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.
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!