5. Ong Bak 2
A sequel or prequel in name only to Tony Jaa’s breakout film Ong Bak, this somewhat troubled production co-directed by its star stands head and shoulders above the vast majority of kung fu extravaganzas, even topping many of the immortal works of Shaw Brothers. Set in 15th Century Thailand during a time of violent political unrest, the story centers on a young boy orphaned after his royal family is slaughtered.
Nearly fed to crocodiles by slavers, his toughness and tenacity endear him to a bandit king who takes him under his wing and has him trained in almost every major martial art by the many experts in his crew. As an adult, he takes over as leader, first going after the slavers that tried to kill him as a boy, then the corrupt nobleman who had his family slain. That last job puts his life in mortal danger, as he is pursued back to his home base by an army intent on taking his life, where the hard truth about the nature of his adopted criminal family comes horribly to light.
Nothing is done in half-measures here. Jaa seems obsessed with out-doing the work of all his martial art film idols in this one movie alone, throwing in homages to Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Bruce Lee, samurai movies, and bits and pieces of every kung fu movie to ever grace the screen.
During the film’s final fight Jaa appears to be pushing himself to his physical limits, switching from one fighting style to the next with a cunning, Tasmanian Devil frenzy that incorporates feet and fists, swords, a three-section staff, a rope dart, kung fu, muay thai and jujitsu. Buildings explode, stunt men fall from great heights, the screen if filled with a flurry of adrenalinized movement. Of the scant five films Tony Jaa has starred in, this one towers over the others, better than the movies on either side of it, better than The Protector (as impressive as that film was), and far better—sad to say—than The Protector 2.
It’s as if Jaa put all his best ideas into this project, and put so much of himself into it that he had little left over for anything that came after. Even if he never reaches this apex again, the world will always know just how magnificent he can be when he gives a movie everything he has.
4. Five Fingers of Death aka King Boxer
While not the absolute first kung fu movie, this grim tale of glory and revenge starring Seventies martial arts star Lo Lieh started the kung fu movie craze in North America just ahead of Enter the Dragon with Bruce Lee. It sets the basic template for many, many of the very similar films that came after it: a young martial artist named Chih Hao is sent by his master to another school to improve his skills and hopefully win the championship title in the upcoming martial arts tournament.
Kung fu chieftain Ming Dung-Shun decides that his son must win the competition and will go to any extreme to ensure his success. He hires a traveling fighter whose specialty is head-butting to intimidate students at the rival school, and who Chih Hao later trounces at a popular local restaurant. He then brings in three Japanese karate and judo experts to capture Chih Hao on the road and break his hands in the hopes of preventing him from learning the Iron Fist technique that will make him virtually unbeatable at the tournament.
They also murder the master who raised him, just for spite. Beaten and discouraged, it takes the support of his friends and the woman he loves to put him back in a training frame of mind, after which he applies himself to mastering Iron Fist and heads out to win the championship, aided in part by a defector from the enemy master’s camp. All accounts are settled in the final act, facilitated by the glowing red palms of the Iron Fist technique.
One might think that a kung fu movie shot in the early Seventies, before the genre was really perfected, might come off a little clunky and slow-moving when compared to what came after it, but that assessment would be incorrect. Five Fingers has all the style and flair of a high-quality wuxia film, and just replaces the knightly swordsmen with well-trained pugilists. Fight scenes, although not as outrageous as those found in a Chang Cheh epic or as deftly choreographed as in the work of Lau-Kar Leung or Yuen Woo-Ping, are fast and engaging, and make good use of very physically capable performers.
The dark, gruesome tone typical of many later kung fu films seems to find its origins here as well: the majority of lead characters wind up dead, and those who don’t have their eyes gouged out, their hands broken, or their faces bashed in. Sporting good production values, it still holds up after all these years, and was, not at all surprisingly, a big influence on the Kill Bill movies, both in terms of visual content and soundtrack sampling.
3. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin aka Shaolin Master Killer or Master Killer
After he sees a Ming general killed in the town square, a young man joins an anti-Manchu rebellion, only to see his family and comrades murdered. To facilitate his revenge, he goes to Shaolin temple to learn kung fu, but the priests there are not in the habit of teaching kung fu to just anybody—he must first apply himself to Buddhist philosophy and the basics of martial arts before they’ll allow him into advanced training.
The different levels of Shaolin training are divided into the 35 chambers, each concentrating on a single skill or technique. In time, he becomes expert in all the chambers, going so far as to develop a new weapon—the three-section staff. He suggests to his superiors a new, 36th chamber, one intended to teach kung fu to the masses, and is sent out into the world to find recruits, as well as to punish the sadistic Manchu general responsible for his family’s death and the oppression of the rebels. By the end, he has begun the process of establishing the 36th chamber of Shaolin, instructing non-monks in the arts of combat and enlightenment.
Similar in theme to the same director’s Invincible Pole Fighter, 36th Chamber takes a more light-hearted approach, and spends more time emphasizing the grueling, quasi-militaristic training Shaolin monks must go through to become masters of their famous style. That’s really what the film is about above all else, the depiction of Shaolin life as seen through the lens of one character’s desire for self-improvement and un-Buddha-like revenge (“Even the Buddha punished evil” he says by way of justification).
Clearly an influential film in more ways than one—rap group The Wu-Tang Clan seemed to have a real fondness for this title—it was also fairly unusual for its time, in that martial arts movies up to then tended to focus on the acts of wandering swordsmen or other freelance fighting heroes, and not life in a monastery. As in all of Lau Kar-Leung’s films, the fight scenes are great, shot with the kind of visual whimsy that really distinguished Shaw Brothers studios at this time.
2. The Raid aka The Raid: Redemption
It was only a matter of time before someone adapted the aesthetic of first-person-shooter and role-playing video games to the martial arts movie, and Welsh director Gareth Evans does an excellent job of merging the idea of escalating levels and final bosses with an all-out shoot ’em up kung fu storyline that owes a lot to the best work of John Woo, Ringo Lam and 90’s Hong Kong crime drama in general.
Actually, it isn’t entirely fair to call this a “kung fu” movie because the main martial art on display is the Indonesian style of pencak silat, which in this context looks a lot like MMA with a heavier emphasis on muay thai boxing. The story is simplicity itself: a SWAT team raids an apartment building owned by a powerful gang lord who allows all kinds of shady business to go on while holding the regular tenants as virtual hostages. The team stealthily makes its way up, but when they are spotted by a lookout, all hell breaks loose.
They are attacked on all sides by machete-and-gun-wielding thugs, and as the team is gradually whittled down, one member who is especially talented in silat (star Iko Uwais) fights his way to the top floor, while trying to save his wayward brother and beat another powerful fighter who might just be more than a match for him. And of course no crime story is complete without a police department superior in cahoots with the film’s villain.
I’ve watched a lot of violent action movies, and even I had a hard time watching The Raid. That’s not to detract from its value as a thrilling epic of close quarters combat, but it is without a doubt in the absolute top tier of movies that depict a surreal level of brutality.
People are slashed with blades, elbows and fists mash into torsos, and characters receive beatings so severe they would hospitalize a real human being a hundred times over. You might say that’s true of any action movie, but in The Raid it feels more ghastly and more savage, as if Evans wanted to make sure the audience felt every blow in a way that had not yet been attempted in a martial arts movie. The physical performances are, suffice it to say, amazing in the extreme, which goes a long way toward explaining the cult status this film has already achieved in just a few years.
It is an undeniable benchmark in action cinema, one that has raised the bar and seems to dare other filmmakers to top it. One can only hope that more producers and directors rise to the challenge. There has been talk of an American remake, produced by Evans, but so far that doesn’t appear to have materialized. Followed by The Raid 2, with a third film possibly in the works.
1. The Grandmaster
Leave it to Wong Kar-Wai to essentially redefine what a kung fu movie is, much in the way he redefined wuxia with Ashes of Time. The Grandmaster differs from that film in that it doesn’t shy away from fight scenes, only coyly slipping them in here and there, while obscuring the action with choppy undercranking.
In this case, he obviously wanted to make a real martial arts film in every sense, but didn’t want to be limited by the typical narrative constraints of the genre. He tells basically the exact same story as the two Donnie Yen Ip Man films, covering the Wing Chun expert’s trials in Foshan, where he must first prove himself worthy to a league of local masters so he can represent the best of Southern Chinese kung fu, then loses most of his family during the Japanese bombing raids, and finally finds himself exiled in Hong Kong where he starts his Wing Chun school.
Star Tony Leung shows a cool, calm exterior as Ip Man, and co-star Zhang Ziyi is both beguiling and tragic as his platonic love interest, a woman who, though the last heir of a martial arts style taught to her by her father, elects to let the knowledge die with her as she descends into depression and opium addiction. There is a quiet, potent romance between these two characters that transcends the overblown histrionics usually found in genre film love stories.
As in Ashes of Time, Wong employs a shifting, time-displaced narrative approach at times that keeps the film from feeling static—some critics were a little put off by this, but it works well, and the movie never gets dull. In a lot of ways, Wong boils the genre down to its defining elements, often depicting Ip Man being challenged by one master after another, and besting them with his deceptively simple fighting style.
The Grandmaster seems to be a film about the end of one era and the beginning of another, an idea symbolized by the advanced age of many of the cast, and the way characters talk about the waning of many venerated techniques and how much has been forgotten over the years. Ip Man devotes himself to teaching a type of kung fu previously reserved for the children of the wealthy and spreading it as far as possible. In the end, it is a movie about the growing prominence of Chinese culture and China’s rising status on the world stage.
The fights, choreographed by none other than Yuen Woo-Ping (a man whose name turns up frequently on this list, and with good reason) are terrific, and there have been very few movies that look this good in recent years, with every shot having the impact of a stunningly composed, sepia-tone photograph, and Wong makes expert use of slow-motion throughout. A beautiful and engrossing film, The Grandmaster tells the story of Ip Man better than the Wilson Yip/Donnie Yen collaborations, and although problems with production led to it being released after those films, it was more than worth the wait.