By Chris Davis  |  15 April 2019   

Hundreds of great martial arts movies exist. Most made money, some didn’t. Some were blockbuster successes in other countries, while they flopped here.

Real martial arts, the philosophy, and the elegance? Or beat ‘em up, blood, and violence? Here are the top 7 real martial arts movies that get the point and beauty of our art.

7. TMNT 1990

This may have been a comedy, but it packs a great message. Honor, respect, and discipline run as undercurrents in this movie.

Based on comics, TMNT tells the story of 4 anthropomorphic turtles who sit under the tutelage of an anthropomorphic rat. They are taught in the traditional ways of the samurai (even though they call themselves ninja). They aim to protect people, defeat evil, and eat pizza.

The movie shines with respect it shows in the relationship between the turtles and the female lead, April. This movie is a must for kids who want to be in the martial arts.

Plus, the actors and stuntmen were remarkable. They executed great routines in those bulky suits with precision!

6. Ip Man (2008)

This movie dramatizes the life of Ip Man (1893-1972) during the Japanese invasion. Ip Man, a Wing Chun master and the Master of Bruce Lee. The highlight of the story shows the struggle of remaining true to principles while surviving oppression. The final fight scene recreates the iconic fight between Yip and the Japanese general and showcases terrific martial arts and fighting.

5. The Man With the Iron Fists (2012)

A Tarantino/Eli Roth film containing numerous stars, this film showcases dramatic sets, impressive martial arts, and a compelling story. Followers of the art will see the filial piety and respect of masters come through, even if effects and overacting seem to overshadow it.

Take this one with a critical eye. Critics hated it, and it made no money at the box office. The Man With the Iron Fists is not a pop culture film. This story has a moral.

4. One Armed Boxer (1972)

Jimmy Wang Yu had one arm strapped to his back for the entirety of this movie to portray the title character, Tien Lung. The story of One Armed Boxer shows the tenacity and skill of a student bent of revenge for his friends and master. Lung fights some styles in the movie.

Even with a disabled arm, Yu pulled off choreography requiring impeccable balance and stability. Students of the martial arts should pay attention to how the main character adapts to each situation and style as a learning experience.

3. Fist of Legend (1994)

When Chinese martial arts student Chen Zhen learns his mentor died, he returns home to the Japanese-occupied Shanghai of 1937. Chen challenges Ryuichi to a fight and easily defeats him. Several plot lines follow, but the main one is his teacher's son, Huo Ting-An’s jealousy.

Jet Li portraying Bruce Lee should have been a box office smash, but it wasn't. This incredible remake of Fists of Fury brought meat to the bones of Bruce's quick-and-dirty fight scenes, performing the challenging choreography of legend Yuen Woo-ping flawlessly. Fist of Legend is one you should not miss.

2. House of Flying Daggers (2004)

This movie made around eight times its budget at the box office and is one of the most popular movies of its kind. Its popularity spawned many people to join Kung Fu.  

During the Tang Dynasty, the House of Flying Daggers steals from the wealthy and give to the poor. Two police deputies investigate the bling dancer Mei, rumored to be working with the House of Flying Daggers, yet help her in the end because of love.

Many different types of martial arts feature in this film, plus espionage, duplicity, and manipulation. The application of the martial arts shows its respectability, and this lesson needs to be taught.

1. Black Belt Jones (1974)

Martial arts and mafia. This should be a good movie, yet it flopped.

Jim Kelly, who could be considered a protégé of Bruce Lee, made this move in the middle of the blaxploitation movement and the public mourning of Lee. Within these strict boundaries, Kelly was able to put on a significant performance, creating a name for himself despite the limitations of the plot and the choreography.

The story line in Black Belt Jones highlights the struggle between tradition and future as the mafia attempts to destroy a family dojo. During the confrontation, the Don is killed, and Jones needs to fight for his life to save his family. This is a very typical movie for the period, yet features some terrific martial arts fight scenes using real people, not CGI.

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About the author

Chris may not be the most talented martial artist, but he prides himself on wanting to learn everything. He is currently traveling the globe (Eastern Europe, South America, Africa) taking lessons from any school that will have him. Chris is currently focusing on his ground game/BJJ work.

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