Kung fu has become essential to American cinema. Modern action films like The Matrix and Kill Bill rely on many of the same styles and principles of martial arts that many Americans first saw in the films of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.
Though kung fu movies feel so familiar to modern audiences, it wasn’t until the 1970s that kung fu movies really made their way to the United States and Americans fell in love with Chinese martial arts films. The late Bruce Lee in particular captured America’s imagination, as his intense, powerful skill captivated audiences following his untimely death at the age of 32.
Of course, if you want to learn more about the great stars of Chinese kung fu, Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li, these films will give you that exposure. But, a deep dive into Hong Kong martial arts films will also yield a deeper appreciation of Chinese culture, Asian history, and the evolution of action film. Perhaps most importantly, these films offer some of the most intricate and impressive fight sequences ever filmed. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call these films violent, but when kung fu movies are at their best, the violence transcends to a level of physical beauty that is unlike anything else ever captured on the big screen.
Interest in the genre has only grown in recent years among the street culture crowd as celebrated figures like Kendrick Lamar have taken on kung fu personas, and brands like Supreme have worked with the most important creators in the industry.
Scroll on to see our selection of the best kung fu movies by year.
King Boxer a.k.a. Five Fingers of Death
Year: 1972 Director: Chang-hwa Jeong Rotten Tomatoes: 80 percent Editor’s Note: It is impossible to understate the historical significance of King Boxer, the first Chinese kung fu movie to receive wide distribution in the United States. It is equally important to note that this martial arts film represented the perfection of the Shaw Brothers’ — big time Chinese kung fu producers — formula of violent, action-packed filmmaking. 1967’s One-Armed Swordsman marked their transition to more visceral martial arts movies, but King Boxer elevated the form to a place that would later influence decades of Chinese kung fu filmmaking.
The plot of King Boxer is pretty familiar: a student (Chao Chih-Hao) is sent by his aged master to learn greater skills in order to defeat the bad guys and earn his daughter’s hand in marriage. In terms of execution, however, King Boxer set the standard for the kung fu genre films that would follow. There is a pulpy grindhouse technical style that contrasts a rather melodramatic, classic storytelling with a large ensemble cast. The fighting is constant, straightforward, and cinematic, adding a fierce drive to the proceedings.
While King Boxer is not a perfect martial arts movie, it is perhaps the classic kung fu movie, and it is certainly the film most responsible for making “kung fu” a part of the American lexicon.
Fist of Fury (1972)
Year: 1972 Director: Lo Wei Rotten Tomatoes: 92 percent Editor’s Note: Bruce Lee’s trademark intensity is contrasted with the need to maintain honor which results in a technically impressive and surprisingly comedic Fist of Fury. Of the first wave of Chinese kung fu movies to arrive on American shores, this is one of the funniest.
Lee plays a martial arts student who must avenge his former master while maintaining the integrity and honor of his school (and by extension his master’s memory). The results are alternately dramatic and comedic; Fist of Fury features some of Lee’s best fight scenes, but it also offers one of his best performances. Additional depth is added to the film as it explores Chinese identity in the context of the 1930s Japanese occupation, finding moments of pain and pathos beneath the laughter.
Enter the Dragon
Year: 1973 Director: Robert Clouse Rotten Tomatoes: 93 percent Editor’s Note: Bruce Lee is the titan of the kung fu genre, beloved the world over for his unparalleled martial arts skill. Enter the Dragon is the best showcase of Lee’s once in a lifetime talent. Some critics go as far as to say that this, Lee’s last film, was the only one ever to “give him the star treatment he deserved” before his untimely death.
Enter the Dragon is clear in its morality and earnest almost to the point of camp, but that makes the film that much more charming. The villain, Shih Kien, is as dastardly an evildoer as you could imagine, trafficking in opium and slaves. Our hero must not only investigate the man’s crimes, but win a massive martial arts contest being held on his palatial island estate. Oh, and wouldn’t you know it, Lee is going to have to face off against the massive baddie who killed his sister.
If the material sounds familiar or even arch, Lee and Clouse elevate it to the level of mastery. Bruce Lee staged all of the action sequences, and his emotional connection to them is unparalleled in his career. Clouse was known as a genre director who could elevate his material, and he does so with garish grace, using Gilbert Hubbs’ sumptuous photography and James Wong Sun’s lush art direction to their fullest.
It’s a shame that Bruce Lee died at just 32 years old, but it is a gift that a marriage of his unique talents and a film to showcase them was possible before his untimely death.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
Year: 1978 Director: Liu Chia-Liang Rotten Tomatoes: 89 percent Editor’s Note: Thanks in no small part to the Wu-Tang Clan, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin has become perhaps the most well-known kung fu movie in the west. Luckily for us, the film certainly deserves the reputation.
When a DVD version of 36th Chamber of Shaolin hit American shores in 2007, thanks to the now disgraced Weinstein Company, mass US audiences reconfirmed what aficionados had long thought to be true: 36th Chamber is among the best kung fu movies of all time.
Also known as Master Killer and Shaolin Master, 36th Chamber of Shaolin features some of the best martial arts ever captured on film inside of a story that exemplifies the kung fu genre. San Te (Liu Chia-Hui/Gordon Liu) narrowly escapes invading Manchu soldiers with his life. His thoughts turn to revenge and he joins Shaolin monks, undergoing rigorous mental and physical training. The titular 36th chamber refers to the final level of training that San Te must master before returning to confront the man who ruined his idyllic past life.
While the film’s fight scenes are amazing, it is the philosophical depth of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin that sets the it apart from others in the genre. Every challenge that our hero endures offers not just a physical lesson, but intellectual and emotional growth as well.
The Prodigal Son
Year: 1983 Director: Sammo Hung Rotten Tomatoes: 91 percent Editor's note: Some Americans only know Sammo Hung for his stints on American broadcast television shows like Martial Law and Walker, Texas Ranger. But, kung fu movie aficionados know that he stands next to Jackie Chan among the greatest martial arts film directors of all time.
The Prodigal Son is basically a critique of nepotism. Yuen Biao plays a wealthy son who fancies himself a kung fu prodigy, only to discover that his father has been paying his opponents to take a dive. The shame of this revelation motivates him to become a true martial arts champion.
Our egotistical hero finds two new masters, one who is a graceful star of the Peking Opera (Lam Ching-ying) and his clumsy brother (played by Hung). The results are equal parts hilarious and impressive, and Hung livens up the proceedings with the lively camera movement filled direction that established him as a kung fu legend.
Year: 1985 Director: Jackie Chan Rotten Tomatoes: 90 percent Editor’s Note: One of the greatest kung fu movies of all time as well one of the greatest '80s action films, Police Story features the legendary Jackie Chan at the height of his powers.
The film finds Chan’s character, Kevin Chan, trying to protect a witness preparing to testify against an untouchable crime boss. To do so, he is going to have to not only take on the criminal underworld, but he is also going to have to go up against his own corrupt, disinterested, and narrow-minded superior officers. That’s right, a maverick cop who is forced to play by his own rules. Like we said: very 1980s.
Jackie Chan is set apart from other kung fu movie stars in many ways. There is his meticulous attention to detail. You have his outrageous, yet insanely complex stunt choreography. And, perhaps most importantly, there is his wicked sense of humor. This film is influenced just as much by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton as it is by Chen’s kung fu forefathers. All of this and more are on display in Police Story, and the result is one of the great virtuoso martial arts movie performances of all time.
The climactic battle, which involves the total destruction of a department store, is one of the greatest fight scenes ever captured on film in any genre. This brilliant 10 minute scene recapitulates the thing that makes this Chinese kung fu movie masterpiece so great: that careful balance between dark violence and infectious physical comedy.
Once Upon A Time In China
Year: 1991 Director: Hark Tsui Rotten Tomatoes: 88 percent Editor’s Note: Once Upon A Time in China was little seen in the United States when it was released in 1991 (that would come a decade later), but it was the film that established Jet Li as a bonafide star of Chinese kung fu movies.
The villain here is not the Japanese — nor rival schools — but colonialism. Specifically, Li’s character, the 19th century doctor and martial artist Wong Fei-hung (the same character played by Jackie Chan in Legend of the Drunken Master), is pitted against the encroaching forces of the United States and the UK.
Tsui and Li bring a more melodramatic and earnest tone to the story than Chan did in Drunken Master, and Once Upon a Time in China can get bogged down in its earnest tone. But, there is no denying that these two combine to produce some of the best kung fu action scenes in Li’s historic career in martial arts movies.
Iron Monkey (1993)
Year: 1993 Director: Woo-ping Yuen Rotten Tomatoes: 90 percent Editor’s Note: The aftermath of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon allowed kung fu films to gain an unprecedented foothold in America. Once of the gems that was rediscovered in this resurgence was Woo-ping Yuen’s Iron Monkey.
Iron Monkey tells the story of Wong Fei-hong, a 19th-century folks hero who is often the subject of kung fu stories (an older version of the character is explored in Jackie Chan’s film The Legend of the Drunken Master). The story, which contrasts the righteousness of Robin Hood-style travelling warriors with the corruption of courtly intrigue, is familiar, but provides a great canvas for action-packed storytelling.
For the most part, Iron Monkey isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel; the goal here is to present some badass throwback kung fu, and the film delivers. One particular fight, which features fighters teetering on tall wooden poles that lead to certain death in a massive fire pit and then evolves into a duel with flaming battering rams, is worth the price of admission alone.
The Legend of the Drunken Master
Year: 1994 Directors: Lau Kar-Leung, Chia-Liang Liu, Liu Chia-Liang Rotten Tomatoes: 83 percent Editor’s Note: A follow-up to the 1978 Chinese kung fu movie, The Drunken Master, The Legend of the Drunken Master allowed Jackie Chan to show the world the true extent of his comedic chops.
Roger Ebert wrote, “The Legend of Drunken Master is quite simply amazing. It involves some of the most intricate, difficult and joyfully executed action sequences I have ever seen.” Though audiences were used to seeing “intricate” and “difficult” stunts from Chan, it is the “joyful” quality that separates this film from the pack. His performance in this film may mark the funniest ever in a martial arts movie.
The premise of the film (insofar as there is one) is that Chan’s character has harnessed the skill of being drunk (or pretending to be drunk) as a way to increase his fighting ability. The results are equal parts thrilling action and madcap comedy, culminating in a twenty minute fight sequences that is considered among the best ever filmed.
Fist of Legend
Year: 1994 Director: Gordon Chan Rotten Tomatoes: 100% Editor’s Note: Fist of Legend, a remake of Bruce Lee’s classic Fist of Fury, made Jet Li an international cinema icon. When watching the film, it is easy to see why.
Like Fist of Fury and a number of other kung fu films, Fist of Legend uses the 1930s occupation of Japan as the canvas for its bone-crunching action sequences. The plot, of course, is secondary to the fight choreography. The partnership between fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping and Li resulted in some of the best kung fu action sequences in recent memory, and launched both of their careers internationally. Yuen Woo-Ping would would go on to work with the Wachowski sisters, Ang Lee, and Quentin Tarantino, as Li would become a worldwide household name.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Year: 2000 Director: Ang Lee Rotten Tomatoes: 97 percent Editor’s Note: If the kung fu movies of the '70s turned America on to Chinese martial arts, then Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon demonstrated for the Western world that martial arts movies can be high art. Ang Lee’s film was a financial and critical hit, enrapturing American audiences and taking home four Oscars with nine total nominations.
If you’ve seen the film, the fight scenes, courtesy of Lee and renowned fight choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping, are unforgettable. Cutting edge “wire fu” technology is elevated to the level of pure artistry in fight scenes across rooftops and in billowing trees. There is nothing like it in martial arts movies before it, and the fight choreography has deeply influenced many kung fu movies since.
Like the stunning visuals, the acting and storytelling are on another level beyond your standard kung fu fare. Themes of honor, revenge, and enduring love ultimately dazzle just as much as the fight scenes, creating one of the great masterpieces of martial arts cinema.
Year: 2003 & 2004 Director: Quentin Tarantino Rotten Tomatoes: 84 percent Editor’s Note: Tarantino is a master of postmodern pastiche. He mixes genres with passion and deft skill, switching from westerns to gritty crime films to kung fu with ease. Kill Bill, is, of course, Tarantino’s homage to kung fu movies, even though, as usual, he dabbles in some other genres along the way. The result is one of the most compelling American films in recent memory, and a film that pays deep respect to the martial arts films that have influenced Tarantino in the course of this long and celebrated career.
On a technical level, both volumes of Kill Bill feature incredibly exciting fight sequences. The Bride (Uma Thurman) wakes up after years in a coma with only revenge on her mind. She sets out to visit her vengeance upon a group of assassins who have since gone their separate ways, meaning that each confrontation with the Bride offers a different setting and a new fight. Hanging over it all is the spectre of the final confrontation with Bill (David Carradine), the man who left her for dead.
Yes, all of Tarantino’s films are rife with pastiche and homage, but when this combination of influences produces something like Kill Bill, the result is something wholly unique that, like its martial arts movie influences, will stand the test of time.
Year: 2004 Director: Zhang Yimou Rotten Tomatoes: 95 percent Editor’s Note: Distaste for so-called “wire fu” effects that were so popular at the turn of the 21st century have dampened enthusiasm for films from the era like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero. Hero should be remembered as not just a well-reviewed relic of the wire fu era, but a masterpiece with unparalleled visual beauty.
Hero’s sumptuous visual palette doesn’t just stand out among martial arts movies: Christopher Doyle’s photography is among the best of the 21st century. The sections of Hero are neatly differentiated by clear, bold color palettes, which indicate from whose tale is being told: a stylish update on the template of Japanese masterpiece Rashomon.
Though the martial arts sequences are top notch — anchored by the great Jet Li — it is the accompanying visual style, carefully curated and beautifully photographed that makes Hero an unforgettable masterpiece, transcending the Chinese kung fu genre, and landing it squarely in the pantheon of international masterpieces.
Kung Fu Hustle
Year: 2005 Director: Stephen Chow Rotten Tomatoes: 90 percent Editor’s Note: Set in 1940s Shanghai in Pigsty Alley, a slum filled with gangster and lowlifes, Kung Fu Hustle is one of the bawdiest, most meticulously choreographed kung fu movies ever made.
Some find Kung Fu Hustle to be too light-hearted and unrealistic, with its axe wielding gangsters and aging landlady who chain smokes even when she is kicking ass. But, most audiences will be willing to suspend disbelief long enough to appreciate some of the wildest, most ridiculous stunts you’ve ever seen in a martial arts movie.
Year: 2008 Director: Wilson Yip Rotten Tomatoes: 89 percent Editor’s Note: More political than your average Chinese kung fu movie, Ip Man is actually a biopic of the titular character, who was not just a kung fu master, but a Chinese national hero.
When many in the west think of World War 2, they don’t think of the conflict between China and Japan that lasted from 1937-1945 and involved the brutal occupation of China. Ip Man tells this story that has been somewhat ignored in the west. Though Ip Man has been criticized for its one-dimensional portrayal of the Japanese, this is a martial arts film that takes on a setting less familiar to American audiences.
The massive, melodramatic scope of Ip Man offers a great stage for displays of wing chun style of kung fu for which Ip Man is beloved. And the modern filmmaking techniques allow for some of the most breathtaking action sequences that have appeared in a kung fu movie, a true showcase for star Donnie Yen’s martial arts talents.