I don’t like top 10 lists because they’re impossible to complete. Not just impossible for me to complete, but literally impossible for anyone to complete. To do a top ten list of the best martial arts films of the decade would be extremely difficult unless you’ve seen EVERY SINGLE martial arts movie made during the last ten years. I doubt anyone has, and I certainly haven’t. So instead of a top ten list, I’ve compiled a list of 14 (because I’m a rebel) of my favourite martial arts films from the past decade and I’ve also tried to include as much variety as possible – countries, styles, genres etc. So here are 14 great martial arts films (or films with martial arts in them) that were released between 2000 and 2009 that I urge any martial arts fan to see because they’re really really good.
1. VOLCANO HIGH (2001)
VOLCANO HIGH (aka WASANGO) is probably the bane of many martial arts fans’ existence – there’s little real martial arts involved, there’s an absolute ton of stupid wire-work, and every frame is infused with so much CGI it feels like you’ve blacked out and woken up inside a computer in an online gaming centre in Korea (trust me).
Not bothered? Then you’ll tent your pants at this film, because it’s got to be the best example of this love-it-or-hate-it sub-genre of martial arts films, the likes of which include THE STORM RIDERS, ARAHAN and THE DUEL. VOLCANO HIGH is no exception to the rule and is so gosh-darn insane that the lack of any realism just adds to the fantasy world that’s created and it’s certainly all the better for it. It’s also chuffing funny as well.
Side Note 1: Do NOT watch the MTV dubbed version of this film, you know, the one where Snoop Dogg, André 3000 and loads of other rappers do the voices. Great idea that was. Stick to the music I think guys.
Side Note 2: If you’ve forgotten how original Hollywood is then check out Renny Harlin’s THE COVENANT and revel in the unrelenting poo-poo that is the final scene, wherein the fight sequence is copied almost completely verbatim from the end showdown in VOLCANO HIGH. How they got away with that one I’ll never know.
2. FATAL CONTACT (2006)
More wire-work here, but of the more subtle kind (if you can call FATAL CONTACT subtle), with Wu Jing entering an underground fighting competition. Aside from the highly original (*cough*) storyline, what matters about this film are the fantastic fight sequences. Wu Jing really knows his stuff – from the performance wushu at the beginning of the film to the expertly choreographed fight scenes throughout – and is rightly being hailed as the next Jet Li.
Watch this film not only for the engaging story, but also (mainly) for the aforementioned fights; as each one packs its own special brand of punch and is as thrilling as many of Jet Li’s early works. If there’s one gripe that many people seem to have, it’s that Wu Jing is almost invincible in every fight – but this didn’t bother me and in fact I quite enjoyed it, for who doesn’t love a one-man-army now and again?
3. KILTRO (2006)
I didn’t even know Chile had a movie industry, let alone the capacity to make such a fantastic martial arts movie. Enter Marko Zaror, stunt double to The Rock, hairdresser to the stars (ok, maybe not the last one). And as anything associated with Dwayne Johnson has to be good (hence my debilitating obsession with eyebrows), it’s no surprise that Zaror doesn’t disappoint. He’s like a Chilean Scott Adkins, only much, much bigger – a fact which makes his ability with acrobatics and tricks all the more unbelievable. This capacity for gravity defying moves is displayed to full effect in KILTRO, particularly in a chaotic sequence in which he squares off against about 50 bad guys, with blades attached to his heels – ICHI THE KILLER style.
Admittedly, this sequence and only one other form the basis for classifying this a martial arts movie, as most of the film’s running time consists of an amusing tale of unrequited love contrasted with a rip-roaring rampage of revenge (I saw that on a poster once). It’s worth it though, as the dramatic elements of the film are thoroughly engaging and only serve to make the final pay-off all the more rewarding.
4. UNDISPUTED II: LAST MAN STANDING (2007)
BLOOD AND BONE, PIT FIGHTER, UNDERGROUND, STRENGTH AND HONOUR…the list goes on. It seems that the eighties surge of American straight-to-video martial arts films has found its mirror image in the late noughties – the STV MMA film. The popularity of UFC and mixed-martial-arts has reached an all-time high and throughout the latter part of the last decade, a constant stream of low-budget martial arts films have found their way onto the DVD market, with some of them even making it into cinemas (NEVER BACK DOWN).
The best of these, which isn’t too hard considering most of them are quite terrible, has to be UNDISPUTED II. It’s definitely not the most realistic depiction of MMA, but it’s easily the most enjoyable, probably as a result of the Fantastic Four: Isaac Florentine, Scott Adkins, Michael Jai White and J.J. Perry. The sparring partnership of Adkins and White is perfect, as their mastery of the martial arts is apparent in every frame, but Adkins particularly shines, mostly through the dizzying array of kicks that he has up his sleeve, or should I say trouser leg?
Behind the scenes, Florentine and J.J. Perry work together to make a film that is not only relatively engaging on a dramatic front, but also one of the best American martial arts movies of recent times. So can someone please put White or Adkins in a mainstream film, or give Florentine some more money to make a big-budget martial arts movie that’ll gain a large audience? J.J. Perry’s a jammy git who works on big films anyway, so he’s ok.
5. THE ONE (2001)
Man 1: Hey, do you wanna go and see that new Jet Li film?
Man 2: Yeah man, I love Jet Li. What’s it about?
Man 1: Some crap about multiverses or something. There’s two Jet Li’s in it.
Man 2: Woah. Umm, I think I need to go to the toilet.
Man 1: Calm down. It sounds quality though, yeah?
Man 2: Errr, yeah…So what’s this multiverse thing?
Man 1: Dunno really, but all I know is at the beginning there’s about 50 Jet Li’s.
Man 2: Oh dear.
Man 1: You ok?
Man 2: Call an ambulance. I’ve just shat my entire brain out of my dick.
This may or may not have been what happened to you upon hearing about and/or watching THE ONE. But if it did, don’t worry, because it was worth it. THE ONE has to be Jet Li’s best American film, well maybe not best, but easily his coolest. From the minute he takes out an entire room of police at normal speed while everything else is in slow-motion, I knew THE ONE was the one. This sequence and its dazzling visual technique alone have influenced other action films, such as X2 and RETURNER, and is the reason why the fight sequences in this film stand out.
Again, it’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea – authenticity is thrown out of the window (in slow-motion) in favour of spectacle and aesthetic artistry – but as an original take on action sequences, it’s first rate. Aside from the action, the film also has a decent high-concept premise (even though it’s full of holes) that I can’t be bothered to explain here. All that matters is Jet Li fights HIMSELF at the end.
Jean Claude Van Damme needs a few pointers from THE ONE next time he wants to beat himself up.
6. THE MATRIX RELOADED (2003)
THE MATRIX RELOADED is the cinematic equivalent of Playboy. No-one cares about any of the boring bollocks – it’s the pictures that give you a stonk-on. The same applies here, as watching some old bloke in a suit recite pseudo-philosophy while Ted from BILL AND TED stands there open-mouthed like he’s shat himself is not my idea of a good time. Ergo, watching Ted lay the smack down on thousands of really annoying men in suits is, as is Ted staving off the rejects from a Jean-Paul Gautier fashion show with a mace.
THE MATRIX RELOADED is essentially two and a half hours consisting of various scenes of the Wachowski brothers rimming each other interspersed with some of the best fight sequences ever seen in a Hollywood movie. You’ve got to forgive them for the self-important bum-licking – because those fight sequences really are phenomenal, enough to make the film worth watching – and enough to earn it a place on this list.
7. IP MAN (2008)
This list had to have Donnie Yen on it somewhere, as it seems that throughout the last decade, he’s gradually worked his way up the ladder to becoming the biggest movie star in China. He’s been in loads of fantastic films this decade: SPL, FLASHPOINT, SEVEN SWORDS, DRAGON TIGER GATE etc, but in my opinion IP MAN has to be the best (saying that, I haven’t seen SPL yet, so I guess my opinion isn’t worth squat).
Still, there’s no denying that IP MAN is a fantastic film in every way; the story, the characters, the production design, the direction, and of course, the fight sequences. Donnie Yen went into major method-actor mode to prepare for this role, obsessively learning Wing Chun in order to give the role the justice it deserved. His fight sequences are therefore thoroughly informed and suitably spectacular (often down to some stellar wire-work), and his square-offs with various bad guys with different fighting styles allow for refreshing and diverse fight scenes throughout.
It’s also great to see Riki-Oh himself – Fan Siu Wong – giving another great performance and showing why he should be a bigger star than he currently is, or ever was.
8. Anything with Tony Jaa in it (2003-2008)
Before ONG BAK, no-one really knew about Muay Thai as a cinematic device within the martial arts genre, but then along came Tony Jaa and elbowed us all in the face for being so ignorant.
ONG BAK was a wake-up call to martial arts fans who got used to airy-fairy ‘fight me on this branch and then maybe we’ll kiss’ fantasy martial arts where everybody seemed to be on wires 24-7. ONG BAK came at you like a flaming knee to the head and knocked some sense into the martial arts industry – you don’t need wires to defy gravity, you just need someone who’s from another planet, like Tony Jaa.
Its influence is already apparent in martial arts cinema from around the world, for example think how different DISTRICT 13, NEVER BACK DOWN, KILTRO, MERANTAU, and pretty much any Thai martial arts film since, would be had there not been an ONG BAK. It revolutionised the genre and emphasised the audiences’ need for authentic and hard-hitting (literally) martial arts films – I can’t count how many times a poster has since informed me that a film contained “no-wires.”
Since ONG BAK, Tony Jaa has only cemented his role as one of the world’s greatest action stars with his fantastic follow-up movies, and ONG BAK’s director and the Thai film industry as a whole have also grabbed a place as major players within the action film business.
Also, a quick tip – don’t steal Tony Jaa’s elephant. He gets really pissed off if you do that.
9. DISTRICT 13 (2004)
The criminally under-seen and therefore under-appreciated DISTRICT 13 was yet another breath of fresh air to the world of martial arts cinema. Take one of the high-kicking twins from KISS OF THE DRAGON and pair him with a man who can run up walls and jump across buildings without any wires, and you’ve got a great parkour/martial arts movie hybrid that isn’t afraid to bring something new to the genre.
Regardless of how little-seen it was, it still had the capacity to influence action cinema much in the way that ONG BAK did the year before. Films like CASINO ROYALE, DIE HARD 4 and FIREBALL and even video games like ASSASSIN’S CREED and MIRROR’S EDGE all contain elements of parkour (some major, some minor) as a result of its growing popularity, which DISTRICT 13 essentially gave a push in the right direction.
10. BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (2001)
Je suis Mark Dacascos. Je suis incroyable. Je suis la meilleure chose dans ce film. Je ne suis pas français. Le film est le français. Ne vous inquiétez pas, il est encore bon.
The dream team of Christophe Gans and Mark Dacascos return after CRYING FREEMAN to give us BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF, which is not exactly a full-on martial arts film per se, but instead an original and thoroughly exhilarating action/horror movie with a bit of martial arts thrown in for good measure.
We’ll ignore the horror aspect of the giant wolf creature that runs around eating women and focus more on the features that make the film relevant to this site. These elements usually involve Mark Dacascos, who incidentally won the “Most overlooked and underrated actor of the past twenty years” Oscar at this year’s awards, and was given it by a man called Toby Wong or something who has a turbo boosted heart or some shit.
So yes, Mark Dacascos, the most underappreciated martial artist of the past two decades, possibly ever – is one of the main reasons to watch this film. He plays a Mohawk Indian who speaks not with words, but with roundhouse kicks to the face (but also with facepaint), and is phenomenal in this film. Aside from Dacascos, there are many other great reasons to watch this film – the ingenious monster, Vincent Cassel’s exceedingly slimy villain, Samuel Bihan’s worthy action antihero, Christophe Gan’s fantastic direction, Monica Belucci’s fantastic breasts…and so on and so forth.
All in all, a total mix-and-match of genres that somehow works (a bit like peanut butter and Philadelphia on toast), but for martial arts fans – watch it for Mark ‘BEEEEEEEER’ Dacascos.
11. EQUILIBRIUM (2002)
Not the most original storyline – Kurt Wimmer was clearly a fan of 1984, but definitely the most original way to treat the fight scene. Wimmer practically invented a new martial art for EQUILIBRIUM – Gun Kata. It involves shooting loads of people in as short a time as possible and then ending up in a stupid pose so everyone knows you’re really cool and hard and that interpretive dance can be masculine too.
Each action sequence blows the previous one away, and seeing Christian Bale trash the lights of so many henchman in such an inventive way is sphincter-clenchingly (it’s in the dictionary) exhilarating. The final showdown is one of the best army-of-one scenes in recent times and possibly just bests THE MATRIX’s lobby scene for sheer destruction and stylistic despatching.
12. DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE (2006)
This film was shit. Pure, stinking muck with bits of corn in it. And Eric Roberts. That is of course not to say that it isn’t amazing. Because it is.
(That made more sense in my head)
Despite being as cheesy as the dairy counter at your local supermarket, and as sexist as whoever made the video game, DOA was one of the only occasions where they got a movie based on a computer game right. When you go to see a film based on a fighting game, you want to essentially watch someone else playing the game in a cinematic form. In STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN-LI, I didn’t want to see Superman’s girlfriend playing piano and wandering around Thailand with the permanent look of someone who’s holding in a really big shit – I wanted to see her wrapping her thunder-thighs around Vega’s head and performing all the special moves that she has in the game. It didn’t happen, and the movie was rubbish (apart from Chris Klein – wow, he went all out on that one didn’t he?).
But Corey Yuen understood what makes a good fighting game worth playing – the fights. He then made the clever (read: obvious) assumption that the same should be said for a movie based on a fighting game. He was right. Next he considered the other main element in Dead Or Alive – the hot women. Now I never saw the attraction in computer generated females, but I certainly saw it in Holly Valance, Jaime Pressley, Devon Aoki, Sarah Carter,
Kane Kosugi and Natassia Malthe, especially when they were playing volleyball.
To put it bluntly, DOA is the perfect video-game movie – it eschews all plot and needless exposition in favour of nearly naked women beating each other up. And Eric Roberts.
13. UNLEASHED (2005)
Jet Li again, and another of his American entries (all his best Hong Kong films were in the 90s), this time with Luc Besson’s Midas touch. This film is mainly on this list because it tried to do something new with an established formula – and more importantly – an established actor. This was the first time anyone had seen Jet Li give such a performance, and his usual acting chops were stretched in an entirely different direction from that with which he was usually comfortable. Also, Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins in a martial arts film? That’s got to be worth some credibility.
Aside from this skewed tackling of the genre, we are of course treated to what we’ve come to expect from Jet Li (and Yuen Woo Ping) – marvellous fight sequences. Each fight essentially hinges around the central notion of ‘Don’t take Jet Li’s collar off otherwise he’ll eat you’ and much like his performance – he’s never fought quite like this before. All the fights are old-school, brutal and sudden and never fail to impress. That is, until:
Henchman 1: Boss! Jet Li’s killed all our men, and they all had guns!
Henchmen 2: Yeah, he’s completely unstoppable! Someone probably took his collar off.
Super MarioBob Hoskins: He’s killed everyone? And they had guns? So trained men with guns can’t kill him?
Henchmen 1: Yeah, he’s unbelievably invincible. You cannot beat him.
Bob Hoskins: Send in that bloke in the dressing gown.
Henchman 2: Errr, who’s he? He looks like a twat.
Bob Hoskins: No, he’s really good at fighting in toilets and he’s got a bald head.
Henchmen 1: He doesn’t even have a gun!
Bob Hoskins: He’s got a SWORD! AND A SILK DRESSING GOWN. Look how cool he looks, HE’S THE MAN!
Henchman 2: I’m outta here, good luck.
Bob Hoskins: WHOOOOOO, YOU DA MAN!! YOU DA MAN!! OI OI OI!
Still, apart from this bit, UNLEASHED is really good.
14. VERSUS (2000)
Zombies, guns, martial arts, gangsters, Ryuhei Kitamura, what’s not to like? VERSUS does exactly what it says on the tin…wait, no it doesn’t. VERSUS would do what it said on the tin had it been called THERE’S LOADS OF ZOMBIES AND GANGSTERS IN THE WOODS AND PEOPLE FROM THE FUTURE ARE HERE AND THERE’S A MAN WITH A TRENCHCOAT AND HE’S BEATING EVERYONE UP AND THIS FILM IS AMAZING AND THERE’S A BLOKE WHO’S JUMPING AROUND LIKE A FROG BUT I DON’T CARE THIS FILM IS AMAZING.
They certainly don’t make them like the Japanese do they? Kitamura’s first major film is a modern take on the chanbara and is a masterpiece of grand guignol, martial arts, science-fiction and comedy that never lets up even though it’s over two hours long. It’s never boring (ok a little bit for about 20 minutes near the end) and it’s always inventive and works not only as a showreel for the demented enthusiasm of Kitamura, but also as a fully-fledged martial-masterpiece.
It’s not only Kitamura providing the talent though, with each actor – particularly Tak Sagaguchi and Kenji Matsuda – displaying their own brand of uncontrolled and frenzied spectacle. Aside from their OTT performances, the fight sequences in which they are able to show off their skills are also exceptional in their own right. All these elements combine to make what can only be described as a genre hotpot that although shouldn’t work, actually does.
So there we are, 14 really good martial arts films from the last decade. Please give your opinions below and your own top 14 lists (but only if you’re a rebel), as for me, it’s time to make like Jet and Li (eave).
Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) • District 13 (2004) • DOA: Dead or Alive (2006) • Equilibrium (2002) • Fatal Contact (2006) • Kiltro (2006) • The Matrix Reloaded (2003) • The One (2001) • Tony Jaa • Undisputed II: Last Man Standing (2007) • Unleashed (2005) • Versus (2000) • Volcano High (2001)