24 Best Kung Fu Movies of All Time

Art by Macky Arquilla

If you are a fan of Kung Fu movies, you know that it doesn’t start with high kicks and karate chops. It actually starts with “jacket on, jacket off.” Kung Fu is about dedication and hard work. It takes patience to become a master of anything.

Starting in the 1970s and continuing steadily onwards, kung fu has remained an international cinematic interest, giving rise to three main stars. Bruce Lee is the ideal—a man with equal parts intense charisma and blindingly quick movies. Jet Li is the empty vessel—a man with a blandly benevolent personality, but who moves with unrivaled grace and power. And Jackie Chan is the comedian—a man who gets laughs first for his gleeful goofiness, then out of disbelief for the batshit stunts he completes.

Kung fu is a very specific form of violence. Grounded in the pacifist, naturalist worldview of Buddhism, it requires discipline, patience, and most of all, strength—mentally to know when to use it, and physically to act effectively when the time comes. Masters of kung fu tend to be reluctant fighters because they know violence usually begets more of the same.

When was the last time you saw a great movie? Better question: when was the last time you heard of a Kung Fu movie coming out? It’s been a minute, right? Sometimes we have to go back to what we know. If this list makes you want to search on Netflix for a good Kung Fu movie, then we have done our part. Here are the 24 Best Kung Fu Movies Of All Time.

24. Kung Fu Panda (2008)

Director: John Stevenson, Mark Osborne
Starring: Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Ian McShane, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu

Who’s the hero? Po, a full-grown panda, not an animal known for kung fu.
What’s his style? Very physical. Lots of belly bumps.
Why’s he fighting? Fulfillment of lifelong dream/prophecy/making sure the Valley of Peace keeps making sense as a name.

Why’s this movie here? The kung fu film genre has always flouted the physical limitations of the human body, either through super-specialized training or wires. So, it’s surprising it took until 2008 for the genre to enter the mainstream animation realm—where literally anything is possible.

This feel-good flick centers around Po, a dumpling and kung fu-loving panda who accidentally wins a martial arts tournament and so becomes the Valley of Peace’s prophesied defender against an evil snow leopard. The other kung-fu students, Tigress, Monkey, Mantis, Viper, and Crane, are not pleased, but their red panda master encourages Po, helping him develop a style all his own that utilizes his tremendous gut. The plot follows the most obvious path to a happy ending, and even if it is a telegraphed story about an underdog beating the odds, the execution of the clichés is novel and delightful. And if watching a Jack-Black-voiced Panda skadoosh away the naysayers doesn’t make you feel good inside, then you should spend less time on the internet.

23. The Big Boss (1971)

Director: Lo Wei, Wu Chia Hsiang
Starring: Bruce Lee

Who’s the hero? Cheng Cho-an, a Chinese immigrant to Thailand, who is very good at fighting, but promised his mother he wouldn’t.
What’s his style? It’s Bruce Lee, so quick, vicious and instantly iconic.
Why’s he fighting? Drug lords killed his cousins.

Why’s this movie here? Bruce Lee’s first feature film isn’t that terrific. In fact, it’s pretty bad. Its plot is barebones. The dubbing is stilted with dorky Americans meal-mouthing corny lines over Lee’s stoic, menacing, stare downs.

Essentially, Lee’s character goes to Thailand to work for an ice company, when he realizes the owners are drug smugglers and also murderers of whoever figures out that they are drug smugglers. Only Lee promised his mother he wouldn’t fight. A promise he ultimately breaks, first with one of the quickest one-two kick of all time, disarming a foe of his knife then catching him in the face. Then he kicks a whole mountain of ass during the ultimate showdown, slicing people open to bleed red corn syrup, then, at one point, kicking a guy through a wall. In his film debut, Bruce Lee isn’t given much, but he still proved nobody looked stronger or handsomer while doing high-kicks on-screen, setting him up for much better shit.

22. The One-Armed Swordsman (1967)

Director: Chang Cheh
Starring: Jimmy Wang, Lisa Chiao Chiao, Angela Pan

Who’s the hero? Fang Cheng, a poor kung fu student who gets his arm lopped off by his richer peers.
What’s his style? One-arming it better than most can two-arm it.
Why’s he fighting? He’s forgiving of his peers and his master is in danger.

Why’s this movie here? After his father sacrifices himself to save a kung fu master’s life, Fang Cheng becomes a student at a prestigious school. Only his snobbish peers are jealous of his skills and mock him for his impoverished upbringing. He tries to run away, but they catch him, lop off his arm and leave him for dead. Kang is found by a peasant girl who nurses him back to health, but then Kang catches news of a wicked man, The Long-Armed Devil, coming to kill the master who raised him. Even with one arm, he’s the only one with the swordsmanship to bring him down. This film is pretty cheesy, and the fight scenes have been more convincing in high-school plays. But it was the first Hong Kong film to make USD$1 million, while also pioneering male anti-heroes and visible, red violence in the genre.

21. Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976)

Director: Jimmy Wang
Starring: Jimmy Wang Yu, Kom Kang, Doris Lung

Who’s the hero? The self-explanatory, One-Armed Boxer.
What’s his style? Like Feng Cheng but substituting guile for use of a sword.
Why’s he fighting? Self-defense because bad guys want to kill him after he killed bad guys.

Why this movie here? In one of Quentin Tarantino’s “favorite movies of all time,” a one-armed boxer must fend off a blind assassin seeking revenge for the boxer’s murder of two of his evil henchmen. The assassin sends three new henchmen after the still-very-game lefty, but he defeats them with booby traps. Then, using only his hearing, the blind assassin starts swinging his specialized weapon, the Flying Guillotine, a spike brimmed hat that will decapitate the wearer. But the guile of the one-armed boxer proves superior amid some bamboo poles and a final showdown in a coffin shop, when (spoiler alert) the one-armed boxer punches the assassin throw the roof, then kicks a coffin outside for him to land in—undoubtedly one of the most stylish finishers of all time. The campiness of the film is what made it distinct, but its lasting contributions come in the form of its exceptional, Krautrock soundtrack and impressive-for-the-time fight scenes.

20. Tai Chi Master (1993)

Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Starring: Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh

Who’s the Hero? Junbao, a moral, disciplined Shaolin monk that still gets banished because he sticks with his rowdier friend, Tienbo.
What’s his style? It’s Jet Li, so graceful, wire-assisted and supernaturally powerful
Why’s he fighting? Because Tienbo betrayed him, killed innocent villagers and aims to become a vicious governor.

Why this movie here? When two lifelong friends get kicked out of a monastery for getting too rowdy during a tournament, they diverge paths. Tienbo seeks to acquire as much wealth and prestige as possible by joining up with an oppressive eunuch and brutal governor. And Junbao (Li) sides with the oppressed rebels. Still, they maintain a relationship until Tienbo betrays Junbao leading to the deaths of nearly all his friends, except for Siu-Lin (Yeoh), another excellent warrior, who is fairly obviously into Junbao. But the fallout from the betrayal causes Junbao to snap, causing him to pour over taoist literature while talking to ducks. Eventually, he has an epiphany, which allows him to master Tai Chi, which in addition to helping older folks stay in shape, harnesses the concepts of nature into a deadly fighting form. Even at just over 90 minutes, the plot drags for a while just to get to the fairly standard moral to not abandon your friends and chase after money and power. The saving grace comes from having Yeoh and Li, two action legends, flying through the air as they deliver their righteous kicks, chops and punches.

19. Wheels on Meals (1984)

Director: Sammo Hung
Starring: Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung

Who’s the hero? Mostly, Thomas, a love-stricken, kung fu-adept, deliverer of fast food.
What’s his style? It’s Jackie Chan, so gleeful, daring and effortlessly athletic.
Why’s he fighting? To rescue a beautiful, albeit deceitful woman.

Why’s this movie here? Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung were longtime best friends that all attended the Peking Opera School together. They made Wheels on Meals during a mini golden age of Hong Kong cinema where they, three of the country’s biggest stars, starred in various pictures together. They play three brothers that deliver fast food when two of them fall for a beautiful woman (Lola Forner, a former Ms. Spain), who robs them of their meager money. But she’s also the heiress to a massive fortune—so much so that a criminal gang kidnaps her in order to get their hands on it. So, the three brothers decide to rescue her. Chan and Hung do their usual physical gags and feats of astonishing, inventive athleticism, but the scene that really makes the film memorable is Chan’s showdown with American kickboxer, Benny “the Jet” Urquidez (not the guy from The Sandlot, but still pretty awesome), who at one point whips a roundhouse kick that blows out the candles on a table. They spare gamely, with Chan mugging throughout with the casual prowess of Steph Curry yo-yoing the ball through his legs, before he knocks Urquidez out the window with a flying knee. The solid fight scenes and dynamic between the brothers makes this a cut above the more slapdash efforts of Hong Kong cinema.

18. The Five Deadly Venoms (1978)

Director: Chang Cheh
Starring: Chiang Sheng, Sun Chien, Philip Kwok, Lo Mang, Wei Pei, Lu Feng

Who’s the hero? Yang Tieh
What’s his style? An unfinished combination of Centipede, Snake, Scorpion, Lizard, and Toad styles.
Why’s he fighting? To preserve the noble legacy of his master.

Why this movie here? This classic kicks off with the dying kung fu master of the Poison Clan immersed in steam. He instructs his final pupil to find five former students, all of whom have mastered a specific style of kung fu: the Centipede, the Snake, the Scorpion, the Lizard, and the Toad. He fears that one of them have turned evil and will be seeking to use the fortune amassed by the clan for nefarious purposes. From there, the plot weaves and bobs with a Christopher Nolan-esque intricacy that can be hard to follow. But the true appeal of the film comes from the dazzling acrobatics displayed in each of the distinct styles of kung fu—epitomized during an opening sequence where the viewer is treated to a psychedelic preview of each of the five fighters showing off their nifty tricks before they start using them on each other. But despite its slogging storytelling, the film possesses a glamorous and vibrant style, which captures each high kick, each wall climb and each furious trading of blows with a fitting sense of magical realism.

17. Once Upon a Time in China (1991)

Director: Tsui Hark
Starring: Jet Li, Yuen Biao, Jacky Cheung, Rosamund Kwan

Who’s the hero? Fei-hung, a Chinese folk hero who’s a doctor and a kung fu master.
What’s his style? It’s Jet Li, so graceful, wire-assisted and supernaturally powerful.
Why’s he fighting? He’s defending his specific style of kung fu and Chinese culture in general.

Why’s this movie here? In some ways, Jet Li’s lacking of the distinctive charisma of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan may have aided him in becoming a megastar. His blank slate of emotion allows him to slip into the skin of Wong Fei-hung in Once Upon a Time in China—a legendary Chinese folk hero who’s as adept with medicine as kung fu. Fei-hung starts to aid the poor and hopeless in the community, but eventually gets roped into a fight with a rival kung fu gang who soon align themselves with American officials seeking to Westernize the long-cloistered nation. The rest of the film holds Wong up as a hero for seeking to maintain his traditional way of life, but when one of the few remaining masters is killed by gunfire, there’s the somber realization that their efforts have the efficacy of a spray bottle on a forest fire. The film features two truly stunning finishing sequences: a fight between Wong and a rival that makes full use of multiple ladders and a standoff that’s resolved by Li flicking a bullet so fast it kills a smug American—symbolizing that, at least in the next five installments of these movies, kung fu ain’t irrelevant yet.

16. The Shaolin Temple (1982)

Director: Chang Hsin Yen
Starring: Jet Li

Who’s the hero? Ju Yuan, a vengeful Shaolin Monk in-training?
What’s his style? It’s Jet Li’s debut, so he’s still graceful and powerful, but there’s less wires, which shows of his textbook technique.
Why’s he fighting? Revenge for his father’s death.

Why’s this movie here? A traitorous general overthrows the emperor then kills the father of a young boy, Jue Yuan (Li), who escapes to a Shaolin Temple. The monks take him in and begin gradually teaching him kung fu, but with the boy’s heart set on revenge—a violation of the vow not to kill—he makes for an awkward fit. He starts to fall for a young shepherd girl who gets mad at him after he accidentally kills her dog (!), then decides to roast it over a fire (!!!), and serve it to a bunch of his fellow monks (!!!!!!!!!)—a truly odd plot point that we’ll chalk up to cultural differences. But he earns her forgiveness after rescuing her from being defiled by the lecherous general, who then orders the destruction of the temple. Large chunks of this movie get devoted to showcasing demonstrations of kung-fu with a variety of weapons (there’s like a five-minute montage of Li just practicing on four different sets in four different weathers). But despite the draggy plot, it’s a solid debut feature for Li, who is almost jarringly boyish and adorable during the moments when he isn’t methodically whooping evil ass.

15. The Grandmaster (2013)

Director: Wong Kar-wai
Starring: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Zhao Benshan

Who’s the hero? Ip Man, legendary fighter and trainer of Bruce Lee.
What’s his style? Flawless, forceful and flight-prone.
Why’s he fighting? To prove that he’s the best at kung fu.

Why’s this movie here? The Grandmaster is a sprawling epic that traces the life story of Wing Chun master, Ip Man. The film has three versions, the longest being the Chinese version and the shortest being the one given to American audiences, which includes title cards that emit large sections of the original, disrupting the flow of the film because executives didn’t trust American attention spans—and considering the speed with which “covfefe” got run into the ground, who can blame them? In any case, the plot involves Ip Man defeating rival kung fu masters and handling the consequences of the second Sino-Japanese War. Tony Leung plays the legend as an unflappable man who has nothing left to prove but can be reluctantly coaxed into giving a reminder. Zhang Ziyi is also bewitching as the revenge-seeking daughter of a man who Ip Man defeated in battle. They star together in maybe the most beautiful fight scene ever done where the loser is whoever breaks something first. It exemplifies Wong’s directorial style that pairs granular attention to textbook kung fu and psychic-defying effects alike, creating an immersive experience that meditates upon the legendary man.

14. Fist of Fury (1972)

Director: Lo Wei
Starring: Bruce Lee

Who’s the hero? Chen Zhen, a Chinese kung fu student that’s ostracized by the Japanese.
What’s his style? It’s Bruce Lee, so quick, vicious and instantly iconic.
Why’s he fighting? Harassment, then the sneaky, dishonorable murder of his master.

Why’s this movie here? Upon returning home, Chen Zhen (Lee) finds his master has passed and a Japanese kung fu school taunting the skills of his dojo. In response, Chen goes to their dojo and mollywhops the entire student body and then their master. When Chen realizes that people aligned with this school poisoned his master, he goes on his rampage that includes some sick ass nunchucking, a flying kick that puts a foe through a wall and an execution where he kicks a samurai sword into the air before positioning the rival master underneath the blade. This eventually attracts the attention of local authorities, who obviously cannot tolerate Chen incapacitating every visiting foreign dignitary. The cut-rate dubbing sucks a bit of the gravitas out of the emotional moments, but when Lee is flying around the screen, pumped full of machismo and yowling like a feral cat between each strike, there’s nothing like it.

13. Fist of Legend (1994)

Director: Gordon Chan
Starring: Jet Li, Chin Siu-ho, Billy Chau, Shinobu Nakayama

Who’s the hero? Chen Zhen, a Chinese kung fu student that’s ostracized by the Japanese.
What’s his style? It’s Jet Li, so graceful, wire-assisted and supernaturally powerful.
Why’s he fighting? Harassment, his master’s death and to live peacefully with his Japanese girlfriend.

Why’s this movie here? Fist of Legend is a remake of Fist of Fury, so the general plot follows the same pattern. But Li brings Chen Zhen to life in a far different way than Lee. As opposed to the magnetic fury Lee radiated, Li can hardly ever be plussed, even when sitting at the middle of a conflict that’s emblematic of the several centuries of racial tension between the Chinese and Japanese. But unlike nearly every other kung fu film, Fist of Legend gives its Japanese characters something other than pure villainy to play. To start, Mitsuko (Nakayama), Chen’s Japanese girlfriend sticks up for him in front of a kangaroo court of her countrymen trying convict Chen of trumped-up charges. Later, to earn the respect of Mitsuko’s uncle, Chen spars with him, which culminates in a blindfolded showdown after the uncle gets dust in his eye and Chen wants to even the odds. It’s a rare, hard-fought exchange that leads to deeper bonds between the combatants. But a kung fu movie isn’t a kung fu movie without a true baddie, and he comes at the end as Billy Chau’s General Fujita. Chau and Li share one of the gnarliest fights in history which compensates for Li and Lee’s incomparable charismas.

12. The Prodigal Son (1981)

Director: Sammo Hung
Starring: Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Lam Ching-ying, Frankie Chan

Who’s the hero? Leung Chang, a wealthy young man who suddenly realizes his kung fu isn’t as good as he thought.
What’s his style? Straightforward, solid kung fu.
Why’s he fighting? To defeat a more vicious, privileged rich kid.

Why’s this movie here? Starring four under heralded (at least internationally) legends, The Prodigal Son combines Peking Opera, dazzling physical acrobatics and ahead-of-its time direction to stand apart from other Hong Kong films. In it, Leung is the son of a rich man who has beaten all of his opponents despite being lousy at kung fu because of his father’s bribes. He learns about this when fighting an asthmatic, cross-dressing master who is performing in a traveling opera. He begs for training, which is eventually granted after Leung rescues the master from another prodigal son who has a more vicious father who assassinates those who challenge his boy. They retreat to the mountains where Leung receives further training from a portly, but surprisingly agile calligrapher (Hung) in preparation for a final showdown. The Sammo Hung and distinct-looking Lam Ching-ying make the film exceptional with throwaway moments of physical wizardry, like when Sammo backflips about his studio while practicing calligraphy or Ching-ying fights while still carrying on a delicate opera routine. They avoid the campy hallmarks of the genre, like the zoom-happy direction and overdone wire acts, instead focusing on the generational talents of their stars.

11. The Way of the Dragon (1972)

Director: Bruce Lee
Starring: Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Nora Miao

Who’s the hero? Tang Lung, a peak martial artist brought into get rid of thugs.
What’s his style? It’s Bruce Lee, so instantly iconic.
Why’s he fighting? At first to protect an old man and a beautiful lady, then because people are trying to assassinate him.

Why’s this movie here? The only movie Bruce Lee wrote, directed and starred in, The Way of the Dragon’s plot essentially Lee working his way through increasingly talented foes after he’s called into to defend a restaurant from thugs. Interspersed with an odd gag where Lee’s constantly asking for the bathroom, he teaches the employees how to fight and they knock off wave after wave of criminals until finally a mob boss calls in an American master fighter, Colt (Norris). The dubbing of the film does serious damage to its quality, slapping the mismatched lines of F-list actors over icons, but get past that, and its worshipful shots of Rome as well as the dizzying fight choreography make it worthwhile. In the final scene, the fight between Lee, 5’7”, and Norris, 5’10” and HAIRY, seems almost quaintly scaled compared to the Marvel-sized showdowns of today. But they battle in truly vicious fashion, trading convincingly solid blows until Colt can barely stand. Colt rejects Lee’s offer of mercy. So, Lee executes him, leading to the film’s most interesting moment, when Lee processes what he’s done and shows genuine remorse, respectfully covering the body of his worthy adversary.

10. Police Story (1985)

Director: Jackie Chan
Starring: Jackie Chan, Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, Chor Yuen

Who’s the hero? Frank, a detective, who gets framed for the murder of another cop.
What’s his style? It’s Jackie Chan, so gleeful, daring and effortlessly athletic.
Why’s he fighting? To regain his reputation.

Why’s this movie here? According to his autobiography, Jackie Chan considers this to be his finest action film. It’s probably not because of the plot in which Chan plays Frank, a cop who makes a spectacular bust of a drug kingpin, only to have the trial fall through and then be framed by said kingpin for the murder of a cop. It’s a lot more convoluted than that, but whatever—the action sequences in this film are incredible. As accomplished a stuntman as they come, Chan directs with special attention to the visceral details because what’s on camera is actually happening. In the beginning of the film, Frank pursues the baddies down a mountain by smashing through an entire village, leaving bulbous fireballs in his wake. In another sequence, after moonwalking cow poop off his shoes, he flexes his comic muscle when he’s the only one in the police station and six simultaneous calls come through that he has to conduct at once. But the real showstopper is the finale, which takes place in a multi-story mall and Chan directs a seemingly unceasing series of people getting thrown over balconies and into glass—culminating with his peak stunt: a fireman’s-pole-slide down four stories while surrounded by popping lightbulbs. When you’re capturing stuff like that on film, a plot is peripheral.

9. Warriors Two (1978)

Director: Sammo Hung
Starring: Sammo Hung, Casanova Wong, Bryan Leung

Who’s the hero? Cashier Hua, a man who overhears the wrong conversation.
What’s his style? Straightforward, solid kung-fu.
Why’s he fighting? For the security of his village and they killed his mother

Why’s this movie here? When cashier Hua overhears his banker boss plotting to kill the village elder so as to gain power in the village, he attempts to warn the elder by alerting a smarmy clerk, who betrays him to assassins. Hua escapes, but then the assassins kill his mother. Understanding that he’s too inexperienced to fight them, he enlists the help of the surprisingly nimble, Fatty, and his Wing Chun master, Leung Jan. After a lengthy training sequence detailing the nuances of the style, the assassins ambush Leung Jan and kill him, doubling the motivations of Fatty and Hua as they deploy what they’ve learned in a near-half-hour-long ending battle between good and evil that features some of the finest and cleverest fight choreography ever. The weak plot gets bolstered by the deft self-deprecation of director Sammo Hung as Fatty, which helps keep the picture from losing its peppy pace between its masterful showdowns.

8. Shaolin Soccer (2001)

Director: Stephen Chow
Starring: Stephen Chow, Zhao Wei, Ng Man-tat, Patrick Tse

Who’s the hero? Sing, a man with a golden leg and a passionate belief that kung fu can improve your life.
What’s his style? It’s Stephen Chow, so cartoonish, superhuman speed and power added to excellent form.
Why’s he fighting? To reinvigorate his brothers and popularize kung fu to the entire world.

Why’s this movie here? For what it aspires to be, Shaolin Soccer is a perfectly executed movie. Director, writer and lead actor Stephen Chow stars as Sing, the fifth of six brothers who are all masters at one particular part of kung-fu—his being the “steel leg.” But with the decreasing popularity of kung fu, the brothers have been blown to the wind, working jobs where their supernatural skills are underutilized. But Sing believes the tenants of kung fu could help the world, and so in a publicity gambit, he rallies his brothers to play soccer under the tutelage of a former star, Golden Leg, who had his perfect appendage broken by the man who goes on to coach Team Evil, the most successful soccer team of all time in China. Using their skills, the squad make it to the finals, but most contend with the sorcery of Team Evil, who have been jacked up on American performance enhancing drugs. Chow’s absurd, self-aware script connects solidly on nearly every joke, each as tight and unique as the next. Combined with its satisfyingly goofy special effects and surprisingly heartfelt romance, it’s a wonderful movie that isn’t like any other.

7. The Legend of Drunken Master (1994)

Director: Lau Ke Lung
Starring: Jackie Chan, Ti Lung, Anita Mui

Who’s the hero? Wong Fei-hung, a doctor’s son who is forbidden from drinking and fighting, but who does both excellently.
What’s his style? It’s Jackie Chan, so gleeful, daring and effortlessly athletic, with a couple hearty scoops of “drunken” fighting, in which he staggers around, still kicking ass.
Why’s he fighting? Because oppressive imperialists are trying to steal Chinese artifacts, and if they get away with that, then what’s next?

Why’s this movie here? In this, Jackie Chan stars as Wong Fei-hung, the mischievous master of a form of martial arts known as “drunken boxing.” When Jackie gets to fighting, pouring alcohol down his gullet does for him what spinach does to Popeye. A spectacularly gifted physical comedian and perhaps the greatest stuntman of all time, Chan wobbles and swerves while kicking and punching his foes, throwing in nifty stunts like running up walls or jumping feet first through train compartment windows, just for fun. The barebones plot essentially has him fighting imperialists who are looking to steal ancient Chinese artifacts by disguising them inside boxes from a steel foundry. The main point of this is to stage the final, 20-minute, jaw-droppingly intricate fight scene in the foundry where Chan literally gets set on fire and pushed into a bed of coals (as the credits run, we see the behind-the-scenes footage of him getting doused with fire extinguishers). He’s dazzlingly quick in action, hilarious physically in a fashion that hasn’t been better since movies added sound and genuinely exuberant in a way that made his international stardom inevitable.

6. Iron Monkey (1993)

Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Starring: Donnie Yen, Yu Rongguang, Jean Wang, Angie Tsang, Yuen Shun-yi

Who are the heros? Yang Tianchun and Wong Kei-ying, two kung-fu knowing doctors.
What are their styles? Graceful, yet supernaturally nimble and powerful.
Why are they fighting? To combat petty bureaucratic corruption, then pure evil.

Why’s this movie here? In a China ravaged by floods and warlords, country people have flocked to the cities for refuge, but instead found corrupt officials. A doctor, Yang, poses as the Robin Hood-esque Iron Monkey with assistance from his wife. But when the corrupt governor fears retribution from a higher ranking fallen monk, he pulls in another kung-fu adept doctor (Yen) and holds his son hostage until he brings in the Iron Monkey. The Iron Monkey rescues the son, earning the trust of the father as they then take on an evil, out-of-town monk that makes the city’s petty corruption look tame. After coming out in 1993, the film didn’t make it widely stateside until 2000, when Quentin Tarantino backed it—and for good reason; the action sequences are spectacular. In one throwaway moment, Yang and Miss Orchid collect papers blown around by the wind with some dazzling “wire-fu.” But the final scene, where the two noble vigilantes face off against the evil monk atop wooden poles being slowly consumed by fire, now that, that is a scene.

5. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)

Director: Liu Chia-Liang
Starring: Gordon Liu, Lo Lieh

Who’s the hero? Sun Te, a boy who trains at the Shaolin temple after everyone and everything he knows and loves has been destroyed.
What’s his style? Straight-from-the-temple, pure Shaolin style.
Why’s he fighting? Read it again: everyone and everything he knows and loves has been destroyed.

Why’s this movie here? In the film that captivated a nine-year-old RZA, a young student, Sun Te, watches as the oppressive Manchu government takes over his village and kills his teacher, friends and family. Sun Te journeys to the Shaolin Temple, where he proves to be especially adept at advancing through the 35 chambers of training, each overseen by an unrelenting monk specializing in one aspect of kung fu. In an immersive sequence that makes up most of the film, the journey is the destination. Sun Te’s labors make him the finest pupil the school has ever seen. He’s even equipped with a weapon of his own invention, the three section staff, which proves unbeatable. After completing his training, he wishes to establish the 36th chamber to teach kung fu to lay-people so they may fight back against their oppressors. Ostensibly, the monks “ban” him from the temple, but tacitly grant their permission. So armed with his training, Sun Te sets out to find the general who ruined his prior life. And when they duel on a mountaintop, the outcome is already all but decided. It’s an all-time classic filmed in the actual Shaolin temple with a lengthy, but never dull, investigation of kung fu training. If it’s good enough for Wu-Tang, it’s good enough for number four on the list.

4. Enter the Dragon (1973)

Director: Robert Clouse
Starring: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Ahna Capri, Robert Wall, Shih Kien, Jim Kelly

Who’s the Hero? Lee, a skilled Shaolin fighter who gets roped into a super vague intelligence operation.
What’s his style? It’s Bruce Lee, so quick, vicious and instantly iconic.
Why’s he fighting? Because he got brought to a kung fu tournament run by an evil man.

Why’s this movie here? Whatever Bruce Lee is doing on camera, whether it’s just standing still and staring or flying through a Costco pack of bad guys, it’s gripping. So in his final and best film, he partnered with an American studio, which gave him full reign over the fight scenes and just enough plot to hang them on. In it, Lee is a martial arts master who gets recruited to an island for a kung fu tournament hosted by the wicked Han. Han’s working on a whole mess of evil stuff: human trafficking, heroin production, careless murder—and so Lee takes it upon himself to stop him. The middle gets bogged down by the attention paid to two American fighters who are fine but can’t hold a candle to Lee. Even saddled with this second-string James Bond film plot, Lee struts through it like a leopard. All of his fight scenes, particularly against Han’s bodyguard in the tournament and then Han himself in a hallucinatory hall of mirrors are immensely satisfying due to the simply astonishing speed and precision with which Lee moves. Legends Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung both have bit roles and no movie did more to kickstart this nascent genre, but large chunks of the film are flat-out wack. It’s a tragedy Lee never got the chance to make a better masterpiece.

3. Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

Director: Stephen Chow
Starring: Stephen Chow, Danny Chan, Yuen Wah, Yuen Qiu, Eva Huang

Who’s the Hero? Sing, a lock-picking, wannabe gangster who turns into a kung fu savior.
What’s his style? It’s Stephen Chow, so cartoonish, superhuman speed and power added to excellent form.
Why’s he fighting? Because the most fearsome fighter ever is terrorizing a village.

Why’s this movie here? In this cartoonish kung fu classic, Stephen Chow crafts the populist response to the froofization of the flying special effects in Hidden Tiger, Crouching Dragon. Set in 1940s China, the film kicks off with a montage of the dreaded Axe Gang that’s been terrorizing local provinces until they’re defeated by a masterful kung fu couple that landlord over the impoverished Pig Sty Alley. To defeat them, the gang recruits an eager-to-please lockpick, Sing, to break The Beast, the world’s greatest fighter, out of a mental asylum. When the couple is defeated by the Beast, Sing gains a conscience and fulfills his destiny as the prophesied master of the Buddhist Palm technique. The film weaves in out of genres masterfully, shifting from a gangster film to a slapstick comedy, to a romance and to the distinctly gleeful style of fight movie Chow makes that flouts the laws of physics to accommodate his expansive vision. Each successively impressive showdown feels like a cross between Marvel and Looney Tunes yet remains grounded in textbook kung fu stylings. The flick is irresistibly fun, yet with a plot that hangs together far better than the more self-serious iterations of the genre. And by writing, directing, producing and starring in his own consistently delightful and undeniably original films, Chow is a star unlike any other the world has seen.

2. Ip Man (2008)

Director: Wilson Yip
Starring: Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Lynn Hung, Gordon Lam

Who’s the hero? Ip Man, legendary fighter and trainer of Bruce Lee.
What’s his style? Absolutely perfect Wing Chun kung fu at blinding speeds with astonishing power.
Why’s he fighting? For personal and national pride against vicious interlopers.

Why’s this movie here? Living comfortably with his wife and child in a town and where he’s widely regarded as the best fighter, Ip Man tries to fight sparingly because he wants to be a good dad and husband. But when the Japanese take over China, destroy his village and kill two of his friends, he gets his motivation. Brought in front of a martial arts loving general, he takes on 10 men at a time and handily whoops them all. They offer him bags of rice to feed his starving family, but, a proud man, he walks away because he “didn’t come for rice.” He came for revenge. Eventually, after KO’ing a lecherous lieutenant who eyeballs his wife, he challenges the general, who accepts out of pride, seeing it as an opportunity to prove the superiority of Japanese culture in front of the oppressed Chinese. Based on the true story of the man who’s training lineage reached two million people—including Bruce Lee—Ip Man infuses its gorgeously gory fights with visceral emotion and historical context. The conquering Japanese are a bit cartoonishly wicked, but Ip Man’s so noble that we get the feeling such evil would be necessary to incur the full power of his fury. Donnie Yen is spectacular as film’s namesake, maintaining an unflappable composure until flipping midway through the film like Pacino in The Godfather. And the speed, precision and fluidity with which he and director Wilson Yip execute the fight scenes has never been matched.

1. Kill Bill Vol 1&2 (2003-2004)

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox

Who’s the hero? Beatrix Kiddo, former assassin who gets shot by her former lover.
What’s her style? A mix of kung fu and samurai swordsmanship that’s incredibly deadly.
Why’s she fighting? Because people shot her in the head while she was pregnant and about to get married.

Why’s this movie here? Taken together, this four-hour, two-part epic represents the pinnacle of what Quentin Tarantino can do onscreen. In a classic revenge tale, he casts his muse Uma Thurman as Beatrix Kiddo, who seeks to kill Bill, her former lover and master, and his team of assassins. The reason: they shoot her in the head while she was pregnant and at the dress rehearsal of her wedding under a different name. After waking from a coma, Kiddo writes a list and starts crossing off names, venturing from Tokyo to six feet under the desert soil, leaving behind a trail of red blood and limbs lopped off by the “greatest sword ever made by a man.” Delightfully pulpy, Tarantino includes endless homages to the other films on the list—Kiddo’s yellow jumpsuit matches the outfit Bruce Lee wore in his final, never-completed film, The Game of Death—yet crafts an original tale by mushing together disparate fragments of pop culture in his singular way. It contains some of the most beautiful cinematography of his career—the snowy garden at the finale of Vol. 1—and a deeply satisfying, yet melancholy ending. Plus, there’s a bunch of samurai swords and original music by RZA. Putting Tarantino’s mishmash of culture at the top of this list is the pinnacle of Imperial Dude-Broism, but it’s a genre swamped with 90-minute quick hits. And only this sprawling, self-indulgent film made by a man with a worshipful love of kung fu films could capture everything that’s awesome about the most noble form of violence.

This article was originally published on complex.com.

Got something to say?

Share this story

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Popular in the Community

Signup for the

Complex Newsletter

Your leading source for what’s now and what’s next in Music, Style, Sports, and Pop Culture.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x

COMPLEX participates in various affiliate marketing programs, which means COMPLEX gets paid commissions on purchases made through our links to retailer sites. Our editorial content is not influenced by any commissions we receive.

© Complex Media, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Complexphilippines.com is a part of

Signup for the Complex Newsletter

Your leading source for what’s now and what’s next in Music, Style, Sports, and Pop Culture.