Bruce Lee’s legendary status in the world of martial arts and cinema are well deserved.”

The first recognised martial arts film was made in 1949, and since then the genre has been developed and adapted to keep providing audiences with entertaining action. The most impressive part of any good martial arts film is the meticulous detail of the fight choreography, making action scenes flow like a dance routine.

Ever since the peak of martial arts films in the days of Bruce Lee, Asian influences have begun to pervade Western culture. Western MMA is built on the foundation of various Asian combat styles, and the strategy and honour of martial arts have also seeped into the mentality of various other mediums. So, without further ado let’s take a look at some of the defining films in martial arts history

1. Rush Hour

Placing Rush Hour as one of the five greatest martial arts films of all time might be a controversial decision, and I’ll admit that nostalgia is a large influence. Rush Hour was released in 1998, back when I was just a kid who didn’t even know what martial arts films were. It gave me a taste for Asian action films that keeps me interested to this day. Also, Jackie Chan’s influence in popularising the genre cannot be understated. It might have been Bruce Lee that first gained the attention of Western audiences, but Jackie Chan helped to progress the medium by showing that action could be blended with humour to create memorable fight choreography.

2. Enter the Dragon

Speaking of Bruce Lee, this list wouldn’t be completed without one of his entries into the martial arts film canon. Enter the Dragon, released in 1973, was Bruce Lee’s last film before his untimely death in the same year. With a compelling story, great action sequences and a fight against Chuck Norris of all people, Enter the Dragon is a must see for martial art film fanatics. As I already touched upon, the success of the entire genre in the West is all due to Bruce Lee’s breakthrough in the Hollywood film industry. His inclusion in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a film made to encapsulate the memory of 1970’s Hollywood, is a testament to this. Although apparently Bruce Lee’s daughter isn’t too happy about his portrayal.

3. Ip Man

Jackie Chan has said that he owes much of his success to Bruce Lee, not only in a wider sense, but also because he personally picked Chan to be in further shoots during the filming of Enter the Dragon. If Chan owed his fame to Lee, then Lee almost certainly owed his success to the legendary Ip Man. Ip Man was Lee’s tutor in the Wing Chun style, and the trilogy of Ip Man films form a loose biography of the martial arts master’s life. All three films feature amazing performances by Donnie Yen, both in action scenes and in the more emotional moments. However, the first movie stands out most due to a compelling story of hitting rock bottom and rising back up to the challenge.

“Bruce Lee training with Ip Man, his mentor in the Wing Chun style.”
Photo by שילוני / CC BY-SA 4.0

4. Ong Bak

After Rush Hour gave me the taste for the martial arts genre, Ong Bak was my first foray into the world of real action. Tony Jaa stars in the film, and shows off his knowledge of the Muay Thai style of fighting, known characteristically for its use of elbows and knees. The set pieces in the film are nothing short of amazing, with scenes like the market chase scene still imprinted on my memory after all these years. The fight scenes are brutally realistic, with the cinematography making the audience feel every elbow and knee that Jaa connects with.

5. The Raid 2

Everything I loved about Ong Bak, the Raid films came and did even better. Iko Uwais represents the Silat martial arts  style originating from the Philippines and does a great job starring in some of the best fight scenes of all time. Welsh director Gareth Evans has amazing vision when it comes to capturing the essence of combat in his fight choreography. It’s hard to pick between the two instalments in the series, but the more developed storyline and character development in the second film sets it apart for me. This series has some of the most visceral combat you’ll ever see in a martial arts film, with deaths that will leave you cringing in your seat.

If you liked this list, why not take a look at our take on the top five romance films to come out of Asia.