There are many types of great, exciting action scenes found within the action genre. Car chases are fast and often nerve-racking, shootouts are loud and overwhelming in the best way possible, and huge explosions hardly ever get boring to look at. At the end of the day, though, hand-to-hand action might be the most exciting and awe-inspiring, as there’s something visceral and impactful about seeing two (or more) skilled fighters battling up close and personal.
No sub-genre provides great hand-to-hand combat the same way martial arts movies do. For well over 50 years, martial arts has been a popular style of combat to feature in action movies, with the following 10 films being among the best martial arts movies of all time. All have an average IMDb score of 7.4/10 or higher, and are ranked below from lowest to highest.
10/10 ‘Dragon Inn’ (1967) – 7.4/10
King Hu was a Chinese director who was a pioneer within the martial arts genre, directing numerous early classics in the 1960s and 1970s. While Dragon Inn wasn’t his very first movie, it was arguably his first great martial arts film, and holds up today as an early classic of the genre, delivering exciting action despite being over half a century old.
Like many martial arts films, the plot is simple and designed to allow numerous action scenes to be stringed together. It largely takes place in and around the Inn Of Dragon’s Gate, and involves scores of assassins trying to eliminate the two surviving children of a recently betrayed army commander. It’s a classy and no-nonsense martial arts film, and also boasts fantastic visuals and a memorable atmosphere beyond its fun action scenes.
9/10 ‘The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter’ (1984) – 7.4/10
Like many classic martial arts films, The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter is set in China during historical times. When a powerful family is almost entirely slaughtered in battle, the two survivors need to go on the run, with the film mostly following one young man, Yang Wu-lang, who seeks refuge in a monastery and becomes a Buddhist monk. Eventually, circumstances force him to become a brutal warrior once more.
The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter is one of those glorious action movies where each action sequence is better than the last. It culminates in a spectacular, lengthy, and absolutely brutal fight scene that would have to be one of the best in film history. It was produced by the iconic Shaw Brothers – a production company that financed many martial arts classics – and also stars Gordon Liu, one of the best martial arts actors of all time.
8/10 ‘A Touch of Zen’ (1971) – 7.5/10
Dragon Inn may have established that King Hu was one of the greats when it came to directing martial arts movies, but A Touch of Zen solidified such a claim. This is a true epic that runs over three hours, and follows the story of a young woman who hides out in a small village while on the run from corrupt (and deadly) government officials.
The film eventually becomes a prolonged fight for survival, but before its second half, it’s not as much of a martial arts movie. It’s quiet, contemplative, and spiritual, all while expertly building to an extended climax that offers awe-inspiring fight after awe-inspiring fight. It’s a great epic drama and a fantastic martial arts film all in one, and while a 7.5/10 rating on IMDb is nothing to sneeze at, it really should be higher.
7/10 ‘The Legend of Drunken Master’ (1994) – 7.6/10
You could fill a whole list (or two) of great martial arts movies starring the legendary Jackie Chan. He’s been in the business for close to 50 years at this point, and before transitioning to Hollywood in the mid to late 1990s, made some of the best (and craziest) action movies of all time. Some combined martial arts with more modern-day action setpieces, like car chases and shootouts, while some were all focused on the hand-to-hand stuff.
The Legend of Drunken Master is one of those purely martial arts movies, and perhaps the greatest he ever made. Also serving as a swansong to his Hong Kong era as a whole, this film about family drama, stealing priceless artifacts, and drunken martial arts contains some of the best action scenes of all time, and needs to be seen by every single action movie fan, regardless of how they usually feel about martial arts.
6/10 ‘Enter the Dragon’ (1973) – 7.6/10
Bruce Lee’s career as a martial arts star was cut tragically short by his passing in 1973. Enter the Dragon, therefore, became his final complete film, and was released at the end of July 1973, just a few days after Lee passed away.
He was already on his way to becoming a huge action star, but Enter the Dragon solidified him as an icon, making it all the more unfortunate that this was his last proper film (1978’s Game of Death would incorporate some fight sequences featuring Lee, but all the stuff without him is borderline unwatchable). Enter the Dragon’s premise about an elaborate martial arts tournament on a strange island is packed to the brim with great action, with Lee being charismatic as an actor, as well as fierce and utterly convincing as a fighter.
5/10 ‘The Raid’ (2011) – 7.6/10
Few action movies can claim to be as simple, satisfying, and bone-crunchingly brutal as The Raid. This low-budget Indonesian film sees a squad of highly-trained but outnumbered S.W.A.T. team members trapped in a high-rise building run by a crime lord who puts a bounty on their heads. After this setup, The Raid becomes a fight for survival, with the police needing to fight their way out of the building.
Come for the violent martial arts, and stay for the violent martial arts, because there’s not a whole lot else to The Raid. Yet its bluntness is its greatest strength, as few martial arts movies can claim to be this straightforward and so viscerally exciting.
4/10 ‘The Raid 2’ (2014) – 7.9/10
The Raid 2 currently boasts a slightly higher rating on IMDb than its predecessor (7.6/10 compared to 7.9/10). It has a more complicated storyline, with various criminal gangs struggling for power, plenty of betrayals, and a setting that goes far beyond just one apartment building.
The complexity may leave some viewers wishing for the directness of the first movie, but ultimately, The Raid 2 is one of those sequels that’s better than the first. Its action is more ambitious, it’s filmed in a more cinematic way, and the one-on-one fight scenes are even better. It’s just a shame we’ll probably never get a third Raid movie.
3/10 ‘Hero’ (2002) – 7.9/10
While Hero is not Yimou Zhang’s only martial arts movie, it’s probably the legendary Chinese director’s best. It’s a staggeringly beautiful movie that tells an epic story in under two hours, with the main plot being about a lone warrior tasked with eliminating three notorious assassins before they can make a move on China’s king.
The action is on a truly breathtaking scale here, and the use of color is unparalleled. Beyond being a great-looking and sounding movie, it has some of the best on-screen sword fights in recent memory, which it expertly combines into its martial art combat scenes.
2/10 ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (2000) – 7.9/10
A movie so iconic most won’t likely realize it was originally a novel, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one of the most famous martial arts movies of all time. Directed by Ang Lee, it’s a little more fantastical than most martial arts movies, with a group of people all after a mythical sword possessing fighting abilities that go beyond what reality might otherwise allow.
It gives the film a unique feeling, both in its story and in its memorable (and beautiful) action scenes. It’s the kind of movie where you don’t have to be a martial arts fan to appreciate it; its appeal is truly wide-reaching.
1/10 ‘Kill Bill Vol. 1’ (2003) – 8.2/10
Assessing both volumes together, there’s a good argument to be made that Quentin Tarantino’s revenge epic Kill Bill is his greatest film. While Vol. 2 has less action, and feels almost like a western, Kill Bill Vol. 1 is an action-packed martial arts homage through and through.
Some may question whether a homage/pastiche deserves to have an 8.2/10 IMDb rating, which puts it above other classics from decades past. But then there’s the argument to be made that Tarantino does make something here that feels unique, exciting, and unparalleled, simply because he was influenced by so many other films. This in turn makes Kill Bill Vol. 1 both a great martial arts homage and a great martial arts movie.