When I was a kid, I was obsessed with martial arts movies. I would beg my parents to let me rent Jackie Chan movies, and I was always looking for my own Bruce Lee-inspired tracksuit.

These kinds of action movies were my favorite because I felt like they emphasized brains over brawn, and they usually had set pieces that blew me away.

Martial arts films have captured audiences for decades with their dazzling displays of athleticism, thrilling fight choreography, and stories rooted in themes of discipline, honor, and indomitable spirit.

Today, we're going to explore the history, the essential ingredients, and some of the undisputed champions of the martial arts movie genre.

Let's get started.

A Brief History of Martial Arts Movies

While the roots of martial arts cinema stretch back to the silent era, the genre saw its true explosion with the birth of Hong Kong action cinema in the 1960s.

Studios like Shaw Brothers crafted tales of sword-wielding heroes and vengeful fighters, laying the foundation.

Then came the unstoppable force that was Bruce Lee. His films in the 1970s propelled martial arts movies onto the global stage and forever changed how action sequences were conceived.

Let's dig deeper below.

The Silent Beginnings (1920s-1930s)

  • Early Inspiration: The genre draws its roots from much older traditions like Chinese opera and Japanese Kabuki, where stylized combat was a core element of storytelling.
  • Wuxia Takes Shape: The first true martial arts films emerged in China during the 1920s. These were often period dramas filled with swordplay and fantastical elements, a genre known as 'wuxia' (literally "martial heroes").
  • The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (1928): This silent film, a series of 18 parts, is widely considered the first martial arts movie and a prime example of early wuxia.

Post-War Revival (1950s-1960s)

  • Hong Kong Steps Up: After a lull during World War II and its aftermath, Hong Kong became the heart of martial arts cinema. Studios like Shaw Brothers mass-produced wuxia films and a new star system emerged.
  • Japanese Samurai Cinema: Parallel to this, Japan had its tradition of 'chanbara' films where samurai and their swordsmanship were central to the narrative. Akira Kurosawa's classics like Seven Samurai (1954) gained international recognition.
  • Shifting Styles: Early martial arts films relied heavily on wirework and cinematic trickery for superhuman feats. By the late 60s, films started trending towards a more grounded display of fighting.

The Bruce Lee Phenomenon (1970s)

  • A Global Superstar: Bruce Lee's charisma, intensity, and raw fighting skill in film catapulted martial arts movies onto the global stage and transformed Lee into a cultural icon. Lee's success sparked a worldwide obsession with Kung Fu films, giving rise to numerous stars and countless imitators seeking to duplicate his success.

Expansion and Evolution (1980s-1990s)

  • Jackie Chan and Comedy Kung Fu: Jackie Chan found his own niche by blending insane stunts, physical comedy, and martial arts – a formula that continues to entertain even today.
  • The Golden Age of Hong Kong Cinema: Action stars like Jet Li, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, and Michelle Yeoh dominated screens showcasing amazing acrobatic choreography with a variety of distinct martial arts styles.
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): This critically acclaimed wuxia from Ang Lee introduced many Western audiences to the elegance and beauty of the genre, becoming an international sensation.

Into the 21st Century

  • Global Influences: Films like The Matrix (1999) incorporated Hong Kong-style action into Hollywood, while later movies like Ong-Bak (2003) and The Raid (2011) brought Muay Thai and Silat to the forefront.
  • The Legacy Continues: While the overall output might have lessened, martial arts films continue to be made. Success stories like the Ip Man series show that audiences still have a strong appetite for tales of martial artistry.

The Essence of a Martial Arts Movie

I can still remember watching Jackie Chan's Who Am I as a kid with my jaw on the floor. The fighting was so beautiful and the combat felt so realistic. But I also enjoyed the journey at the center of the film as well, and the shades of humor inside.

the older Igot, the more I got into this world, and the more I started dissecting what made these movies special.

Here's a breakdown of the core components ore martial arts movies:

1. The Spectacle of Action

  • Unique Fighting Styles: Martial arts movies often showcase specific disciplines, from the acrobatic kicks of Wushu and Taekwondo to the grappling of Judo or the precision strikes of Karate and Muay Thai. Each style brings distinct visuals and combat strategies.
  • Choreography as Art: Fight scenes are meticulously crafted, becoming a form of kinetic dance. Audiences appreciate skillful execution, creative moves, and the raw physicality of actors performing dangerous sequences.
  • Superhuman Feats (With a Dose of Realism): While some films embrace the fantastical, the best martial arts movies create excitement by grounding their action in a heightened but believable version of reality.

2. Compelling Stories

  • The Hero's Journey: Many films follow the classic underdog narrative - a wronged individual or inexperienced fighter who trains, faces trials, and ultimately overcomes a formidable foe.
  • Master and Student: The relationship between a seasoned master and their pupil is a recurring trope, exploring the passing of knowledge, discipline, and self-discovery.
  • Revenge or Redemption: Plots often revolve around a protagonist seeking revenge for a great injustice or striving to redeem themselves after a past mistake.

3. Deeper Themes

  • Honor and Respect: Codes of conduct, respect for elders and opponents, and the importance of humility are common elements.
  • Self-Mastery: Training isn't just about physical strength but also about discipline, focus, and overcoming mental limitations.
  • Finding Balance: Stories often explore the tension between a peaceful existence and the need to use violence for a righteous cause.

The Best Martial Arts Movies of All Time

When it comes to the best of these movies, I decided we should go decade by decade, highlighting the essential watches for people.


  • Come Drink With Me (1966): A Shaw Brothers wuxia with dynamic swordplay and an iconic female warrior.
  • One-Armed Swordsman (1967): Another Shaw Brothers classic, showcasing exciting combat with a protagonist overcoming his disability.


  • Enter the Dragon (1973): Bruce Lee's legendary film, a tournament-style story that cemented him as a global star.
  • The Big Boss (1971): Lee's earlier film that shocked audiences with its raw aggression and established him as a force to be reckoned with.
  • Five Fingers of Death (1972): Beautifully choreographed fights and a memorable training montage.
  • The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978): An absolute staple of the genre with a focus on Shaolin Kung Fu and a rigorous training arc.


  • Police Story (1985): Jackie Chan broke out internationally with this blend of stunts, comedy, and bone-crushing action.
  • Wheels on Meals (1984): Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao at their peak - a showcase of martial arts acrobatics and hilarious slapstick.
  • Drunken Master II (aka The Legend of Drunken Master) (1994): Jackie Chan's comedic take on the Zui Quan (Drunken Fist) style is iconic.


  • Fist of Legend (1994): Jet Li's remake of the Bruce Lee film, renowned for its blisteringly fast and realistic fight choreography.
  • Once Upon a Time in China (1991): A wuxia epic starring Jet Li as folk hero Wong Fei-hung.
  • Police Story 3: Super Cop: (1992) The stunts are breathtaking, the chemistry between Chan and Yeoh is fantastic, and the story delivers. It's a thrilling and fun ride that cements Jackie Chan's status as an action movie legend.
  • Iron Monkey (1993): Dizzying fights, high-flying action, and the youthful energy of Donnie Yen in this Robin Hood-inspired tale.
  • Rumble in the Bronx (1995): Jackie conquers New York! Street brawls, hilarious hijinks, and gravity-defying stunts make this his North American breakthrough.
  • Police Story 4: First Strike (1996): Bigger, bolder, and packed with Chan's trademark action, this sequel takes supercop Kevin Chan on a globetrotting adventure.
  • Rush Hour (1998): While this buddy-cop action-comedy might be considered 'Hollywood Jackie Chan,' it launched a successful franchise. The pairing with Chris Tucker was comedy gold and the action scenes still have that Jackie Chan flair.
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): Ang Lee's film brought wuxia to the international stage with its beauty and poetic action.


  • Hero (2002): Zhang Yimou's visually stunning wuxia film with flowing fights, epic battles, and vibrant use of color.
  • Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003): Tony Jaa's breakout, showcasing the brutal beauty of Muay Thai without wires or special effects.
  • Kung Fu Hustle (2004): Stephen Chow's love letter to martial arts wrapped in a hilarious cartoon-like package.
  • Ip Man (2008): Donnie Yen's portrayal of Bruce Lee's legendary Wing Chun master.


  • The Raid (2011) & The Raid 2 (2014): Indonesian action films with non-stop intensity and bone-crunching use of the Silat fighting style.
  • 13 Assassins (2010): Takashi Miike's brutal and brilliant samurai epic, concluding with a lengthy and gloriously chaotic battle.
  • John Wick (2014): While not purely focused on hand-to-hand, its "gun-fu" and precision action drew heavily from Asian cinema, redefining Western action.

Martial arts movies continue to evolve, blending traditional styles with modern filmmaking and embracing heroes of diverse backgrounds.

As long as audiences thirst for stories of human potential pushed to its limits, movies about kicking, punching, and grappling their way to victory will always have a place on the big screen.

Let me know your favorites in the comments.