18. Ong Bak (Prachya Pinkaew, 2003, Thailand)
This film introduced Tony Jaa to global audiences, and subsequently instigated an international interest for Thai martial arts cinema.
Ting is the greatest fighter of a poor village, whose only point of value is a giant statue of Buddha named Ong Bak, with a celebration held every year in its name. This time, shortly before the festivity, a team of crooks from Bangkok asks the villagers to sell the statue to them. When they deny, they steal the statue’s head.
The shaken villagers decide to send Ting to Bangkok, where his cousin Humlae is living, to retrieve the head with his help. However, Humlae has other plans for his cousin.
19. Fighter in the Wind (Yang Yun-ho, 2004, S. Korea)
The film is based on the actual life of Korean Kyokushin Karate founder Choi Yeung-eui, who emigrated to Japan after World War II to become a pilot. Instead, he ended up changing his name to Masutatsu Oyama, and became an unbeatable fighter.
The script tracks his first steps in Japan, from the squalor and the repression by the Japanese, to his involvement with a circus troupe and his training by Bum-soo, to his own fierce training that eventually transforms him into a fighter feared by every sensei in the country.
The film is a drama as much as it is a martial arts film. Nevertheless, the duels between the protagonist and the Japanese experts of various styles are impressive, despite their short duration, with their focus lying on realism.
20. House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, 2004, China)
By 859, the Tang Dynasty is approaching its downfall. The emperor is incompetent and the government corrupted. Uprisings occur throughout the country and many revolutionaries form teams to overthrow the regime. The most powerful among them is a hidden league called “House of the Flying Daggers”.
Their main tactic is to steal from the rich and give to the poor, an act that has made them very popular among the common people while infuriating the regime. Eventually the authorities manage to assassinate their leader, but the organization emerges even stronger.
Police officers Leo and Jin are tasked with eliminating the new leader, with their suspicions lying toward a blind dancer named Mei. However, a romance begins that further complicates the situation.
Another visual masterpiece by Zhang Yimou, “House of Flying Daggers” is an epic dedicated to love, hate, passion, and revenge, in a distinctive Chinese combination.
The story actually revolves around the romance, which is in constant danger of becoming a tragedy. However, Yimou did not neglect the action elements, with some magnificent scenes occurring in the woods, where the film’s cinematography is astonishing.
21. Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow, 2004, Hong Kong)
In 1940’s Shanghai, gangs fight for domination of the city and the one that eventually triumphs is the Axe Gang, which consists of gangsters in suits using axes as weapons. Due to violent incidents occurring all over Shanghai, the only places where the rest of the citizens can live in peace and quiet are the slums.
One of those is called Pig Sty and is ruled by a married couple named Landlord and Landlady, respectively. One day, two minor crooks, Sing and Bowe, appear in the slum and all hell breaks loose.
Since the list aims for diversity, a film that actually parodies the genre could not be excluded. Stephen Chow took most of the clichés of the category, including techniques learned by secret manuals, martial arts masters with different styles, beggar-teachers of kung fu, and flying fighters, and mocked them in the most hilarious way.
Another point that proves extremely funny is the fact that he cast veterans of the genre, like Xiaogang Feng, Wah Yuen and Siu Lung Leung, and made them act in a cartoonish and slapstick manner. The fact that they delivered is a point of excellence in the film.
22. SPL: Kill Zone (Wilson Yip, 2005, Hong Kong)
Police officer Chan has made it his life’s goal to arrest Wong Po, a triad leader, and he is willing to do anything to achieve this goal. Eventually, he discovers a witness willing to testify against him. However, during the transport to the court where Chan is present, one of Po’s men, Jack, manages to kill the witness and his spouse.
During the assault, Chan is injured in the back of his head, a wound that leaves him with a permanent damage and just a few weeks left to live. Additionally, the sole unscathed individual from the incident is the daughter of the witness, who Chan proceeds to adopt.
Po is set free and after awhile, he learns that his wife is pregnant after years of trying. Ma Kwun, an infamous tough officer, eventually succeeds Chan, due to Chan’s condition. He initially disapproves of his predecessor’s methods, a state of mind that leads to friction with his co-officers. Nevertheless, in due course he realizes that in order to face Po, he has to resort to unlawful actions.
The film includes an ensemble cast consisting of Donnie Yen as Ma Kwun and Wu Jing as Jack, along with all-star veterans Sammo Hung as Wong Po and Simon Yam as Chan. The collaboration between some of the best representatives of both generations of action films resulted in a highly entertaining movie, both in terms of story and action.
Yen provided spectacular choreography, with an utterly magnificent fight between his character and Wu Jing. However, the scene that steals the show occurs in the final showdown between Yen and Hung, in one of the most unexpected endings of all time.
23. Ip Man (Wilson Yip, 2008, Hong Kong)
The surge of films regarding Bruce Lee’s master and “ambassador” of Wing Chun began with this film.
The story unfolds in Foshan, a city in southeast China that was considered a center of martial arts. Ip Man enjoys the respect of other masters in the city, who consider him the best among them, a fact proven when rogue fighter Jin Shan Zhao challenges every one of them to a duel, with Ip Man being the only one who manages to beat him. Despite his fame, he keeps a low profile enjoying life with his family.
However, after the 1937 Japanese invasion, life for the Chinese became much worse, with Ip Man forced to work in a mine in order to provide for his family, and to fight Japanese and Chinese fighters to protect his friends.
Sammo Hung and Tony Leung, two of the greatest names of the genre, choreographed the spectacular action scenes, which benefit the most from Donnie Yen’s presence in the titular role. His fights with Luis Fan Siu Wong and Hiroyuki Ikeuchi are the film’s best scenes.
The film has a plethora of impressive action scenes, with Tony Jaa fully justifying the hype around his name, with his speed and technique in Muay Thai and other martial arts. His fight with a man who uses everything in his vicinity as weapon is one of the most original and impressive duels ever to appear in a film of the category.
24. Chocolate (Prachya Pinkaew, 2008, Thailand)
After Tony Jaa and Prachya Pinkaew had a fallout, the Pinkaew and Ong Bak’s producer, Panna Rittikrai, looked for a substitute who could meet the martial arts standards they had set for their films. Their search resulted in Taekwondo specialist Yanin “Jeeja” Vismitananda taking the protagonist role in this particular film, after she spent four years training with Rittikrai’s stunt team.
Zen is an autistic girl and the daughter of Zin and a Yakuza boss named Masashi. After a series of dramatic events, Zin is forced to hide with her daughter in a house next to a Muay Thai school. The girl constantly observes the lessons next door, at least when she is not watching martial arts films on TV. This results in her having rapid reflexes and a high technique in Muay Thai.
A few years later, Zin is diagnosed with cancer, but she does not have the money for her cure. Mangmoon, a child from the streets who she’s essentially adopted, decides to help her raise the money along with Zen, by forcing everyone who owes money to Zin to pay their debt. From there, the fighting begins.
Jeeja is astonishing in the main role, both in portraying an autistic individual and in the action scenes, where she shows off her speed and technique. Her duel with a fighter who has Tourette’s syndrome is spectacular and original, and the final showdown where she fatally beats her opponents in the exterior of a four-story building is one of the longest and most impressive action scenes ever to be shown in cinema.
25. The Raid: Redemption (Gareth Evans, 2011, Indonesia)
An elite team of the Indonesian anti-terrorist squad, headed by First Lieutenant Wahyu and Sergeant Jaka, arrive in a block of flats in one of Jakarta’s slums. Rama is a rookie member of the team and the film’s protagonist. Their mission is to arrest the owner of the building, a notorious mafia boss named Tama Riyadi who lives on the top floor.
While the ascent up to the sixth floor is completed without issues for the team at that point, an inhabitant spots them and sounds the alarm. Riyadi informs the rest of the inhabitants (who turn out to be mostly hardcore criminals) of the police’s presence, and encourages them to kill them all in exchange for a permanent tenure free of charge. At the same time, he unleashes his two henchmen, Andi and Mad Dog.
Gareth Evans directs what may be the most violent film on this list, which after a point becomes a continuum of deadly fights in the corridors and rooms of the building. The scenes with knives are utterly impressive, as is the depiction of most of the evil characters.
Iko Uwais as Rama and Yayan Ruhian as Mad Dog are the most impressive participants of the film, and their performances gave Indonesian martial art Pencak Silat international recognition. The fight between the two and Andi is the film’s most astonishing scene.
Author Bio: Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic who focuses on the cinema of East Asia. He enjoys films from all genres, although he is a big fan of exploitation. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.