Kicking and punching
There's something about the beauty and grace of martial arts movies... that turns all of us into buffoons as we attempt to recreate elegant ass-kicking moves in our own living rooms. Aside from those moments of inanity, kung fu films are also inspirational slices of cinema. Yes, they encourage us all to act out Bruce Lee's infamous moves on our nearest and dearest, but there's the spiritual component too. These legendary flicks showcase some absolutely breathtaking fight sequences and mesh them together with insightful existential banter. Brilliant!
This list counts down the very best in kung-fu cinema. Click ahead to begin your martial arts odyssey, and please for the love of all things sacred, don't imitate any of it at home. Oh okay, go on then. You'll just end up looking really, really stupid.
25. Fearless (2006)
The movie: Jet Li’s last wushu epic is based on the life of Chinese martial artist Huo Yuanjia, who challenged foreign fighters and boosted Chinese morale when it was at its lowest thanks to Japanese manipulation and Western imperialism.
Coolest fight: Seeing as Yuanjia faces off against tons of opponents in this movie... we're going for the sword fight where he leaps, swims and punches his way to glory.
Iconic moment: The lotus pond scene was filmed at a lake outside of Shanghai, where over 200 lotus plants were shipped specifically for the movie. Luckily, it turned out to be a legendary scene.
24. Iron Monkey (1993)
The movie: Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung continues to inspire the movies. This '90s kung fu film takes a rifle through his childhood for a fictional yarn detailing his supposed encounter with the Iron Monkey. The young Fei-hung was played by a talented martial artist called Tsang Sze-Man, who’s actually a girl.
Coolest fight: Insults are slung like mud, before right hooks, chains, shovels, and... uh, giant sleeves get slung as well. No-one saw those coming.
Iconic moment: “It is I, Iron Monkey!” A gloriously camp introduction to our masked fighter.
23. Fatal Contact (2006)
The movie: Wu Jing plays a young man trained in the art of Sanshou and lured into fighting in illegal martial arts competitions. The film’s fight scenes were choreographed by Nicky Li, who’s a member of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, hence the superb combat style.
Coolest fight: Jing shows everyone who’s boss, even managing to take down a bitchy coward who’s cheated and shoved nails into his gloves and shoes.
Iconic moment: Sure, Jing can fight, but he can also do really cool flips off stuff, making him a martial arts AND parkour expert.
22. Chocolate (2008)
The movie: A Thai martial arts film, Chocolate (aka Fury) stars Yanin ‘Jeeja’ Vismitananda as Zen, an autistic woman who develops jaw-dropping martial arts skills by copying what she’s seen on TV. It's all rather handy, because she needs to track down gangs that owe her dying mother money.
Coolest fight: It’s got to be the film’s final fight, as a battered, exhausted Zen shows us why she’s the queen of kung fu - she takes out an entire squad of Thai gangsters like it ain't no thing.
Iconic moment: Zen, mimicking the great martial arts prowess of Bruce Lee and Tony Jaa, comes to grips with her abilities.
21. Magnificent Butcher (1980)
The movie: Sammo Hung continues his endeavours to create an action comedy like Drunken Master with this fun genre-blending romp. He plays Lam Sai-wing, a rotund butcher who is falsely accused of raping the head of the Five Dragons Kung Fu School, and targeted for revenge.
Coolest fight: Yuen Biao and Lam Ching-ying duke it out. Never has fighting looked more beautiful and painstakingly choreographed than here. It’s almost like really macho dancing. Except there's lots of slapping.
Iconic moment: Lee Hoi San and Sammo Hung show us what they’re made of. Old boots, it would seem. This guys are tough.
20. The Way Of The Dragon (1972)
The movie: Bruce Lee’s directorial debut finds him also playing the titular Dragon. He travels to Rome in order to help his friend’s family, whose restaurant is being targeted by the Mafia, and winds up kicking ass. The film set a new box office record in Hong Kong, taking $5 million.
Coolest fight: Lee finds himself opposite the Mafia's hired hand played by Chuck Norris; the pair go toe-to-toe in a Roman Colosseum. Naturally, Lee wipes the floor with his competitor.
Iconic moment: It's hard to imagine another moment in this movie that's more iconic than a Lee vs. Norris smackdown.
19. The Big Boss (1971)
The movie: Initially set up as a starring vehicle for James Tien, the emergence of the fantastic Bruce Lee (in his first major role) earned him the lead instead. Big Boss went on to become the highest grossing fight film in Hong Kong in 1971. And just in case you were wondering, the Thai brothel featured in the film? The real deal.
Coolest fight: Cheng, on a mission to avenge the deaths of his family, takes down Hsiao Chiun’s gang. He's no fool, he saves the gangster's father Hsiao Mi for last. To be honest, he could be taking out a load of random passers-by, this is fun because it's one of Lee's earliest screen fights.
Iconic moment: More like a lost iconic moment: a scene in which Lee slams a handsaw into a villain’s head was featured in an early cut of the film, but has been excised in more recent releases. It's a shame. That would have been bonkers.
18. The Burning Of The Red Lotus Temple (1928)
The movie: Adapted from a newspaper serial Red Lotus is the longest kung fu film ever created. No, really. You've got to be committed to watch this as it's a staggering 27 hours long. It was released in feature-length portions - 18 in total - over a period of three years. It pretty much kicked off the martial arts movie craze in the East, something we should all we thankful for.
Coolest fight: It’s damn near impossible to get a copy of the film, but we’ve heard on the grapevine that this contains some stellar moments.
Iconic moment: The story thread, in which a young main gains kung fu powers after stumbling upon a secret, would go on to become a martial arts movie staple.
17. Warriors Two (1978)
The movie: Celebrated as one of the few films that features an authentic version of the Wing Chun style of kung fu (point of reference: the type that Neo uses against the Seraph in The Matrix Reloaded). Warriors Two stars Sammo Hung as a student who convinces his doctor master (Bryan Leung) to teach his patients the art of Wing Chun.
Coolest fight: It may sound like some mad person’s having a clapping competition somewhere nearby, but there’s no denying the skills involved in the climactic tussle.
Iconic moment: Casanova Wong whoops some serious ass, taking on an unstoppable herd of sword-wielding assailants and barely breaking a sweat.
16. Ong-Bak (2003)
The movie: Thai actioner Ong-Bak shoved newcomer Tony Jaa into the spotlight as a supremely skilled martial artist. He plays Ting, who takes on the underworld when a sacred statue is disfigured. Proving his dedication, Jaa trained for four years in the action form of Muay Boran for the film.
Coolest fight: “Let’s fight!” Ting takes on three opponents, one after another, and it's watching him go up against the goliath Big Bear that's the most fun. Ting might be small in stature, but boy, does he make up for it with his quick-footed muay Thai skills.
Iconic moment: Ting shows off his parkour prowess during a chase through some hectic backalleys.
15. The Invincible Armour (1977)
The movie: An R-rated actioner with John Liu playing Chow Lung-fu, a man framed for murder by corrupt Ming guard Minister Cheng (Korean martial artist Jang Lee Hwang). On the run, Chow encounters a teenager who’s an expert at the Iron Armour technique, which makes the expert impervious to outside harm.
Coolest fight: The final showdown between Cheng, Lung-fu, and Shen Yu - ten whole minutes of climactic music and some deadly moves. Even though it's a tad dated you can't deny its over-the-top greatness.
Iconic moment: Two words: groin attack! Yikes. The film's crammed with a ton more - some of which are heavily referenced in Kill Bill: Vol. 1.
14. Legendary Weapons Of China (1982)
The movie: Mixing martial arts with fantasy, this Lau Kar-leung movie is set in the late Qing Dynasty, when an Empress sends her agents out to uncover supernatural fighters who are vulnerable to the weaponry of modern pugilists.
Coolest fight: In a final confrontation, (real life) brothers Lau Kar-leung and Lau Kar-wing clash for an epic 20 minutes using all the 17 weapons of China. That's a lot of sparring.
Iconic moment: The hand-stuck-in-back moment is sheer ridiculousness in beautiful motion.
13. Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984)
The movie: Another one from the Shaw Brothers. This time the power producer duo hired Gordon Liu and Alexander Fu Sheng for this ‘based on a true story’ fight-fest. Fu Sheng tragically died in a car crash during filming, which meant the script had to be rewritten to redirect focus onto Liu’s character.
Coolest fight: As a fair chunk of the movie takes place in a monastery - where the murdered son of a general bides his time before exacting his revenge - commonplace weapons are forbidden. So out come the poles along with the menacing glares. Amazing stuff.
Iconic moment: Yeung Dek finally tracks down the man who killed his father and siblings, and we get to see the eight diagram pole fighting technique in action. It's frankly outstanding that he wipes out a whole fleet of assailants, considering he's got a big stick and they have swords.
12. The Victim (1980)
The movie: Chun-yau and his newlywed bride are on the run from his mean step-brother, who blames Chun-yau for losing his eye. Fearing for their lives, the couple hide out in a village where Fatty (Sammo Hung) insists on being Chun-yau's servant. It's a lot more complex than that, but you've got the gist.
Coolest fight: Bryan Leung's (Chung Yao) final fight scene where he wipes the floor with his opponent by throwing him into a support column. That was after several long-winded hand-to-hand battles which exhausted even the intense fighter himself - especially as most of the battle didn’t involve a stunt double.
Iconic moment: Any of Fatty’s numerous attempts at convincing Yao to let him be his slave. They go on and on and on...
11. Come Drink With Me (1966)
The movie: An early classic of the genre Come Drink With Me is often lauded as one of the finest Hong Kong kung fu movies ever made. An action thriller, it revolves around a group of bandits who kidnap the governor’s son in order to use him as a bargaining chip for the release of their master. Yeah, that's going to go well.
Coolest fight: Golden Swallow infiltrates a Buddhist temple and confronts her brother’s kidnapper, leading to one massive scrap. Until she gets a poisoned dart in the neck, she gave it a damn good go.
Iconic moment: There's a mammoth brawl that kicks of at an inn, resulting in copious amounts of blood that'd make Tarantino queasy.
10. Heroes Of The East (1978)
The movie: Blending Japanese martial arts with more typical kung fu, Heroes Of The East stars Gordon Liu as student Ah To. He enters into an arranged marriage with a Japanese woman and, after insulting her martial arts family, enters into a contest to prove how good Chinese kung fu really is.
Coolest fight: When Japanese and Chinese swords collide - like the romantic love plot at its center! Watching Ah To wield the traditional Chinese jien against his Japanese opponent's katana is a sight to behold.
Iconic moment: Yasuaki Kurata uses the Japanese crab fist, which involves a lot of waddling from side to side. Looks a lot cooler than it sounds.
9. The Prodigal Son (1981)
The movie: Also known as Pull No Punches, Prodigal Son is a kung fu comedy that follows the lives of historical figures Leung Jan, Leung Yee-tai, and Wong Wah-bo. Biao Yuen plays Jan, who thinks he’s the best fighter in Canton, unaware that his dad has bribed all of his opponents to let him win.
Coolest fight: Who says restaurants are just for eating in? Not this lot. This battle turns a rather nice eating establishment into a blustering mess of punches, kicks and quite a bit of blood.
Iconic moment: “Masterrrrrrr!” The final fight between Chang and Ngai finds the young upstart beating his opponent into submission before leaping over a wall and striking a tough guy pose. He's earned it.
8. Ip Man (2008)
The movie: Semi-autobiographical tale revolving around the life of legendary Chinese martial artist Yip Man (also known as Yip Kai-Man), Bruce Lee’s teacher. Though it significantly departs from historical fact in places, it has been celebrated as a classic of the genre featuring some breathtaking fight choreography.
Coolest fight: The fast-paced, bone-cracking, whip-lashing confrontation between Donnie Yen and a circle of deadly assailants.
Iconic moment: It has to be the final fight scene plucked from the history books, a medley of impressive fighting skills between Chinese and Japanese warriors.
7. Enter The Dragon (1973)
The movie: The first martial arts film to be produced by a Hollywood studio (here, Warner Bros), this was Lee’s last ever film. He plays a martial artist who spies on a reclusive crime lord. Ever the perfectionist, Lee rewrote much of Dragon’s script himself and directed the opening Shaolin Monastery fight.
Coolest fight: Lee breaks into the underground base of Han’s operations, accidentally setting off the alarm. Which, sadly, means he has to kick a lot of booty. Spectacular.
Iconic moment: When Lee is in Han’s underground lair, look out for an early appearance by Jackie Chan, who was a stuntman here before he got his big break. It's the passing of the torch...
6. Clan Of The White Lotus (1980)
The movie: Like many entries on this list, it's a quasi remake/sequel of an earlier film. In this case it's Executioners From Shaolin. The movie revolves around a long-standing feud between a monk (Gordon Liu) and an evil priest named White Lotus (Lo Lieh), who boasts the impressive ability to achieve total weightlessness during fights.
Coolest fight: Wen Ting takes on a clan of yellow-robed mercenaries and beats them all into mulch.
Iconic moment: The bath confrontation between Wen Ting and White Lotus is hard to forget, in its own special way, but really this is another killer performance from Gordon Liu. Two decades later he'd riff on this character in Kill Bill as The Bride's mentor Pai Mei.
5. Five Deadly Venoms (1978)
The movie: Directed by Chang Cheh, this much-celebrated cult classic follows the dying wish of a kung fu teacher who asks that his final student track down five of his most notorious pupils. The quartet of kung fu fighters in question each spar using unique animal styles The Centipede, The Snake, The Scorpion, The Lizard and The Toad.
Coolest fight: The Toad fights his way out of prison. And we're not talking through an extensive parole process. He literally beats down anyone who stands in his way.
Iconic moment: The Scorpion’s gravity-defying training sequence takes the biscuit. It's another moment that's proved to be rather influential on the martial arts genre.
4. Fist Of Fury (1972)
The movie: Bruce Lee’s second major martial arts picture after The Big Boss, Fist Of Fury confirms him as one of the defining kung fu stars, especially as he choreographed his own fight scenes. Here, he’s Chen Zhen, who fights to avenge his master’s death while defending the honour of the Chinese.
Coolest fight: A crescendo of music, and then deadly silence. Then: “Get out!” and lots of fighting. They’re not called fists of fury for nothing.
Iconic moment: Lee, being the humble chap that he is, takes on an entire Japanese martial arts school. This is why baddies only ever attack one at at a time - it just looks way cooler.
3. Drunken Master (1978)
The movie: Now it's nothing new, but back in the late seventies no-one was mixing comedy and martial arts. This was one of the first successful genre blends of that type, and became Jackie Chan’s calling card. He stars as Wong Fei-hung, who trains in the ancient form of Drunk Boxing.
Coolest fight: While drinking and fighting typically results in a night in the slammer, for Chan's fighter it's an intoxicating combination. It's amazing that his moves connect.
Iconic moment: The training sequences in which Chan is quite clearly suffering a lot. The birth of the "Ah, I'm so tired but I know I must go on to be the master" training montage.
2. Snake In The Eagles Shadow (1978)
The movie: Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow was released just before The Drunken Master, and was Jackie Chan's breakthrough role, as well as the directorial debut of martial arts auteur Yuen Woo-ping. Chan stars as an orphan adopted into a kung fu school, where he’s ill-treated by the teachers and over-worked as a janitor. Yeah, he's gonna turn out just fine.
Coolest fight: Pai Chang-tien and Sheng Kuan confront each other in a dusty desert setting, using their wildly different sparring skills in a fight to the finish. Can the eagle triumph over the snake?
Iconic moment: Those frankly groove-tastic opening credits, in which a solid-muscle Jackie Chan practises kung fu moves against a hot red backdrop. Ow!
1. The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin (1978)
The movie: Massive influentially and seriously polished, the film is loosely based on the story of Shaolin martial arts student San Te, who’s pulled into a rebellion against the Manchu government. Gordon Liu, whose name is all over this here list, stars as the bald-headed warrior and gives one of his most dynamic performances.
Coolest fight: The fiery, bladed confrontation which - as YouTube users have kindly acknowledged in their titling of videos - could just be the best fight scene EVER. It totally is.
Iconic moment: “Master, teach me kung fu,” beseeches San Te, only to get an invisible whipping from the bearded old bloke. That’ll learn him. In a funny twist, Liu would go on to play mentors to tons of other desperate students throughout his career.