zen in director Prachya Pinkaew's Chocolate, her high-trajectory death blows that swoop toward her opponents like an eagle will blow you away. Projecting a demure, empty face, Zen fights in a manner that often begins with her arms down at her sides. Yet when she elevates into Ong-Bak-style insanity, it's a new dimension of awe. She's no longer a sweet, innocent girl; she's a maelstrom. As the fights escalate, her female façade fades and the tempo accelerates into battles that are reminiscent of the ones that featured Yukari Oshima in mid-1980s Hong Kong films like A Book of Heroes. Zen's outlandish duel against a capoeira teen with Tourette syndrome is a gem.
15. The Raid: Redemption 2011
This film monitors a band of cops who bring anarchy to a drug kingpin's 15-story apartment complex. While Rama (Iko Uwais) searches for his brother, he's forced to elevate his swashbuckling pencak silat into pummeling the pill-pushing pirates into a putrefied pulp. If that sounds gross, the crazy thing is it's exactly what he does as more blood spurts than at a vampire convention. Shot mostly in black and gray, the movie by director Gareth Evans boasts a palette that oozes grunge as each fight showcases darkness and viciousness. Shot with simple camerawork, the fights are connected logically and disconnected when necessary to reveal new levels of helplessness for the losers.
14. Kung Fu Hustle 2004
If you love old kung fu films, this one will let you relive those nostalgic feelings. Directed by Stephen Chow and set in pre-revolutionary China, it follows small-time thief Sing (Chow), who aspires to join the underworld's ruthless Axe Gang. He convinces the gang to attack Pig Sty Alley. Yet when Sing learns secret kung fu from certain Alley inhabitants, he becomes their hero. From obvious Bruce Lee parodies to the not-so-obvious use of traditional Cantonese opera pieces from classic 1950s black-and-white kung fu films, it features several actors who haven't been seen for decades, including a Bond girl. Chow even satirizes Tom & Jerry, Road Runner, Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire — and delivers a farcical rendition of Neo battling a hundred Mr. Smiths from The Matrix Reloaded.
13. Kill Bill: Volume 1 2003
Created by Uma Thurman and Quentin Tarantino while shooting Pulp Fiction, this is Tarantino's homage to Hong Kong's old kung fu flicks. Kill Bill focuses on The Bride (Thurman), an assassin who, after being shot and left for dead at the altar, wakes up from a four-year coma and seeks revenge on her lover Bill (David Carradine). The most significant nods to Hong Kong cinema are Thurman dressed in Bruce Lee's one-piece yellow tracksuit from Game of Death and The Bride's final fight against the Crazy 88's, led by Shaw Brothers legend Gordon Liu. It looks like Golden Swallow meets Duel of the Iron Fists. Although an American film, Kill Bill features fights that were choreographed by Hong Kong's Yuen Woo-ping. In particular, Thurman's throwdowns are dynamic, the result of her intense three-month training regimen.
12. IP Man 2008
When high-production-value wuxia films shot in China were using hyper-imagined wire work and maniacal sword fights to mesmerize audiences, Donnie Yen and Wilson Yip (director) proved with Ip Man that old-school choreography wasn't out of vogue. During Japan's occupation of China, the mild-mannered pillar of the Foshan community, a master of wing chun known as Ip Man (Bruce Lee's future teacher) is forced to wallop unruly outsiders seeking to gain fame and diminish his reputation. Ip fights with artful virtue and without malice. When pressed into dueling with the Japanese to defend China's honor, he humiliates his foes while maintaining his martial convictions. Yen never loses his combative simplicity. (His three Ip Man sequels are likewise well worth watching.)
11. SPL2: A Time for Consequences 2016
Although SPL2 (aka Kill Zone 2) isn't a sequel, it continues SPL's combative grandeur. Wu Jing returns with more body-bashing breadth and joins forces with Tony Jaa and Zhang Jin. Directed by Soi Cheang, SPL2 sees Thai prison guard Chai (Jaa) search for a bone-marrow donor for his daughter. Meanwhile, Kit (Wu) is a drug-addicted undercover cop in prison, where sadistic warden Ko (Zhang) operates an organ-harvesting ring. Things go nuts when Kit's found to be a match. The prison escape is nihilistic. During the finale in a high-rise building with plenty of glass windows, Kit tackles a loathsome knife guy, then teams up with Chai to wreak vengeance on Ko and his cohorts. The movie is full of Jaa's signature close-combat ferocity.
10. The Raid 2 2014
Rama (Iko Uwais) is now an undercover cop in an even more savage work of brutality that's comparable to a slasher film filled with blood, guts and viscera, in which the killers are good, bad and ugly. In real life, Raid is an insecticide used to annihilate ants and cockroaches. In the movie, Rama does the same thing to lowlifes and thugs. When they become resistant, the new-and-improved Rama relies on potent martial arts skills to beat them into submission. The utter filth and grime of the mud-soaked penitentiary fight is claustrophobic. Rama's use of the karambit, a tiger-claw-shaped knife designed for close-quarters combat, facilitates the bloodletting.
9. Hero 2002
Jet Li reportedly cried after reading the script for director Zhang Yi-mou's Hero, then insisted that the film include a rematch with Donnie Yen. (They fought in Once Upon a Time in China II.) He also wanted Ching Siu-tung as action director. He got what he wanted. In the movie, the fate of China rests with three warriors who are trying to assassinate Emperor Chin. One of them is Lone Sky Iron Shield (Yen), with Nameless (Li) standing in his way. Ching's refined wire work and balletic choreography add mythical dimensions to Hero. The Mirror Lake fight took three months to complete because the filmmakers could shoot only 20 minutes a day when the lake's reflective properties were perfect. The Li-Yen rematch was a fight without fighting. In kung fu folklore, martial artists with powerful chi would sit opposite each other, send their spirits outside their bodies and direct them to do battle. A fighter died if his spirit died — it's an element of the tradition that's rarely seen on-screen.
Directed by Prachya Pinkaew and packed with influences from Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Panna Rittikrai, this Tony Jaa breakout film focuses on Thai warrior Ting (Jaa), who travels to Bangkok in search of the stolen head of a statue from his village's guardian Buddha. During training, Ting uses fighting skills related to Hanuman, a monkey God from the Hindu legend described in The Ramayana. Yet it's the confrontations with muscle-bound foreigners in illegal bare-knuckle brawls that endear audiences to the gut-wrenching action. Jaa's belligerence is emotionally countered by a gymnastic steeplechase through Bangkok's back alleys. Jaa's final bout against a meth-using adversary, along with his knee-drop strikes, elbows of fury and fire kicks, went on to inspire other Southeast Asian countries to showcase their martial arts.
7. The Grandmaster 2013
As director Wong Kar-wai tracked down old kung fu teachers in China to learn the art's traditions, Tony Leung had three years of pain-ridden preparation (two broken bones) for what was to him an unknown role. The Grandmaster centers on the retiring head of China's kung fu world Gong Yu-tian, who tests the worthiness of Ip Man (Leung) to be his successor. He does this via a battle of wits, cryptic physical combat and perplexing kung fu governance. It's confusing because Wong wants only insiders to get the nuances of the combat and therefore hides the skills. Ip's skirmish with 12 combatants at night in the rain was shot over 30 nights, during which Leung and the stuntmen were soaked until morning. The finale between Gong's daughter and a traitor confused Western critics. They didn't comprehend how fa jing strikes can break one's chi, forcing fighters to lose their abilities for life. If this confuses you, learn real kung fu.
6. The Villainess 2017
Sooh-hee (Kim Ok-bin) is a ballistic-bladed assassin coerced by an untoward agency to be a calm-but-deadly hatchet-slashing killer. After Soo-hee's opening fight on a multi-floored building full of thugs, we become enchanted by director Jung Byung-gil's novel choreography, what I call "pingpong camerawork." Imagine a pingpong ball as a camera and, instead of being swatted back and forth between paddles, it ricochets between fighters. The ball's POV images would be tight and shaky, with rapid zooms that create snappy rolling pans, tilts and spins. Now have the ball hit the ground, bounce up in the air, through a door or out a window three stories up while recording the actors' reactions. That's how the fights in Villainess look.
5. The protector 2005
The combat that distinguishes The Protector, starring Tony Jaa, from all other films is a four-minute oner — a continuous shot in a multi-floored restaurant — that was inspired by Bruce Lee's Game of Death, specifically the scene in which Lee climbs flights of stairs and fights on each floor. In Protector, each of the six floors featured a team of stuntmen who needed to attack Jaa at precisely the right moment. Yet in fight scenes in which timing was everything, the clock didn't always strike at midnight. After eight takes, however, they succeeded. Nothing since can compare to Jaa's dynamic performance.
4. SPL 2005
The title that's popular in the West comes from the Chinese phrase Sha Po Lang, which refers to three words from Eastern astrology that tell us a star is capable of good or evil based on its position in the heavens. The film's celestial stars are nut-case mob boss Wong Po (Sammo Hung); Inspector Chan, whose mission is to put Wong behind bars; and Inspector Ma (Donnie Yen), Chan's replacement who's known for bashing a suspect into a half-wit with one punch. Wong has a hidden plan up his sleeve: Jack (Wu Jing), a psychotic, blond-haired hit man who enjoys using his knife to fillet his victims. The highlight of SPL is Ma's fights, which involve Jack being pummeled with a retractable baton. The grudge match between Wong and Ma is a meteor storm of powerful knocks full of eye-popping flair, with camera choreography to match.
30. IP Man 4: The Finale
Donnie Yen's 11-year-long portrayal of Ip Man has improved like a fine wine. Director Wilson Yip's fourth installment opens the combative bottle and pours out the franchise's best wing chun action. When Ip arrives in San Francisco, he sees Bruce Lee defeat a gang of white karateka and win them over. The best fight is a cinema first: Ip takes on Wu Yue in a bout that pits wing chun's chi sao (sticky hands) against tai chi's tui shou (pushing hands). When Wu notices Ip's left hand is injured, Wu insists that he will use one hand, as well. The frays reveal that when Ip and Lee are forced to fight, they maintain faith in what it means to be civil. The climax matches Ip against two bigots, played by Scott Adkins and Chris Collins, both of whom are eager to prove that kung fu is weak in real combat. Their comeuppance symbolizes that the Chinese will no longer back down.
2. John Wick: Chapter a Parabellum 2019
Directed by Chad Stahelski, this is the best American-made martial arts film to date. Every fight has innovative choreography and beautifully crafted camerawork. The fights are so gruesomely violent and ballistically brutal that they're hilarious as hell. With a bounty on his head, the loveable John Wick (Keanu Reeves) realizes that his survival rests on apocalyptic action, mesmerizing mangling and grisly grappling, and the combination is not unlike a ballet recital. Each fight has minimal editing, uses wide angles and features long takes, often 20 to 25 techniques per shot. Stahelski hides nothing. Of note: At 53 and after having trained for six months, Halle Berry learned how to fight like Reeves while shooting and kicking dozens of thugs in a desert compound. In a dance, it takes two to tango; in Stahelski's fights, it takes two to tangle.
1. Enter The Fat Dragon 2020
I nearly finished writing this article last night. Before bed, I watched this film. Perhaps it's my emotions speaking — I haven't left home in 120 days, COVID-19 is out of control and my county just dialed back its plans for reopening. (deep breath) After watching Enter the Fat Dragon, I told my wife, "This is the best kung fu film I've seen in decades!" I'll save the details for this issue's Screen Shots column. For now, think Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais, Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen all wrapped into one. It's the kind of film I live for.
Baahubali Photo Courtesy of Great India Films USA • Flying Swords of Dragon Gate Poster Courtesy of Indomina Releasing.
Azumi Photo Courtesy of Vitagraph Films • Paradox Photos Courtesy of HKIFF • Chocolate Photo Courtesy of Magnolia Home Entertainment.
Kung Fu Hustle Photo Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics • Kill Bill Photo Courtesy of Miramax • Ip Man and SPL2 Photos Courtesy of Well Go USA
The Raid 2 Photo Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics • Hero Photo Courtesy of Miramax • Ong-Bak Photo Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures • The Grandmaster Photo Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures
The Villainess and Ip Man 4 Photos Courtesy of Well Go USA • The Protector Photo Courtesy of The Weinstein Company
John Wick Photo Courtesy of Lionsgate • Enter the Fat Dragon Photo Courtesy of Well Go USA