For decades, serious film snobs looked down on kung fu movies as cultural trash, a kind of mindless detritus imported from the Pacific Rim to clutter grindhouse movie theaters and fill out the programming line-up on late night TV. This was an odd position to take—if ever there was a genre that embodied the highest ideals of pure cinema, the inimitable marriage of form, movement and sound that can only be found in film, kung fu movies are it.
It’s a cinema style madly in love with the human form, with complex and athletic physical performance. In a way, it replaced the Hollywood musical in the West by switching dance numbers and songs with painstakingly constructed exchanges of blows and blood, all inspired by a Chinese martial tradition going back over a thousand years.
It’s hard to say exactly why or how Chinese martial arts films made the transition from strict wuxia—or “martial hero” and swordsman–stories to the brand of movie making that plays up fisticuffs and bare-handed combat, often practiced by virtual nobodies in the social order. Bruce Lee was probably most responsible for popularizing the form, though Five Fingers of Death (a title included on this list) typically gets the credit for being the first—or, at any rate, the first successful—hand-to-hand based Chinese martial arts film.
In the case of directors such as Chang Cheh, wuxia simply evolved into something…different, documenting the adventures of desperate men seeking out the wisdom of reclusive masters in order to satisfy vendettas, while employing rare, sometimes completely fictional fighting styles and weapons.
Lau Kar-leung often took the same path in his stories, with a bias toward authentic martial history and the teachings of Shaolin, while Yuen Woo-Ping, the internationally acclaimed choreographer for films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the Matrix trilogy and Kill Bill movies, as well as a very prolific filmmaker in his own right, injected a hefty dose of slapstick humor into the genre, helping to launch the careers of performers such as Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung.
As the years went on and the genre became more cemented, greater sophistication in film technique allowed for more visual daring in how fight scenes were staged, and more recently it seems that terrific kung fu movies don’t even have to come from China—the Thai-produced Ong Bak 2 and Indonesian The Raid: Redemption also have a place on this list, alongside some of the most impressive offspring of Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest.
Most of the films presented here are confirmed classics, while others may still have a while to go before they’re recognized as being among the best of the genre. What most readers can agree on, I think, is that every movie discussed in this article promises great fun, no matter how many times you watch them.
20. The Invincible Armour
General Chow goes on the run after he’s accused of murdering the Ming sympathizer he works for, obsessed with finding the real killer and bringing him to justice. Getting in his way is a bounty hunter hired by the Emperor’s minister whose ambitious plotting caused the murder. He discovers that the killer was trained by an expert in Eagle Claw kung fu who also happens to be the minister’s brother, but that’s not the only skill the man possesses—the brothers were also trained in a rare style of Iron Armor kung fu (I’m using the American spelling here, instead of the UK spelling favored in most English prints),
one that makes the body invulnerable to nearly any blow, and the underhanded minister is the vastly superior practitioner. In order to defeat him, General Chow must learn the Iron Finger technique, the only one known to effectively counteract the style.
This fairly simple and straightforward tale illustrates everything that makes old-school kung fu movies so much fun—the story is mostly an excuse to keep the action moving, as a young martial arts expert squares off against an older, seemingly unbeatable master, with John Liu’s high-kicking skill in the role of General Chow making him a blast to watch.
It can’t be said to blaze any new trails (the plot actually seems very similar to that of Executioners From Shaolin in a lot of ways, with the minister being a carbon copy of abbot Pai Mei), but it is unfailingly entertaining and packed with the kind of thrills that kung fu movie fans yearn for. Also, look for a brief appearance by frequent Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung collaborator Yuen Biao as a hired fighter.
19. Crippled Avengers aka Return of the Five Deadly Venoms
Chang Cheh’s preference for outlandish concepts in his kung fu movies comes close to its greatest fruition in this movie, a brutally violent yet deeply silly story that begins when a man’s son has his arms cut off. Rather than bemoan fate, he rigs his son with prosthetic iron extendo-arms and teaches him Tiger style kung fu. Years later, they’re the terror of their town, foul-tempered and itching for a fight, which leads to several men being mutilated in various ways: one has his legs severed, one is blinded,
Another has his voice burned out and his ears ruptured, and a last is reduced to the mentality of a child by having his head squeezed in a vice. The brain-damaged man retains his knowledge of kung fu, but the others must seek out an instructor that will allow them to be great fighters despite their disabilities. The legless man gets iron legs that give him enormous kicking power, and the blind and deaf men learn ways to compensate for their missing senses. Together, they track down the father and iron-armed son in order to take their revenge.
This is the kind of film that cemented Chang Cheh’s reputation as a tripped-out auteur, full of the kind of violent sadism, weird martial arts, strange weapons and protracted final fights that set his work apart from that of many others. There’s always been some debate about just how much he really contributed to his films in later years, allegedly leaving much of the work to his assistant directors, but the off-the-wall tone of his films through the Seventies and into the Eighties seems too consistent to not be the end product of a singular, exultant guiding vision.
He’s taking the basic concept of One-Armed Swordsman and applying it to almost every character in the movie, with touches of Zatoichi and The Six Million Dollar Man. It stars most of the “Venom Mob” actors, who bring much of their famous skill to bear in the action scenes. Despite the film’s alternate title, Crippled Avengers has no relation to Five Deadly Venoms apart from the same director and leading actors.
18. Invincible Pole Fighter aka Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter
Gordon Liu (or Chia Hui-Liu is you prefer the non-Westernized version) plays one of the two last surviving sons of a military family massacred at Golden Beach by the army of the Liao Dynasty, led by General Pun Mei. Grief-stricken, he runs off to a Buddhist monastery, but the monks find him too angry and consumed with thoughts of revenge to admit him. The other brother, played by Alexander Fu Sheng, returns to his mother and sisters at the family home, driven mad by the loss of his father and brothers.
Liu, while not officially accepted as a monk by the monastery, spends time training there, trying to assuage his tempestuous spirit while developing a staff-fighting style called the Eight-Diagram Pole Technique. After one of his sisters is captured by men from the army responsible for his loss, he leaves the monastery with the intention of engaging them, as act that will put all of the peace of mind he’s gained at risk.
Invincible Pole Fighter is different from many kung fu films in that there is no absolute moral victory at the end. Really, a dark and brooding tone hangs over the whole production, brought on possibly by the fact that co-star Fu Sheng died during filming. It’s more likely, however, that this was a bitterly relentless film from the start, based as it is on a violent legend of betrayal and vengeance.
Some of the violence is mildly disturbing—one pole technique is meant to bash out wolves’ teeth to keep them from doing harm, an idea that is transposed to human attackers at the end—and our hero. Though inevitably victorious, is forced into a self-imposed exile resulting from a tragic alienation from both Buddhism and family. Easily one of director Lau Kar-Leung’s more affecting stories.
17. The Big Boss aka Fists of Fury
Why The Big Boss, you might ask, and not Enter the Dragon or even The Chinese Connection (which, confusingly, also goes under the title Fist of Fury—singular instead of plural)? They’re significant movies, and in many ways better ones, but it’s important to begin at the beginning when looking at the all-too-brief career of the great Bruce Lee. Playing a young man who travels from China to a small rural town in Thailand to visit his cousins and possibly snag a job at the local ice factory, he finds himself swept up in the machinations of a major drug dealer (the big boss of the title) who ships heroin in blocks of ice.
Two of his friends are killed when they uncover what’s happening, Lee is given the post of foreman after beating some of the boss’ men in a fight, and then bribed with girls and high living in order to secure his loyalty. All such considerations go out the window when they murder Lee’s family, causing Lee to go looking for the boss and his henchmen at his mansion.
Lee demonstrates a lot of the effortless charisma and magnetism that made him such a worldwide star. Directed by Lo Wei, with sometimes less than stellar results. The pacing isn’t as brisk as usual in most kung fu films, and much of the fight choreography looks sloppy compared to many other titles on this list, though he at least has a grasp on how to use Lee’s physicality, especially in the final duel between Lee and the main villain. It’s best to watch the English dub for an added dash of unintentional humor. Also watch for a great bit where Lee punches one of the boss’ minions through a wall, leaving a man-shaped hole.
16. Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow
Not the absolute best film for either Jackie Chan or director Yuen Woo-Ping, it’s hugely significant for the fact that it was the title that launched Yuen Woo-Ping’s directing career and established Jackie Chan as a comedy martial arts performer, and not simply a quick replacement for the late Bruce Lee as former Lee director Lo Wei had envisioned.
Jackie is a student at a school were he gets no respect from teachers and students alike, and only finds a better path when he makes the acquaintance of an old master of Snake Style kung fu (played by Yuen’s father Yuen Siu Tien) who agrees to teach him the dwindling style only so long as he doesn’t call him “master”, a move meant to protect his new pupil from the acolytes of the school of Eagle Claw kung fu, whose leader wants nothing more than to wipe out Snake Style for good.
A confrontation with this man teaches Jackie a dire lesson—Snake Style alone is not the equal to Eagle Claw kung fu, and he must supplement it with a new style based on his observations of a cat fighting a cobra in order to prevail over the determined killers that seek to do him in.
A low-budget, bare-bones production, Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow stands out mostly by playing up its best assets, which are the performances of both Jackie Chan and, as the main villain, Hwang Jang Lee. True to the respective reputations of both director and star, the choreography is far above the average for most martial arts movies, is largely free of wire work or other special effects, and has a speedy, acrobatic quality that helped to set a new standard.
Followed by Yuen and Chan’s Drunken Master. According to Jackie in his autobiography, the tooth you see missing in the final shots got knocked out by Hwang Jang Lee during the filming of their final fight scene, beginning his career-long trend of getting badly injured in the course of production.