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Top Modern Martial Arts Films You Should Check Out

Whether you’re new to the genre or just can’t keep up with the outpouring of recent action films, I’d like to share what I think are some of the top Martial Arts films to come out of the industry in the last ten years. Obviously opinions will differ, but these films to me offer some of the best fighting action you’re going to find. If you don’t understand what’s so great about this genre, you will be a believer after seeing the painful falls, lighting-fast fists, and clear, unedited action in these films. Go ahead and move Zookeeper to the back of your Netflix queue for now (or delete it completely) and let me take you through a journey of awesome, breath-taking kung fu. You won’t be disappointed. Though it changes from time to time, this is my current top five:

5. Chocolate (2008)

chocolateAfter the success of Tony Jaa’s films, director Prachya Pinkaew and action director Panna Rittikrai found new talent in JeeJa Yanin. Yanin plays Zen, an autistic girl who watches and mimics kung fu. The plot is about her collecting debts that people owe her mother who needs medical treatment. The storyline is just okay, but the action is the real star here. Originally they were going to do a split screen with her mimicry beside actual Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan footage, but they could not get the rights for these movies. As it is, you only see her mimic Tony Jaa directly, but this entire movie has homages all over the place to classic HK action. Tony Jaa’s films are also good, especially Ong Bak, but I prefer this film because the overall package is a little better. A labor of love that took four years to complete, this tasty treat is worth checking out ASAP. Chocolate 2 is already in the works.

4. Undisputed III: Redemption (2010) (Also Undisputed II by default)

UndisputedIIIYep, the third film in the franchise. The first Undisputed by Walter Hill is almost wholly unconnected to the two sequels that followed from director Issac Florentine. While Undisputed II: Last Man Standing (2006) is also very good, Redemption is probably the ultimate tournament film I think I’ve seen due to good production values (for DTV), characters, editing and top-notch action. Boyka, who was the antagonist in Last Man Standing, is the character seeking redemption here. Scott Adkins (Boyka) is an amazing and accomplished screen fighter who must be seen to be believed. Oh, you thought that was actually Ryan Reynolds playing Weapon XI in X-Men Origins: Wolverine? Nope, that was Adkins. The man can do anything and he proves it here. His competition, each representing a different country and thus fighting style, are all great match-ups as well. You must see this! Watch the second one too for context…okay, I guess this is a double-feature recommendation. They’re both awesome.

3. Ip Man (2008)

ipmanWhen I first saw this film I thought it felt too much like Jet Li’s Fearless (2006). However when I revisited it I have to admit, it’s tighter and more exciting, though the script isn’t quite as good. This film revolves around Wing Chun, a martial art which involves quick punches and close range combat. Donnie Yen IS Grandmaster Ip Man and everyone wants to challenge him. Naturally, he is too awesome for them. The second half is all about him beating up a LOT of Japanese after they occupy Ip’s humble town. It’s fast, it’s brutal, it’s STUNNING action on display. You get to see Donnie punch a guy about 20 times before he hits the ground. A must-see classic by any definition. IP MAN was such a box office hit, a sequel and prequel came out in 2010. Those films are not on this list, but they are both pretty good too, just not top tier good.

2. Wu Xia (2011)

WuXiaBruce Lee said in Enter the Dragon, “We need emotional content…” Well, if you want emotional content mixed with your kung fu action, I can think of no better example. Though this is more of a drama with martial arts, it’s all about building anticipation for the final showdowns. In the meantime you learn about the main character, played aptly by Donnie Yen, and his dark past. The first half has a CSI-like structure while an inspector tries to figure out who exactly Yen is. There are about three fights in total, but it’s the high quality and investment in the story that puts this in my favorites for modern Martial Arts cinema. The last two fights simply amaze all the way through to the shocking final moments. Strong direction by Peter Chan, great cinematography, and a very good musical score (rare for these films) makes this a must see. There is no US release for this one yet, but watch for it soon.

1. Kill Zone (SPL) (2005)

(Yes, another Donnie Yen film…)

KillZoneCertain films have a swagger about them, an unmitigated momentum wherein you can’t take your eyes off what’s on screen. This is that film. Some may argue me placing this in the top spot since there aren’t that many fights, but the fights that are here are absolutely jaw-dropping. If you think kung-fu films are all just a bunch of unrealistic chop-socky garbage, you need to see this. The fight between Donnie Yen and Wu Jing (baton vs. knife) is so fast and fluid it doesn’t feel choreographed, it feels real. Director Wilson Yip deserves some credit here, going the extra mile to make the non-action scenes just as interesting as the action. This film is dark and violent, but it all builds to a satisfying and emotionally charged beat down. Kill Zone (aka Sha Po Lang or SPL) elevated the careers of Yen, Sammo Hung (his comeback that is), and director Yip. This was followed by a semi-prequel Flashpoint (2007), which took on-screen MMA fighting to a new level. But it all started with Kill Zone. See it NOW!

Honorable Mentions: Gallants (2010) is a great film starring veterans from the old Shaw Brothers era. It helps if you actually know who these guys are, but I’m sure it can be enjoyed either way. The Raid: Redemption (2011) by reputation only. I haven’t seen it, but everyone says this is the best film…ever made. I’m serious. Hopefully I’ll see this one soon. I’m also planning on seeing other new Hong Kong, Korean and Japanese films for some standalone reviews. Like I said, this is my must-see list for the moment, but who knows what treasures I’ll find in the coming months! Stay tuned for more reviews, and also some more lists encompassing the 70s, 80s and 90s. Thanks for reading.

Travis Else

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