5. RedbeltI know, a "David Mamet martial arts film" sounds like a bad joke. But this movie is totally for real, and is perhaps one of the singular greatest achievements in martial arts filmmaking. It has an EXTREMELY intricate plot. It has fantastically punchy dialogue. It isn't predictable. It features the villain from Serenity and Tim Allen (who doesn't suck). And it has some of the absolute best MMA fight choreography. The plot is far too intricate to try and layout, but suffice it to say the film is about honor and fighting for one's principles, literally and figuratively. It also features martial arts legend and Bruce Lee disciple Danny Inosanto in a cameo as the Brazillian ju-jitsu master "The Professor."
4. The Karate Kid, Parts I and II
Miyagi. The Crane Kick. The Cobra Kai. "Put him in a body bag! Yeeeaaaah!" This movie and its first sequel simply had it all, and set the stage for every "kid makes good in sports" film to follow in the 80's and beyond. Part II is equally as good as the first, as the focus shifts to Miyagi and his life in his Okinawan homeland. Now, while the notion that a kid who just picked up karate can beat a high school black belt in the Cobra Kai army of death is far-fetched, it certainly got a lot of kids excited about karate and believing they could do anything (not surprising this film was directed by the man who also directed Rocky). PS: "Fear does not exist in this dojo, does it? NO SENSEI!"
Some may prefer Kickboxer, but I think they are sorely mistaken. Bloodsport (the first of two flicks to feature "Bolo" Yang Sze as a supervillain) is the Jean Claude Van Damme "masterpiece" that pits fighters from around the world, of varying styles, in the Kumite: a fight to the death competition in Japan. Think of it as a precursor to the early UFC stuff...only with exposed kneecaps, death on the mat, and a lot of Jean Claude in spandex doing splits no man should ever be able to physically do. It also features future Oscar winner Forest Whitaker (pre-Ghost Dog) and the Oscar worthy talents of Van Damme. Okay, not really on the latter. But kidding aside, the fight choreography is splendid and the camera work superb. My biggest gripe about martial arts movies is that they're all shot too close and edited with too many quick cuts - so you can't see the artistry or the kickassness. Bloodsport shoots high and wide. It's killer.
2. Kill Bill (Volumes 1 and 2)
The kung fu film made by and for kung fu lovers. Quentin Tarantino succeeds in making a kung fu movie like all the rest and like no other. The camera work. The wirework. The choreography. The script. The endless homages, most blatantly the yellow motorcycle jumper Uma wears when she takes down the Crazy 88, in honor of Bruce Lee in his unfinished Game of Death (in which he fights Kareem Abdul Jabar, btw!!!). It would take hundreds of pages to delve into the mastery of this film. Not to mention, David Carradine's work in Volume 2 is nothing short of brilliant. His memoirs from the movie make a great read. Seriously, this is 4 hours of incredible cinema, kung fu or otherwise.
1. Enter The Dragon
Forgive me for being obvious with my #1 choice. But it's kind of a no-brainer. This film, released shortly after Bruce Lee's death, made him legendary. The movie also started the kung fu craze of the 1970's and created the genre. The movie itself has everything...and Lee DID EVERYTHING on this movie. Choreographed every move. Did all his own fights. And if that wasn't enough, here are some rare gems for you: Lee broke actor Bob Wall's arm after truly sidekicking him through a chair and a handful of extras after Wall accidentally cut him with a bottle. Lee, almost daily, would take challenges from people on set who didn't believe his skill was real. They realized very quickly just how real it was when Bruce laid them out in seconds. Bruce Lee also obliterates two Hong Kong legends in the film. First, Samo Hung is defeated in the opening of the film, as they both fight each other wearing diaper-like outifts. Then, Lee "kills" Jackie Chan, an extra in the opium den fight. The camera work is amazing. The choreography legendary. The weirdness factor and the fact that it's SOOOOOO dated in the '70s is irreplaceable. It all makes Enter The Dragon the Rosetta Stone from which all martial arts movies can derive meaning. Now...what are your favorites?