Released just a few years after the seminal martial arts movie Enter the Dragon, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin remains a touchstone to the subgenre still to this day. You might not recognize many of the actors’ names here, but you’ll definitely recognize the action sequences that have been mimicked time after time in the decades since its release.
Apart from being one of the most successful foreign language films at the American box office, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon remains one of the most spectacular martial arts movies to ever come about. Beyond being genuinely engrossing, the film proves that one can draw from films of the past without sacrificing one’s own original flare (here’s looking at you, Tarantino).
One of Jackie Chan’s earliest credited roles, Drunken Master stars the actor when he was still going by Jacky instead of Jackie. Many consider the film to be the actor’s finest, even after decades of other martial arts films. That should tell you all you need to know about the technical craft on display here.
The greatest testament to Bruce Lee’s talent is the fact that he’s more or less a household name, even in homes where people have never seen one of his movies. Enter the Dragon helped to cement that status for him, showing off his talents and establishing him as one of the absolute best martial artists in the game.
Set in ancient China, Hero stars Jet Li as a defense officer named Nameless who tells the story of his defeat of three of the most powerful enemies of the kingdom. The film remains a masterwork, utilizing incredible visuals both in its action sequences and in its scenery.
A somewhat under-the-wire entry in 21st century martial arts filmmaking, House of Flying Daggers is one of the most fun and most action-packed martial arts movies one could wish for. It might not be well-known, but House of Flying Daggers completely changed the game.
The story of the 1930s martial arts champion Ip Man that spawned endless sequels and even a TV series, Donnie Yen showcases some thrilling martial arts sequences while also trying hard to keep everything grounded in history. As the man who would later teach Bruce Lee all he knew, Ip Man remains an important film and an important part of martial arts moviemaking.
Quentin Tarantino isn’t afraid to wear his influences on his sleeve, something that proves to both boost and hinder every single project he puts out. The Kill Bill movies are his love letters to martial arts movies of all kinds, and they feature all kinds of different sequences that allow the director to profess his admiration and love for every kind of martial arts film imaginable. Say what you will about someone like Tarantino who’s all style and no substance, one thing remains true: the Kill Bill movies are a total blast.
The only other name apart from Bruce Lee’s to become synonymous with martial arts is Jackie Chan. 1985’s Police Story tells you all you need to know about why Chan is so legendary—there’s not much else like a great Jackie Chan martial arts movie.
The most recent entry on this list, 2011’s The Raid is—like Crouching Tiger—a tribute to the martial arts movies of the past that never gives up the director’s own unique take on the material. The Raid honors the martial arts movies of the 20th century while also creating some of the most incredible action sequences of the 21st century so far.