Martial arts movies reside in a pseudo-genre where actual martial art skill is not necessary. Yet, we wondered what a fighting expert might like in a martial arts film–so we asked one.
Many moviegoers and martial arts movie aficionados revere some fighting movies from the past as sacred treasures.
Martial arts movies like Enter the Dragon, Drunken Master, The Five Deadly Venoms, and Fearless are all considered some of the best that the fighting movie sub-genre of martial arts movies have to offer.
These popular titles are recommended over and over again among enthusiasts–volumes of a gospel handed down from the gods of head trauma.
Bucking the trend, I’m always on the lookout for movies that might have flown in just under the radar. Maybe it missed commercial success due to critical reception, lack of marketing, market saturation, or lack of star power.
I’ve collected some of my favorite underrated films below.
I avoided martial arts movies led by “mainstream” actors. You won’t find a single Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jason Statham, Jean Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, or Chuck Norris film on this list.
Several fighting movies from the aforementioned stars already sit in the sub-genre’s hall of fame, whether deserved or not. I wanted to level the playing field.
Some of these martial arts movies showcase a very prominent style, and in those films, I’ve included a separate section (Reality Check) to analyze it for accuracy and realism.
Not all of these martial art films will have their styles analyzed. In general, a martial arts movie on wires or where combatants kick one another through walls should not be believed.
8 Most Underrated Martial Arts Movies of All Time
Fighter in the Wind
The tale of Choi Bae-dal (Mas Oyama), famed founder of Kyokushin Karate, a style known for its full-contact nature and 100-man kumite, which is basically where one guy fights a hundred dudes one at a time. Otherwise, he lies broken and crying on the floor of the dojo in shame.
Fighter in the Wind is overall, a fantastic martial arts film with heart, spirit, and brutal action. If you’re watching this for the first time, then beware that it isn’t going to score super high in the “fun” category.
This martial arts movie isn’t about fun in the first place. It’s about racism, love, conquering fear, self-improvement, and restoring lost honor. All the hallmarks of a great film, especially a martial arts film.
The story (while about 99% fantastical in its portrayal of the life of Mas Oyama) will get you amped to start throwing flying spin kicks and breaking rocks with your bare hands.
Choi Bae-dal begins the story as a nobody at the end of World War II. The Japanese have occupied Korea, and Bae-dal is desperate to fly planes. He stows away aboard a supply vessel in order to reach Japan for piloting school.
He suffers humiliation at the hands of the Japanese and eventually makes his own way as a bodyguard to con-artist (and best friend, sadly) Chun-bae. The two of them find it difficult on the streets as the Yakuza are out in force.
Bae-dal suffers defeat after defeat, until at last old friend and master Bum-soo gifts him a manual entitled The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. Bae-dal begins trying to emulate his new idol, training fiercely to regain his humility, his honor, and in the process, his humanity.
I don’t recommend you try anything you see in the badass mountain montage scene, unless you’re ready to cry or die. Conditioning of that magnitude generally takes years, and isn’t realistically something anyone should just do.
After all, we don’t have to fight for our lives on the regular in the modern world, and we have jobs that require the use of our hands, so why screw them up with arthritis and horrendous amounts of scar tissue if you don’t have to?
You can work out to it, but don’t mistake it for a Richard Simmons workout.
Though I’m not an expert on Kyokushin, the basic technique is true to form. The hand combinations, footwork, and basic kicking and knees are consistent.
I don’t really have solid evidence to support some of the more acrobatic movements, but there are a lot of jumping kicks, sacrifice kicks, where the user gives up their ability to stand for the sake of generating power, and improvisation.
Kyokushin is a full-contact martial art, so conditioning is a must. They hit each other in a controlled manner and use medicine balls to condition their abdomen and legs. Not sure about the smashing yourself with logs part.
Watch Fighter in the Wind now on Amazon
Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior
This movie definitely represents the best that Tony Jaa has to offer.
I tried very hard not to include a lot of “mainstream” martial artists on this list. But I figure there’s still a lot of people who don’t know about the Thai boy who grew up watching his legends doing wire-suspended kicks and spins in iconic martial arts movies and thought to himself, I could do that.
He didn’t know about the wires, he just assumed if you got good enough at kicking you were granted superpowers. Turns out: totally true.
Ong-Bak is the story of Ting from a small, easily exploitable village.
One day, the head of their stone deity, Ong-Bak, is stolen from the temple by some men looking to exploit an easily exploitable village.
This causes the village to suffer. So, Ting sets out to recover Ong-Bak’s head from the underworld goons who stole it.
Not the most original plot, but this is not a movie you watch for the story. Not by a longshot.
Why It’s Good
Ong-Bak is a practical spectacular. Jaa does all of his own stunts from sliding under moving cars to doing curled jumps through rings of barbed wire, and tap-dancing across a horde of goon shoulders.
With his eight hours of gymnastics and martial arts training a day, he’s possibly the most athletic martial artist of this generation, giving Scott Adkins a run for his money. He has style, he has speed, he has form, and he brings real-life cringing when he hits people.
I swear the first time he landed a flying elbow on this one dude’s head, I got a migraine. It was that epic. If you’re looking for a martial arts movie with low-IQ and high action, Ong-Bak is well worth your time.
Jaa’s style in the film, Muay Boran, is an older form of Muay Thai that was used for the sole purpose of combat.
It is one of the best martial arts out there from a practical standpoint, and in this movie we see a more stylized version of it.
Many of the techniques Jaa utilizes are, in fact, techniques derived from the aforementioned martial art, such as the leaning knee drop known as pushing the elephant.
The climbing elbows (which result in one of the best knockouts in the movie), the double uppercut punches, Hanuman presents the ring, and all of his blocks using forearms and elbows look consistent with the style.
Not sure how the acrobatic flying kicks and stylized stuff, like the ridiculous scorpion kick that Jaa uses, are part of the style. My guess is that some of it comes from Jaa’s black belt in Taekwondo.
I don’t ever have a problem with mixing styles on-screen as long as the movie doesn’t try to tout it as something it’s not. All things considered, Ong-Bak is a very good representation of Muay Boran.
Watch Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior now on Amazon
City of Violence
If you haven’t seen City of Violence, don’t worry, hardly anyone did.
As I recall, working at Blockbuster in the early 2000s it was a Dragon Dynasty Blockbuster Exclusive, which meant that, at least for a little while, the only place you could get it was Blockbuster.
We only had about five copies.
I guarantee that at any given time all five copies were rented out by employees. I can also guarantee that at least one of those employees kept his copy when the store eventually hit rock bottom. They couldn’t catch him even if they tried.
At any rate, City of Violence is one of the finest pieces of fighting cinema I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing.
It tells the story of a group of friends that find themselves at odds with one another in their adult lives. One of them is murdered in a fight with some punks, and so the other three reunite for the funeral.
One is a police officer, one is a mob boss, and one is a debt collector/math teacher.
The police officer, Tae-su, starts investigating the case, and the math teacher eventually joins in on the fun for his own reasons. The climactic showdown at the end is messy, brutal, and emotional for a number of reasons.
Why It’s Good
This is a good example of a truly character-driven martial arts movie. The characters move the plot, not the other way around, and the action sequences, while fantastic, are not the main focus.
I enjoy the creativity that this down-to-earth fighting style brings to the movie’s action. While it’s impossible for two dudes to fight off four street gangs simultaneously, the manner in which that scene plays out helps you to suspend disbelief and have a bit of fun while doing it.
The gang fight scene is probably my favorite of the movie, so I won’t spoil too much about it. Just know that when all seems lost, and the two best friends give each other a look that says, “Yeah, sure, no problem,” you know it’s all over for the street punks and their stupid roller skates.
Watch City of Violence now on Amazon
The Last Dragon
Who’s the greatest?! Sho’nuff! Who is the master?! Sho’nuff!
If you don’t get that reference, you haven’t seen The Last Dragon, a hyper-80s martial arts movie starring a young Taimak Guarriello as the protagonist, “Bruce” Leroy Green.
From the moment the opening flashes across the screen only to be summarily smashed to pieces by a mighty side kick, you know you’re in for a treat.
This movie has everything: action, comedy, romance, thuggish goons, indescribable water monsters, ancient Chinese wisdom, man sweat, and a soundtrack ripped straight from a David Hasselhoff fever dream.
If you’re looking for a movie that will get your partner in the mood while simultaneously scratching your nostalgia itch for glam hair and nonsensical music videos, then look no further.
Ja’net DuBois once said, “I like my coffee like I like my men: hot, black, and strong!”
Taimak Guarriello is that quintessential coffee man, and has the face of an angel with a personality to match.
After his former master tells Leroy he has nothing left to teach him, Leroy puts on his swanky Kung-Fu uniform and rice hat to seek out “Master Sum Dum Goy.” He hopes to learn the secrets of “The Glow,” a physical perfection said to only belong to masters.
A plethora of obstacles fall into Leroy’s path when he manages to piss off Sho’nuff, the Shogun of Harlem, and Eddie Arkadian, a sleezy producer/agent whose ambition is having his squealing cutie featured on 7th Heaven, an insanely popular music video countdown show.
There’s also a hot songstress named Laura, a bunch of innuendo at Leroy’s expense, and plenty of stereotypes to keep you entertained the whole way through Leroy’s journey to find the ultimate wisdom and harness the power of “The Glow.”
Why It’s Good
There’s a whole lot of movie here, with something like four plots and subplots going on at once.
Eventually these plots intertwine into a truly fun and original film that will leave you with a warm fuzzy feeling.
While there is plenty of action, The Last Dragon manages to weave just the right amount of action and down time together, which is a rare feat by today’s non-stop adrenaline culture standards.
And while the acting won’t win any awards, and the choreography doesn’t look as frantic as some of the other more adrenaline-fueled martial art movies on this list, I dare you to watch this without laughing or cracking a smile just once.
There’s honestly something for everyone in this, and I have no idea why it isn’t brought up on more lists like these. Perhaps they are intimidated by its raw sensual nature, or it’s gratuitous use of 80s slang? Or maybe they just really hate Chinese hip-hop.
Watch The Last Dragon now on Amazon
Brotherhood of the Wolf
This action film might be the strangest one on the list because on the surface, it doesn’t appear to be any kind of martial arts movie. But looks can be deceiving.
Brotherhood of the Wolf is a French film that spans several genres. As you journey through each scene, it almost seems like it shouldn’t work at all with its varied visual styles, tones, and set pieces, which range from wild hills and brooding forests to pompous chateaus and pageantry.
The whole film is steeped in mystery, horror, and intrigue.
But the real star of the show is the Native American “brother” of Grégoire de Fronsac, Mani, played by the legendary Mark Dacascos of such fame as Agents of Shield, Cradle to the Grave, and Hawaii Five-0.
The year is 1764, and a beast has appeared in the French province of Gévaudan. Chevalier Grégoire de Fronsac, the King’s naturalist, is sent to investigate the nature of the beast and put an end to its reign of terror once and for all.
Fronsac meets with a slew of other characters including the lovely Marianne de Morangias, her somewhat Slytherin brother, Jean-François, and Marquis Thomas d’Apcher.
Don’t worry if you can’t pronounce the names, I just copied and pasted them from the IMDB page. We’ll say… Greg, Mary, John, and Tom? Good enough.
At any rate, the investigation continues to go belly up at every turn until Greg makes a discovery about the beast that changes everything but leaves more questions than answers.
To say more would spoil the movie, and this is not an experience you can have more than once unless you’re a goldfish that forgets the plots of movies ten seconds in.
Seriously, get some help for that. Use flash cards or something.
Why It’s Good
Mark Dacascos is a renowned martial artist with several styles under his belt including Kenpo, Judo, and Capoeira, which really shows as all of his movements are clean, crisp, and satisfying to watch.
Seriously, show me a better wheeling kick or side thrust kick. I’ll wait. Okay, I actually waited like an hour, but then I realized I haven’t published the article yet, so I can’t actually wait for you to deliver.
There are two martial arts scenes within the first thirty minutes of the movie, and a really intense one at the hour and a half mark. In a martial arts movie that’s two hours and nineteen minutes long, you won’t be sighing between bouts of action out of boredom.
The strange atmosphere, intriguing narrative, and ample use of sexuality will keep you swept up in the current the movie generates. Just let it take you away into the land of alternate history and absorb. That’s what you’re meant to do.
Oh, and if you think Greg is just there for show, he’ll prove you very wrong a bit later in the movie.
Greg is definitely the Batman to Mani’s Robin, and it will surprise you when you finally see that side of him. Prepare thy sphincter.
Watch Brotherhood of the Wolf now on Amazon
Dragon Tiger Gate
If you’re a fan of anime then Dragon Tiger Gate will have you feeling right at home in this high-style, manga-inspired fighting fiesta that follows the exploits of three protagonists from the school of martial arts known as Dragon Tiger Gate.
Now, I know I said I was going to avoid big names when it came to this list, but let’s face it, even if you know Donnie Yen, this is not the first martial arts movie of his that springs to mind.
Besides, the focus of the plot is placed more on Nicholas Tse and Shawn Yue (Tiger and Turbo, respectively) for the first couple of acts… or at least what I would consider acts… the plot structure for this movie is pretty weird.
Many years ago, Dragon Tiger Gate was established by two great kung fu masters.
Dragon and Tiger Wong are separated from one another when they are young for reasons the movie doesn’t really explain.
Dragon is taken in by a member of the Luocha gang, one that specializes in drug trafficking, and raised by Ma Kun–one of its dons.
Tiger remained at the gate where he trained under Master Wong. The narrative cycles between the two brothers and shows how different their lives have become as a result of their upbringing.
Then there’s Shibumi, the leader of the Luocha Gang which is actually some kind of cult dedicated to crushing all who stand in the way of their domination over kung fu and drugs.
This is only what I surmise. Shibumi doesn’t really make an appearance until part way through the movie, and his motives aren’t really explained.
Nor the reason he lives in some weird alternate dimension where the only building materials are gingerbread and chocolate because in the climactic final battle, it gets absolutely trashed. There are quite a few plot… absences.
I wouldn’t really call them holes, they’re just places where maybe the movie forgot to explain itself when there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation why a drug cartel is also a cult led by a man in an iron mask with a cape he can use as a drill.
Why It’s Good
While the action in this film is highly stylized and employs unrealistic physics, that’s what anime is all about and it’s not only highly believable within the universe it’s set in, it’s also incredibly entertaining to watch.
Each character has their own signature style. Tiger uses kick-only footwork based on Taekwondo, Dragon uses a hands and elbows style based on Wing Chun, and Turbo uses expert nunchaku skills.
You’ll be hard pressed not to get out of your seat to try the moves once, twice, or even a dozen times during the feature–at least if you’re like me.
I can’t really sit and watch martial arts films. I want to move and sometimes even have involuntary muscle spasms from trying to do the moves in my head.
The tale that’s woven leaves a lot of grey area to play with in the morality spectrum, there are real moments of character growth for all of the protagonists sprinkled throughout, and watching Donnie Yen trying to be an edgy emo teenager with that wig is just… priceless.
Also, useless trivia, the big punching bag (you’ll know it when you see it) is certified as the largest in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Watch Dragon Tiger Gate now on Amazon
The Man With the Iron Fists
Imagine, if you will, what would happen if a rapper (RZA) who is a big fan of old-school Kung Fu flicks pulled in a bunch of big name actors and made a martial arts movie starring himself that was also directed by himself.
Now, imagine if that movie didn’t suck, and was very reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill franchise in terms of mood, style, and camp.
That’s what this movie is. It’s a high-action, high-style, modern take on 80s-style Kung Fu theatre, and it is amazing.
The governor’s gold is going to make its way by caravan through Jungle Village, a small, seedy town in an undisclosed location in 19th century China where clans take on the names of wild animals like wolf, lion, tiger, and rat.
Though the lions are sworn to protect the gold, the greedy Silver Lion (Byron Mann) takes control of the clan and plans on stealing it instead.
A lone blacksmith (RZA), works tirelessly to get money to get himself and his girl, Lady Silk, out of the town so they can be happy together.
Through a series of events involving an undercover Englishman with a serious knife fetish (Russell Crowe), the madame of the brothel, The Pink Blossom (Lucy Liu), and a bronze-skinned badass mercenary (Dave Bautista), the blacksmith finds himself flying out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Jungle Village becomes a battleground for everyone trying to claim the gold and maybe some revenge.
Why It’s Good
I don’t put much stock in aggregate scores like Rotten Tomatoes anymore.
Though a lot of the criticism is fair, I think the standard is set way to high for someone’s directorial debut.
This martial arts movie has camp. A lot of it. And the set design is ridiculously varied and evokes a feeling of nostalgia.
If you’re a fan of gore, then Eli Roth (who helped with screenwriting, as well as producing the film) doesn’t disappoint with some of the most bloody martial arts fighting on this list, seconded only by 13 Assassins.
The weapon designs of the blacksmith are creative, and serve to add a lot of character to each clan he hands them to–most notably the lion claw staves, and the suit of knives he crafts for Zen Yi (Rick Yune).
Russell Crowe really steals the show as the Englishman. His spinning knife/gun/flicksaw hybrid is a strange, but delightful weapon with tons of tricks, and his gray-line walking ways are humorous to watch.
There are a few twists and turns that you won’t expect, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Daniel Wu appear on screen, however brief. If I could put the whole Into the Badlands show on this list, I would. It’s ridiculously good, and it seems like nobody’s watching it.
As for The Man with the Iron Fists, despite its shortcomings with some bad acting and weak story moments, you won’t be disappointed if you’re craving a Kung Fu movie with a rap/hip-hop-inspired soundtrack.
Watch The Man With the Iron Fists now on Amazon
13 Assassins is a samurai action “heist” film where the object of the heist is the life of a shogun’s demented brother who delights in mutilation and death.
It is possibly the most reserved film on this list, and owes much of its spectacle to its final climactic battle that literally washes an entire town in blood.
Think The Magnificent Seven (or Seven Samurai), but in Feudal Japan 23 years before the beginning of the Meiji era, and there’s 13 of them.
It’s 1844, the end of the medieval Edo era of Japan.
The leader of the Akashi clan, Matsudaira Naritsugu, has raped, murdered, and been an all around douche to a lot of noble families because he has the protection of the Shogun behind him.
With little choice, the Shogun’s justice administrator, Doi Toshitsura, hires Shimada Shinzaemon, a samurai of skill and repute, to form a team of assassins to take down Naritsugu before he is allowed to return to Edo (the capital) and assume a position at the side of the Shogun.
Together with a crew of eleven other samurai and one… well… not samurai… they plan an attack and fortify the town of Ochiai to make their stand against a superior number of forces.
Why It’s Good
This movie has a long set-up with a glorious pay-off.
If you can make it through the first forty five minutes of this movie where it’s mostly about planning the attack, you’re golden, because the final battle and all the small twists, turns, and drops it brings to the table are extremely worth it.
This is a martial arts movie that is awash in symbolism.
I won’t go over all of it here, but let’s just say that the most prominent characters all represent something about the era they’re fighting in, and there may be some hokey supernatural shit going on behind the scenes (which in itself is another piece of the metaphor).
If you’re not into all that stuff, then watch for the sword fights and stay for the blood-bath, because it’s coming!
Okay, so, the romanticized version of fighting samurai is often depicted as two warriors hitting their swords against one another until someone makes a mistake, but this is not the reality, and 13 Assassins does an okay job of showing this.
Sometimes the blades lock together, but I see that actually happen sometimes. It’s the equivalent of a boxer hugging the other boxer to keep himself from getting hit.
The samurai in this film tend to use the swords to block and counter reasonably in line with the styles of Kenjutsu (Japanese sword fighting).
Blocking with a sword edge in a way that slams the two swords together (especially with a katana, sorry fanboys) can cause irreparable damage to the blade.
If a hairline fracture forms because of this, the blade can even be broken, which is something we see happen more than once during the course of the chaotic final battle.
Some fantastical or over-dramaticized movements and moments aside, I think 13 Assassins is a mostly realistic interpretation of how a sword might have been used in a real world martial situation.
Watch 13 Assassins now on Amazon
There were several other martial arts movies that might have made this list if not for the fact that I am a human with a need for sleep, but that doesn’t mean they can’t show up in the future.
Have you guys seen any of these martial arts movies? Do you agree or disagree with my assessments? What are some others martial arts films that you’re furious didn’t make the list this time?
I urge you to take to the comments and get a conversation going about these and other martial arts movies.
My dad and I have watched about half of these. We both loved Ong Bak. Tony Jaa is otherworldly with his abilities. My parents both loved The Last Dragon. Wasn’t quite up my alley, but mostly because it seemed so campy. That probably had a lot to do with the time it was made. But yes, good choreography. After a few watches, we liked The Man with the Iron Fists. My dad also really enjoyed 13 Assassins, and as mentioned in the article, The Magnificent Seven is the analog my dad drew as well. Based on this list, I imagine we will also be checking out Fighter in the Wind and City of Violence. We already have Brotherhood of the Wolf among the movies we still have to watch. My dad also really loved Kung Fu Hustle for all its silliness. He often jokingly refers to it as the greatest Kung Fu movie ever made. Thank you for this list, very interesting.