When I was a kid, my first exposure to the "martial arts" was probably The Karate Kid, a 1984 film about some square named Daniel Russo who moves to a new town and quickly runs afoul of local karate toughs. (Interesting side note: Ralph Macchio, who played the titular Karate Kid, is now older than his wizened janitor slash karate master Pat Morita was when he made the film.) What I didn't realize at the time was that the thing Daniel-san was doing was not actually martial arts. While Russo's "Crane Kick" technique may work against the aggressive Aryan bullies at his high school, the only chance it would give him against a fighter from, say, The Five Deadly Venoms (pictured), would be if his opponent fell on the ground and laughed himself to death. (More likely, though, they'd just put their fist through Daniel-san's chest and throw his ruined carcass to the dogs.) Here are ten martial arts films in which Daniel-san would not last two minutes.
Master of the Flying Guillotine (1977): Master of the Flying Guillotine features what is, without a shred of a doubt, the most terrifying weapon in all of martial arts film-dom. This old bearded guy, who apparently hates Millennials as much as everyone else does, goes around throwing this nightmarish murder contraption over his younger opponents' heads. These are removed, in short order, from their bodies to become his grisly trophies. Oh also: There's this yoga guy who resembles Dhalsim from Street Fighter, all managed in the days before CGI. Yep, this one has it all.
The Legend of the Drunken Master (1994): The first Drunken Master movie, from 1978, was the film that launched Jackie Chan's career, and all things equal is probably better than this 1994 remake. It's the same basic principle, though—a guy drinks enough booze to kill an entire fraternity and somehow becomes the greatest fighter in the land. (And this later version is available on Netflix streaming.) At one point, Jackie Chan's father explains how you have to drink just the right amount to be an effective drunken boxer, otherwise you just become a drunken fool. This resonates with me, because it's pretty much the same thing as when you're shooting pool or bowling: a few beers improve your game, but once you go over that line, it all falls apart and you get your ass kicked.
13 Assassins (2010): I've always been a huge fan of both Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai and its most famous, Bronson-heavy offshoot, The Magnificent Seven. 13 Assassins is a film in that vein, a small number of heroes fighting against impossible odds—like 300 if that movie were about awesome samurai and not glistening abs and terrifying foreigners. Right before the film's final sequence, when the imperial army rides into town looking to make an example of these insurgents, the leader of the 13 greets them and unfurls a banner that reads "Total Massacre." And that's the long and short of it.
Ip Man (2008): Nominally a biopic based on the life of one of Bruce Lee's legendary wing chun teachers, Ip Man is the mostly imagined story of a guy named, well, Ip Man, a peerless martial artist teaching martial arts and kicking ass during World War II. Ip Man's kung fu is super powerful. In fact, the only thing that exceeds it is his unfailing politeness. But I can't emphasize enough how much he just destroys everyone in this movie—mostly without breaking a sweat. Even when ravaged by malnutrition and sadness at the rape of his country by the Japanese, Ip Man dispatches ten enemy fighters like they were pencil-pushing accountants and not guys who are supposed to be good at fighting.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978): These are the same 36 chambers made famous by the Wu-Tang Clan, and they are everything you'd hope they'd be. When San Te's friends and family are killed by government thugs, he seeks refuge in a Shaolin temple. The monks there don't usually take kindly to outsiders, but San Te is eventually allowed to train, and proves to be a sponge—the Lawnmower Man of Shaolin Kung Fu. It's the dream of all of us who have wanted to be karate masters, but don't want to put in the decades of rigorous training.
Five Deadly Venoms (1978): The five deadly venoms are as follows: The Centipede, The Scorpion, The Snake, The Lizard, and The Toad. One time I was interviewing the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, and asked the rap star and kung fu enthusiast if he feared anything, like, say for instance, The Centipede. He responded: "Oh, the centipede style from Five Deadly Venoms? That don't scare me, because I know all the poisons. How one poison counters the other poison. So I ain't worried about that." Thanks for putting our fears to rest, Abbot.
Gymkata (1985): "His name? Kurt Thomas. His title? Three-time World Gymnastics champion. His assignment? A secret mission from the United States government." And so begins the greatest gymnastics-kung fu adventure of our time—perhaps of all time. Thomas is sent by America to infiltrate a secret tournament known only as "The Game." Uneven bars and pommel horses are conveniently placed around mountain villages. Honestly, this is a terrible movie, but the trailer and the film poster are two of my favorite things on the Earth.
Best of the Best (1989): This is arguably Eric Roberts's finest role, if you discount his star turn in Sharktopus. James Earl Jones is the coach of the American martial arts team, which believe it or not isn't enough to put them over the top against a far superior Korean team, led by the karate master-pirate Dae Han. Best of the Best spawned some fairly ridiculous sequels, but the original is the one that best stands the test of time, mostly because of Eric Roberts crying for some reason, and also due to a flashback scene with a kid spilling his ice cream in slow motion—no doubt a metaphor for humanity's tenuous and extra creamy existence.
Bloodsport (1988): The best part of Bloodsport, besides Chong Li's natural showmanship, is the fact that Van Damme's character—Frank Dux—is supposedly based on the life of a real-life guy by the same name. Van Damme fights in the "Kumite," a secretive martial arts tournament where only the world's finest fighters compete. According to the real Dux, this actually happened. Now, if I could improve on the Wikipedia entry, I would, but I can't. It's perfect: "The accuracy of many of Dux's personal claims have been disputed, including his martial arts background, fighting in the "Kumite", and prior military service. According to the Los Angeles Times, the organization that allegedly staged the Kumite had the same address as Dux's house, and the trophy he claims to have won was bought by him at a local trophy store."
Ong-bak (2003): As ethereally beautiful as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon undoubtedly is, Ong-bak: Thai Warrior is in many ways its opposite; the absolute pinnacle of no-nonsense, hand-to-hand, bone-to-bone circus violence. When a no-good thief named "Don" steals the head of a statue that's super important to his simple village, that's when Tony Jaa gets angry. You wouldn't like Tony Jaa when he's angry.
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