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Five Fantastic Martial Arts Movies That Don't Star Bruce Lee (For Obvious Reasons)

By Joe Starr | Lists | October 14, 2015 |

By Joe Starr | Lists | October 14, 2015 |

This week Variety announced that the Cannes Film Festival will serve as the location of the premiere of a very cool project: Taiwanese arthouse director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, whose last film Flight of the Red Balloon opened the festival’s Un Certain Regard section, will be competing for the Palme d’Or with a martial arts epic he has been crafting for almost five years: The Assassin.

Here is the trailer.

Hsiao-Hsien is a phenomenal director (with a few merit badges to his name) and there is little doubt that his take on the martial arts epic will be a thing to behold. I’m not all that interested in digging through the whos and whats of the film, as I’d rather not have it spoiled. So, in celebration of a fantastic new Tang Dynasty epic coming soon, I’ve gathered five fantastic modern epics to revisit in the meantime.

WAIT WAIT WAIT. Joe. Bruce Lee is not on this list.

You’re right. For reasons why, I refer you to this delightful mixtape banter from High Fidelity:

Kung Fu Hustle isn’t here, either. Sometimes I’m not sure if it’s a fantastic martial arts film or my undying love for it has over exaggerated it a bit, so I left it off. Because my heart can’t take it. OK, let’s get to the list.

Ip Man

I have a few favorite Donnie Yen movies, but in the end I think this fight scene takes it. So many films completely throw away what makes an action scene work: like everything else, it has to carry the emotional arc of the character. Donnie Yen’s Ip Man is disgusted to find out that occupying Japanese soldiers have been letting members of his village try their luck against unbeatable odds in exchange for rice. Finally, the guy that would eventually train Bruce Lee reaches a breaking point, and makes the odds super beatable. The choreography is beautiful and brutal, but it’s Yen’s rage and disgust that take this fight from ‘oh, cool’ to ‘jesus, hell.’

Important Note: My wife prefers Flash Point, but it’s mostly because of how well Yen pulls off those jeans. I AM FORMALLY SUBMITTING DONNIE YEN AND HIS JEANS FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION IN THE PAJIBA 10.

13 Assassins

The David and Goliath aspects of an impossible mission should not work on an emotional level. They really should scream at us like emotional shorthand throwing ‘opening of Up’ levels of manipulation at our feel boxes. But when in the hands of a master, films like Seven Samurai and Magnificent 7 just work. Takashi Miike’s take on the ‘everyone you care about dies before it ends except maybe one’ is no exception.

A heavy handed director could easily make this film an emotional draining slog, but Takashi Miike somehow keeps it fun, even light hearted and slapstick at times.


I think my favorite thing about Fearless is how the fighting style changes as Jet Li’s character evolves. He’s a complete piece of shit that matures into a selfless hero, and the movie is able to show this just as well as tell it via the fight choreography.

I wish this clip wasn’t dubbed. Do you guys like watching dubbed foreign films? The optimal setting at our house is subtitles for live action, dubbed for animation. Discuss.


The plot of Chocolate is so implausibly over the top- a girl is a martial arts prodigy because autism — and yet star JeeJa Yanin is just so damn fun to watch you just sort of shrug and let it go. Her Zen has learned her skills from absorbing TV, movies, and her surroundings, which allows her fights to be meta riffs on the greats, from Bruce Lee war cries to beating people up with her surroundings like Jackie Chan.

The Raid: Redemption

True story: None of us are old enough for this movie. I mean, look at this:

And this!

Holy shit!


Joe Starr is on Twitter. He killed your teacher. Find him there.

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