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The five greatest Martial Arts movies

Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon

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The recent specialty run of The Raid: Redemption, a remake of an Indonesian language martial arts film, calls to mind all the great, hyper-gory kung fu movies that have come before. After viewing, over the years, hundreds of martial arts films – The Boxer from Shantung, which didn’t quite make the list, especially comes to mind – I’ve narrowed The List down to a stone cold five. Agree or disagree in the comments section with these, my Five Greatest Martial Arts Movies:

5. “Hero” (2002)

Set roughly two centuries before the birth of Christ, in Mandarin with English subtitles and color-coded sequences, Hero is not your typical martial arts film. There are, of course, many types of martial arts movies – comedies, revenge stories, Hong Kong chop sockey, straight-up dramas and, among others, Epics. Hero is an epics epic of a martial arts movie, set to glorious cinematography in pre-unified China during the period of the Warring States. Drenched in sanguinary reds and powerful, vibrating golds, the fighting scenes — mostly aerial — defy gravity and even narrative logic. Not that that matters.

So — what about the fighting? Anyone who doubts that a martial arts fight can be a beautiful experienced would be hard pressed to continue in that mode of thinking after seeing this film. Directed by Yimou Zhang, the fight scenes – particularly the one between Nameless (played by Jet Li) and Sky (played by Donnie Yen) – are masterful dances of death set against stunning scenery and weather to unique camera angles. Jet Li – one of the three great martial arts film legends along with Bruce and Jackie Chan –steals all of his scenes as a nameless protagonist in a fugue to kicking serious ass.

4. “The Legend of Drunken Master” (2000)

The fact that Jackie Chan – the second of the Big Three martial arts film stars — does almost all of the choreography in his films only adds to his legitimacy as the real deal; the fact that this movie is a comedy as well as the best part of a legendary franchise makes it a classic. As Elvis Mitchell wrote in The Times of the film’s climactic final battle scene, “(This sequence is better than anything in ‘The Matrix’ because there are no digital effects and Mr. Chan is seen in almost every frame.) It is fitting that the punch-outs bring dance numbers to mind, since Mr. Chan’s wind-it-up version of drunken boxing looks like a lethal version of the Cabbage Patch.”

Jackie Chan’s low center of gravity is in full effect in Legend of Drunken Master. This is one of the few cases – Godfather II, in another genre, comes to mind – when a sequel (LODM tag line: “Old wine in a new bottle”) actually surpasses a classic original story. Jackie Chan is here in his most elaborately choreographed of Hong Kong chopsockeys. Legend of Drunken Master is also as funny as it is brutal, a rarity.

3. “Ip Man” (2008)

Ip Man is arguably the best choreographed martial arts film of all time, also the one with the most fully realized narrative. Set in the 1930s, Ip Man is based on the true story of real life martial arts Grand Master Yip Man, the man who trained Bruce Lee, arguably the greatest martial artist of all time, in the deadly art of Wing Chun. This film neatly falls into the category of revenge story, one of the most enduring within the martial arts genre, but is also a sweeping epic not unlike Hero. In short, against oppression and injustice coming out of the Japanese invasion of 1947, Ip founds the school of Karate that will eventually beget Bruce Lee – the greatest martial arts film star of all time. The final fight sequence between Ip (played by Donnie Yen, who starred in that other martial arts epic Hero) and the Japanese General Miura is the stuff of legend.

Available on DVD and BluRay, this forgotten classic is highly recommended. From the story of Bruce Lee’s mentor to, appropriately …

2. “Enter the Dragon” (1973)

As elegant as Hero is, Enter the Dragon – the opposite end of the martial arts film spectrum — is as gritty and brutal and awesome. “Life,” Hobbes reminds us in his cynical masterpiece Leviathan, “is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” No more so than in this cynical classic. Enter the Dragon’s opening Shaolin Monastery fight sequence.

With a despicable air of Bond villainy – excommunication from the Shaolin order, prostitution, an underground fight club on a private island — a musky-seedy 70s testosteronal vibe that permeates the entire film. Where in Hero the martial arts are almost a well-choreographed dance, in Enter the Dragon, perhaps the first fully realized film of the 1970s, is cynical – the perfect negative antidote to the over idealistic 60s. This, incidentally, was Bruce Lee’s last (and best) film, released six days after his death. Which leads us to, finally …

1. “Five Deadly Venoms” (1978)

Pop-culturally influencing everyone from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill to the Wu Tang Clan (The Mystery of Chessboxin; Shaolin Finger Jab), the Five Deadly Venoms is a symphony of astonishing violence wrapped in what can only be properly construed as the most intriguingly graphic novel-ish sort of narrative ever to be put across in a kung fu movie. There is a thin line indeed between a martial arts movie and a graphic novel, but nowhere more so than in this classic, amazing film.

Here’s the lowdown: Five great martial arts assassins, nicknamed after their fighting styles, based on animals – Toad (impenetrable skin; massive defense skills), Centipede (fast strikes), Lizard (scales walls), Snake (fingers that bit like fangs) and Scorpion (Can paralyze through pressure points) – are sought out by the mysterious Yang, the final student of a noble dying master of “The School of Venoms.” It is, as in all great martial arts films, a matter of honor.

Saying anything else about this film would spoil the fun. But the fight scenes are as elaborate and cartoonish – in the best possible way – as the plot. Toad, in particular, is my favorite of the venoms, because his impenetrable skin allows him to display something very rare in martial arts films – a masterful defensive (not offensive) style. But it is Chiang Sheng’s Yang who steals the show, crafting complex styles on the fly to fight the School of Venoms, who may or may not be the villains of the movie. Two snake fingers up!

What is your favorite martial arts movie? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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