Martial arts is a lifelong commitment. It takes years of actual blood, sweat, and tears, and only the most dedicated students can be forged into disciplined individuals. Honor, respect, tradition, a warrior’s spirit — you can’t learn these from video games and TV and movies.
But that doesn’t mean that video games and movies that feature these ancient arts aren’t totally awesome.
With hundreds, if not thousands of various fighting disciplines around the world, certain action movies show off specific styles more than others. While no one should watch movies as instruction videos, the work of some choreographers should be celebrated for bringing real, legit fighting to the fantasy world of film.
Silat, The Raid: Redemption (2011) and The Raid 2: Berandal (2014)
Choreographed by: Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian
Silat is a nasty martial art noted for its use of low stances and reliance on weaponry. It’s dominant in southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
While Gareth Evans’s first film to use silat was Merantau, it was his The Raid films that wowed the genre and grindhouse cinema world. Even J.J. Abrams was a fan, including the film’s stars and choreographers Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Imagine those two using silat against Chewie.
Muay Thai, The Protector (2006)
Choreographed by: Panna Rittikrai
Tony Jaa is a human spider, able to twist and bend his limbs in unbelievable ways. He’s trained in various forms of martial arts, but the one he’s most immediately known for his Muay Thai kickboxing, a martial art from (where else) Thailand.
Prachya Pinkaew’s Chocolate might be a better, bolder film, and his Ong Bak, which brought Jaa to prominence, might be more known. But neither of them movies had Jaa use his hyper-stylistic Muay Thai (which doesn’t involve flip kicks) against 70+ yakuza goons.
Wushu, Fearless (2006)
Choreographed by: Yuen Woo-ping
Yuen Woo-ping is legendary in the martial arts film genre, and has crossed borders choreographing The Matrix trilogy and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. But he’s no more comfortable than when he works with homegrown Asian stars like Jet Li.
It was bad marketing in the U.S. to call Jet Li’s Fearless his last picture — it was his last kung-fu epic, which is a big difference — but Li still went out with a bang in the lavishly-produced film, a super fictional biopic of Huo Yuanjia, the leading authority on kung-fu. Tracing through Yuanjia’s life, Fearless shows the beginning of one of the first MMA organizations in the world.
Jeet Kune Do, Game of Death (1972)
Choreographed by: Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee never completed what he had hoped would be his magnus opus: 1978’s Game of Death. Conceived as a high-concept thesis on Lee’s hybrid philosophy Jeet Kune Do, Lee passed away less than a quarter into its production. Instead of a movie could have been the first martial arts art film, the final Game of Death ended up a sloppy, incoherent mess that made terrible use of recycled footage, stunt doubles who looked nothing like Bruce Lee, and footage of the man’s real funeral.
Some 40 minutes of existing footage that Lee shot show glimpses of the brutally beautiful martial arts film that could have been, including Lee fighting against his students Dan Inosanto and NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabaar.
Wing Chun, Ip Man (2008)
Choreographed by: Sammo Hung
Speaking of Lee, the most recognized movie about Lee’s mentor, Grandmaster Ip Man, was Wilson Yip’s Ip Man, which launched a whole franchise starring Donnie Yen in the title role. The Ip Man movies are noted for popularizing the Grandmaster’s signature style, Wing Chun, which thrives today.
Ninjutsu, Ninja: Shadow of a Tear (2013)
Choreographed by: Tim Man
Scott Adkins knows every martial art under the sun except maybe ninjutsu (according to Wikipedia). But that doesn’t stop him from doing it in Isaac Florentine’s serious homage to goofy ‘90s action flicks, Ninja: Shadow of a Tear. Adkins fights the film’s choreographer, Tim Man, in one of the climactic showdowns — but the real final fight happens later in the film, against Kane Kosugi, son of Sho Kosugi, a family that knows ninjutsu for real.
Zui quan (Chinese drunken boxing), Legend of the Drunken Master (1994)
Choreographed by: Lau Kar-leung
Jackie Chan showed early promise as a kung-fu Buster Keaton in 1978’s Drunken Master, and his 1994 sequel is a sublime work that shows the superstar in his absolute prime. Legend of the Drunken Master is not only a masterpiece of action comedy, but it’s also the absolute best portrayal of Chinese drunken boxing, a style that fools opponents to thinking the fighter is a total buffoon. Chan is a buffoon — one that can kick your ass.
Tai Chi, Man of Tai Chi
Choreographed by: Yuen Woo-ping
Tai Chi is something everyone’s mother knows, but just because it’s fluid doesn’t mean it’s weak. Keanu Reeves — yes, THAT Keanu Reeves — directed his first film in 2013’s Man of Tai Chi, starring Reeves as the crazy ass villain fighting Tiger Chen, who studied under Yuen Woo-ping. Chen worked on The Matrix, which is where he met Reeves and collaborated over a decade later.
Speaking of Keanu Reeves…
CQC (Close Quarters Combat), John Wick
Choreographed by: Jonathan Eusebio
That fucking Baba Yaga. Reeves showed he’s still got it in John Wick, which was not only modeled after sambo and judo but Jackie Chan’s cinematic construction, with none of the laughs. Before Wick, the best example of CQC (close quarter comatives) were in the Bourne movies or the knife fight in Saving Private Ryan, but in came John Wick like a vengeful demon.
Boxing, Creed (2015)
Choreographed by: Clayton J. Barber
More than any other martial art, boxing is a staple of cinema but few movies actually give a shit about boxing. Raging Bull was a psychological drama, the main Rocky films used it as metaphor, and any other movie just felt like imitators. But it was Ryan Coogler’s Creed that not only delivered the drama, but mind-blowing choreography that at last brought pro boxing as it should to the big screen.
Filipino Martial Arts, The Book of Eli (2010)
Choreographed by: Jeff Imada
Not many would call the Hughes brothers’ The Book of Eli a martial arts film, but Denzel Washington studied under Bruce Lee student Dan Inosanto and Jeff Imada to learn escrima (sometimes arnis, or kali), a Filipino martial art that uses sticks, machetes, and knives as weapons. History books tell us how much these humble farming tools have stood up to rifles and muskets from Spanish fleets.
Lucha libre, Mil Mascaras vs. The Aztec Mummy (2007)
I mean, this is just great.