There are few things better in life than a good martial arts movie. The genre is a celebration of bodies in motion, with terrific choreography, charismatic stars, and jaw-dropping stunts and action sequences ... and they often come with relatively short run times, to boot.
Below, we’ve got a list of some of our favorite martial arts movies, all available to watch at home. We’ve got old Hong Kong classics, Jackie Chan action comedies, martial arts sports dramas, and even some Turtle Power for you. We couldn’t include everything we wanted, due to lack of availability and the lack of time on this world to list every great martial arts movie, but enjoy these picks!
The Way of the Dragon
Every martial arts movie aficionado has their favorite Bruce Lee movie. For many, it’s the legendary 1973 spy thriller Enter the Dragon. For me, it’s 1972’s The Way of the Dragon (also sometimes known as Return of the Dragon in the US, where it was released after Enter the Dragon). His third movie as an action lead and the last one released during his lifetime, The Way of the Dragon is the first movie Lee directed and wrote as well as acted in.
Set in Rome, The Way of the Dragon centers around a Chinese restaurant under attack from an organized crime group. The restaurant gets help sent from Hong Kong in Tang Lung (Lee), a brash and confident martial artist who is able to fight off the gangsters and teach the staff how to fight. An action comedy with crime thriller notes and a riveting fight in the freaking Coliseum between Lee and Chuck Norris (in his first screen role), The Way of the Dragon is arguably Lee’s most personal film. —Pete Volk
The Way of the Dragon is available to stream for free with ads on Pluto TV.
Five Deadly Venoms
This Hong Kong classic stars the actor/choreographer/martial artist/acrobat group Venom Mob, who rose to prominence (and got their colloquial poison-themed moniker) with this 1978 cult hit. The film follows Yang Tieh (Chiang Sheng), the last student of the Poison Clan, who is sent by his master to investigate five of his former pupils, who he suspects of treachery. The five pupils each have names and fighting styles modeled after one of the Five Poisons: Centipede, Snake, Scorpion, Lizard, and Toad (my personal favorite, he has “iron skin” that defends him from almost any form of harm). An outrageously fun film referenced extensively by both the Wu-Tang Clan and Kill Bill, Five Deadly Venoms is a timeless classic. —PV
Wheels on Meals
Few creative teams have ever managed the consistent level of excellence that Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao did with their Hong Kong martial arts action comedies in the 1980s, and Wheels on Meals is one of the best of an outrageously good group of movies (and my personal favorite). Set and shot in Barcelona, the movie centers on Thomas (Chan) and David (Yuen), a pair of cousins who run a food truck (with skateboarding tricks to boot) and find themselves enamored with a local woman (Lola Forner). When they run into a somewhat incompetent private investigator (Sammo Hung) who is also looking for the woman, the group bands together to save her when she is suddenly kidnapped.
Wheels on Meals features some of the very best fight scenes of Chan’s prolific filmography, as he squares off against legendary kickboxer Benny Urquidez (the two would later fight again in Dragons Forever), who at the time was among the most prominent and successful fighters in the world. The whole movie is worth your time, but if you want to just find their six-minute marathon fight session on YouTube, there are few things better in this world.
If you like this, you should also check out Project A, which came out a year before and features one of the most daring and jaw-dropping stunts of Chan’s prolific career. —PV
An Indiana Jones-styled adventure by way of the Hong Kong martial arts movie boom of the 1980s, this is one of Michelle Yeoh’s early roles as an action star. Yeoh plays an ace pilot who works with a con man (Richard Ng) to thwart the Japanese occupation of China during the 1930s. Featuring some incredible sequences of Yeoh fighting with a rope dart as well as her typical captivating screen presence, if this sounds good to you, also consider checking out the even better Yes, Madam, which is currently only available to rent. —PV
Magnificent Warriors is available to stream for free with ads on Crackle.
We’re going with a slightly under-the-radar Van Damme entry for this list. Yes, Bloodsport rules, but if you’re here, you probably already know about that. In Lionheart, Van Damme plays Lyon, a French Foreign Legionnaire who abandons his post to see his dying brother in the hospital. When he’s pulled into an underground street fighting ring, Lyon impresses the organizers with his fighting skills. Directed by Bloodsport writer Sheldon Lettich and co-written by Van Damme, Lionheart is one of the better entries in the prolific Belgian star’s filmography. —PV
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Cab Passenger: [after Raphael jumps over the cab hood] What the heck was that?
Cab Driver: Looked like sort of a big turtle in a trench coat.
Cab Driver: You’re going to LaGuardia, right?
Delightfully silly and overwhelmingly ’90s (for better and worse), the original TMNT is a fun time for all ages. The movie follows intrepid TV reporter April O’Neill (Judith Hoag) as she works with the turtles to stop a crime ring taking over New York City. The suits — designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, one of the Muppet master’s last projects — look incredible, and bring a real tangibility to this appropriately comic book-like adaptation. The use of real suits also allowed for talent specialization (different performers were used for puppetry, voice acting, martial arts scenes, and skateboarding stunts), allowing the production to swap in different people under the suit without breaking audience immersion. Produced by legendary Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest and distributed by New Line Cinema, TMNT was a surprise box office smash hit, holding the record for highest-grossing independent film until Blair With Project. It’s also got a very young Sam Rockwell in a minor role! —PV
It is an absolute travesty that Mark Dacascos, who some may know from John Wick 3, did not become one of the major movie stars of the ’90s and beyond. Handsome, a captivating screen presence, and an unbelievably skilled martial artist, Dacascos shines in this direct-to-video action movie as Toby Wong, a bionic super-man who teams up with a charming but hapless songwriter (Kadeem Hardison) and a motelier (Brittany Murphy) to escape a group of assassins. A very fun, very 90s time with excellent action sequences, Drive and its star deserve wider recognition. —PV
Multiverse movies are all the rage now, so why not catch up with a classic? Jet Li plays a sinister cross-universe assassin whose lone goal is to kill every other version of himself in across the multi-verse, leaving him as “The One.” With each version of himself he kills, he gets stronger, gaining superhuman strength, speed and intelligence. Jet Li also stars as Gabriel Yulaw, the last remaining alter ego for his evil self to kill, and Delroy Lindo (!) and Jason Statham (with an American accent!!!) co-star as multi-verse cops sent to track him down. Come for Jet Li kicking humans out of the air like soccer balls, stay for the wild early-2000s Nu Metal soundtrack. —PV
The action team behind Tony Jaa’s star-making vehicles Ong-Bak and The Protector (director Prachya Pinkaew and choreographer Panna Rittikrai) returned with this 2008 movie about Zen, a young girl (martial artist Jeeja Yanin, in her debut screen role) with autism who becomes infatuated with martial arts after moving next to a martial arts school and catching martial arts movies on TV. Armed with these new skills, she uses them to collect money owed to her sick mother, who needs to pay for medical bills, and take down a local criminal ring.
With great action sequences and a supporting cast featuring real-life champion fighters, Chocolate is occasionally clumsy in its feel-good narrative but is nevertheless a very fun martial arts ride. The movie is filled with references for martial arts aficionados, as Zen imitates specific moves from the films of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jaa in her fighting. The movie originally intended the clips that Zen watches to include those from Lee and Chan’s filmographies, but because of rights issues, Chocolate was restricted to clips from Prachya’s previous movies with Jaa. —PV
The Ip Man series
The now-completed Ip Man series has five entries in it, and they are all very much worth your time. A fictionalized version of the real life of famed Wing Chun master Ip Man (who famously taught Bruce Lee, among many others), the series stars Donnie Yen in one of the richest roles of his storied career, as the thoughtful, pensive teacher using all the tools at his disposal (including his unmatched martial arts prowess) to look out for his students and community. The four “main” entries are directed by frequent Yen collaborator Wilson Yip, with fights choreographed by Hong Kong legends Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo-Ping, or Yen himself, depending on which entry you’re watching — no matter which one you pick, you’re going to get excellent martial arts and a moving narrative.
One note: the spin-off (Master Z: Ip Man Legacy) does not feature Yen or the Ip Man character, focusing instead on Max Zhang’s character from Ip Man 3, but is still very much worth your time (and features Dave Bautista, Tony Jaa, and Michelle Yeoh!). —PV
Ip Man, Ip Man 2, Ip Man 3, and Ip Man 4 are available to stream on Netflix. Master Z: Ip Man Legacy is available to stream on Hi-Yah!, for free with ads on Tubi, and available to stream on Hoopla with a library card.
Blood and Bone
Michael Jai White is a treasure around these parts (see the first entry here), and of the many excellent DTV action movies he has starred in, Blood and Bone may be the best. White is Isaiah Bone, an ex-marine martial artist recently out of prison, who meets an eccentric local fight promoter named Pinball (Dante Basco) and starts entering underground fights. When he falls deeper into the world of underground fighting, he learns just how far the powerful people who run the circuit will go to maintain their illegal business. With jaw-dropping fights featuring former professional fighters Bob Sapp, Kimbo Slice, and Matt Mullins, Blood and Bone is an appropriately stellar vehicle for White as a movie star and as a screen fighter. —PV
Blood and Bone is available to stream on Netflix.
Quality sports dramas are a rare thing in Hollywood. In Warrior, two estranged brothers — one a former Marine and one-time wrestling prodigy (Tom Hardy), the other a former MMA pro-turned-high school physics teacher (Joel Edgerton) — compete in a massive MMA tournament, with more at stake than just the big cash prize. Gavin O’Connor’s heartfelt siblings-destined-to-collide story features terrific central performances, terrific MMA fight scenes (second unit director J.J. Perry is a modern action legend), and a strong tournament narrative structure that holds the whole thing together. —PV
Man of Tai Chi
Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut is a kick-ass underdog story about a young Tai Chi martial artist (Tiger Chen, playing a character named Tiger Chen) who enters an underground fighting ring in need of money. Much of the tension in the movie is about Tai Chi as a martial art: Tiger’s teacher strongly disapproves of using the meditation-based martial art for violent means, and Tiger’s opponents see it as inferior and weaker to their chosen styles. Man of Tai Chi features excellent fight scenes (include appearances by Iko Uwais and superstar stuntman Jeremy Marinas) and a thrilling heel turn by Reeves in the antagonist role as a tycoon who streams bloody fights to worldwide audiences. —PV
Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien’s (A City of Sadness) 2015 wuxia film is loosely based on a seventh-century martial arts story and is set during the Tang Dynasty period of that era. Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) is an assassin who kills corrupt members of the government under the orders of her master, the woman who raised her. When she spares one of her assigned targets, she is sent to kill her own cousin as a test/punishment. A gorgeous film that leaves space for tension, appreciation of lush landscapes, and even idle thought, you may find yourself wondering if the deadly Nie is lurking somewhere in the background of every beautiful frame. As Muhammad Ali famously said, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.” —PV
SPL II: A Time for Consequences
A hard-hitting martial arts film that doubles as a crime thriller with hints of medical drama, SPL II: A Time for Consequences is one of the high marks of recent Hong Kong action films. The unbelievably talented cast features action superstars Tony Jaa, Wu Jing, and Max Zhang, all delivering top-notch physical and emotional performances.
Kit (Wu) is a cop who has gone undercover to infiltrate a crime syndicate that is running a sinister kidnapping-for-organ-harvesting scheme. When Kit’s cover is blown, he is sent to a prison in Thailand, whose warden (Zhang) is in league with the syndicate. The prison portion of the movie includes multiple jaw-dropping fights Kit, the warden, and prison guard Chatchai (Jaa).
Barely a sequel to the 2005 film SPL: Sha Po Lang, you can safely watch SPL II without seeing the first one. —PV
The Debt Collector
A down-on-his-luck martial arts teacher (Scott Adkins) turns to debt collecting for the mob to pay his bills. He’s partnered with a wisecracking veteran debt collector (Louis Mandylor) who shows him the ropes. When the pair are sent on a job that makes them question whether they can keep doing this line of work, they’re faced with a difficult choice and a powerful crime boss (Tony Todd). A buddy action comedy by way of Jesse V. Johnson (Avengement, Hell Hath No Fury), The Debt Collector is another 90-minute delight from the prolific DTV director. —PV
The Night Comes For Us
The Night Comes for Us just fucking whips, okay? Why waste time on subtlety and preamble; the film certainly doesn’t! Indonesian action thrillers have been enjoying a renaissance period ever since Gareth Evans’ 2011 film The Raid kicked the door down and mollywhopped everything else in sight. Timo Tjahjanto’s 2018 film certainly follows in the footsteps of Evans’ own, with The Raid star Joe Taslim starring here as Ito, a gangland enforcer who betrays his Triad crime family by sparing the life of a child and attempting to flee the country. Fellow The Raid star Iko Uwais shows up here as Arian, Ito’s childhood friend and fellow enforcer, who is tasked with hunting down Ito and recovering the girl. The action comes fast and frenzied here, with kinetic choreography and dazzling handheld cinematography that makes every punch, fall, and stab count. Bear in mind: this film is leagues more gory and bloody than the rest you’ll find on this list, with generous blood squibs, dismemberments, and a particularly memorable moment involving a box cutter in the film’s finale. If you need to get your adrenaline pumping, throw this one on. —Toussaint Egan
The Night Comes for Us is available to stream on Netflix.