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Enter the legend of kung fu: There is much to learn from martial arts, including the best movies about it of all time

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 2, 2021

By Paul R. Sell For The Spokesman-Review

Martial arts movies will always have a special place in cinema. It’s where violence becomes an art form, and action can be as philosophical as it is dramatic.

It can introduce viewers to new ways of life and thinking we never would have considered while also giving us some of the most awe-inspiring action in cinematic history.

And with the release of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” it’s time to look at some of the best martial arts movies of all time. Here are just a few of the greatest achievements in kung fu.

“Enter the Dragon” (1973)

When I think of kung fu movies, the first name that comes to mind is always going to be Bruce Lee. Not only one of the best martial artists of all time, but one of the greatest minds and personalities in and out of cinema.

If Fred Rogers comforted the heart, then Lee comforted the soul. There are many great choices from Lee’s film career, but you can’t go wrong with the quintessential kung fu movie that started it all, “Enter the Dragon.”

Not only does it offer some of Lee’s most impressive martial arts feats, including him taking on several dozen henchmen single-handedly, but it perfected a staple of martial arts movies – the tournament plot.

Where each fight introduces new and interesting characters and their equally unique combat gimmicks. It allows for inventive fight scenes and gives secondary characters a time to shine.

“The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” (1978)

One of the best things to come out of the renaissance of martial arts was the exploration of the mythology and philosophy of these Asian cultures.

No film from the 1970s did this better than “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.” The film follows a young hothead who seeks vengeance on the general who killed his friends and mentor by joining a Shaolin temple to learn kung fu.

And this one does not skimp on the theatrics with his training, as we see him take on nearly a dozen chambers of the temple, each with a different lesson and mental discipline, while showcasing some spectacular martial arts and visuals.

“Legend of the Drunken Master” (1994)

If there’s a perfect martial arts counterpoint to Lee, it’s Jackie Chan. Not only did he write and produce many of his early movies, but he strived to make each one more elaborate and awe-inspiring than the last.

And while Chan made many great martial arts movies, including the “Police Story” saga, nothing quite compares to his masterpiece, “The Legend of the Drunken Master.” This is one of the best action comedies of all time, right up there with “Hot Fuzz” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

The action and the comedy perfectly balance and complement each other, where kung fu is so well-choreographed and the comedy is timed so well that they make each other better, especially during the final battle.

“Kung Fu Panda” (2008) and “Kung Fu Panda 2” (2011)

While many of the best martial arts movies have come out of Hong Kong, China and Japan, that doesn’t mean Hollywood hasn’t made some spectacular kung fu movies. The “Kill Bill” movies and “The Matrix” come to mind.

But I want to take a moment to highlight two of the best animated movies of the last couple decades – the first two “Kung Fu Panda” movies.

As goofy as it is to have an animated panda voiced by Jack Black learn how to use martial arts, one of the important lessons of all these movies is to not judge a book by its cover.

Both of these movies are gorgeously animated, with brilliant uses of color to invoke its emotions, and feature some of the most elaborate martial arts, due to being animated, while still being entrenched in the common mythology of martial arts.

If I had to pick one, I’d say “Kung Fu Panda 2” is slightly better, with better uses of color and mythology, as well as impactful emotional moments for its main character.

“The Raid: Redemption” (2011)

But if I had to pick the best kung fu movie of all time, my selection would be Indonesia’s “The Raid: Redemption.”

The plot follows an elite squad of soldiers tasked with taking down a ruthless drug lord trapped in a high-rise apartment complex, only for the soldiers to get trapped in the complex and be hunted down by its tenants. The film trades in its plot and characters for one thing – ruthless, unrelenting action.

The film is constantly innovating, finding new ways to hurt and inflict pain with each action scene. We’re essentially watching modern gladiators throughout this movie, and it is impossible to look away from the chaotic, yet stunning violence on display.

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