Samurai flicks, pulpy kung fu dubs, modern historical epics and blockbuster gaming fodder all fall under the umbrella of “martial arts.” If you like what you see here, we hope you’ll have a look at some of the best indie films you can find at your local indie film store when you’re done browsing Netflix.
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The wuxia and modern action genres each have a few jewels to offer on Netflix… In addition, there is a lot of Donnie Yen involved.
These are the top ten Netflix martial arts movies right now.
1. The Paper Tigers
Martial artists take revenge when their teacher is mysteriously killed in the line of duty. It’s your job. Even if you’re a middle-aged man, it doesn’t matter how old you are. Your teacher’s shady departure must be investigated. It’s time to put on your knee brace, pack a couple Ibuprofen, and put your nose to the ground seeking for clues and the perpetrator, even as your soft, depleted muscles beg you to take a break. The Paper Tigers, a martial arts film by Bao Tran, tells the story of three men, all in their forties, who are separated from their past glory by the hardships of middle age. A decent martial arts movie isn’t complete without ass-whoopings, so this one is all about that. When compared to Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle or Shaolin Soccer-inspired kung fu pastiches, Tran manages to combine the meat of the genre (fight scenes) with the potatoes (drama) and a fair dose of spice (comedy). Close-up cuts are a trademark of Tran’s fight sequences, and they contribute to the visceral nature of the action. Astonishingly, portraying the actor’s reaction to a punch to the face suddenly provides the action feeling and gravitas, which in turn offer the movie meaning and buttress its audience-pleasing attributes. More movies like The Paper Tigers, which appreciate the thrill of a well-orchestrated battle (and how to organize a fight properly), celebrate the “art” in martial arts, and know how to convert a bum knee into a fantastic running humor, are desperately needed in our cinematic landscape. The Paper Tigers is a joy to watch from beginning to end because to Tran’s masterful filmmaking, not to mention the authenticity he brings to his story. In the words of Andy Crump :
2. Ip Man
When Ip Man was released in 2008, Donnie Yen finally came to the fore in his role as Wing Chun great Ip Man, who taught Bruce Lee as well as many other future martial artists, in a loosely biographical role. An unassuming master of martial arts tries to weather the 1937 Japanese invasion and occupation gently but is eventually forced into action—limb-shattering, face-pulverizing action. The film takes place in Foshan (a city famous for martial arts in southern/central China) in the 1930s. Both as a cinematic achievement and as martial arts fan-bait, this semi-historical picture succeeds magnificently. Theodore Roosevelt
3. Best of the Best
American cheese-fest “Best of the best” is akin to “Cool Runnings,” except that this time it’s a martial arts tournament versus the wicked foreign powerhouse that we all love so much: Korea. In this scenario, an American team made up of “a motley band of misfits” is cobbled together from the bottom of society to take on the world’s most dangerous criminals. They have street fighters from Detroit and a guy who’s a cowboy for some reason. There’s also the little child who’s looking for retribution for the death of his brother at the hands of the Korean leader and, yes, he has an eyepatch. Our hero, instead of succumbing to his hatred and killing his opponent in the ring, chooses to let Team Korea win in order to preserve his honor. In the end, the Koreans apologise and hand over the United States’ medals. There will be no dull moment when James Earl Jones is the coach! As said by —Jim Vorel
Fearless, Jet Li’s final historical kung fu picture, was made in Hong Kong after a disappointing Hollywood run. As a martial artist who overcame numerous international competitors at a time when China’s national identity was waning, Huo Yuanjia is a story that is meaningful to him. One of Li’s most impressive acting performances is included in this movie that depicts the story of Yuanjing’s rise to fame, and his realization that he must defend China’s reputation. Yuanjia takes on an honorable Japanese swordsman but is poisoned by cunning aristocracy at the end of the film. This is the first high-budget picture since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in which the dance is exquisite yet restricted in actuality. The outcome of this is that Fearless is one of the best historical kung fu biopics of the last two decades. As said by —Jim Vorel
A wuxia film based on the Chinese “Three Kingdoms” tale, Shadow is Zhang Yimou’s latest release. Coming Home and The Great Wall are examples of Yimou’s recent filmography favoring content over glamor, whilst Shadow performs what the finest of his movies do by creating a cohesive whole. While the anti-gravity fight scenes in Hero and House of Flying Daggers are amazing to look at, Shadow removes them from the action with a beautiful monochrome palette, which is backgrounded by gray scale and enables actors, and the copious quantity of blood they drop throughout, take center stage. Commandant Yu (Deng Chao) hires a duplicate (also Deng Chao)—his shadow—to wrest possession of a city of strategic worth from invading soldiers against the orders of his king, as shown in this palace intrigue tale (Zheng Kai). Zhang’s attention to detail ensures that the film’s many twists and turns don’t overwhelm the audience. Rather, the emphasis is on the style. In the words of Andy Crump :
6. The Debt Collector
Action filmmaker Jesse V. Johnson’s The Debt Collector follows an Iraq veteran turned martial arts instructor, French (Johnson mainstay Scott Adkins), as he attempts to keep his dojo afloat by taking on a few debt collection trips for a local mobster in the seedier parts of Los Angeles (Vladimir Kulich). With Sue (Louis Mandylor), a longtime loanshark enforcer who is more than happy to let French do all the work (i.e., beating the bejeezus out of dips who owe their boss money), Johnson compiles a surprisingly broad glimpse of a city that has become used to feeling desperate, palm trees depicting an environment greased with intimidation and built on casual violence. With every smashed jaw or broken collar bone, the moral ramifications of French’s employment come up to him. LaFontaine’s choreography isn’t as graceful as Johnson’s work with Adkins, but that’s presumably the point: The Debt Collector is a microbudget triumph from one of the best action auteurs working today, thanks to Johnson’s ability to capture Adkins in motion with an intuition, pace, and feeling of place that elevates the film from a VOD time-filler to yet another microbudget masterpiece. In the words of Dom Sinacola:
7. The Night Comes for Us
In the wake of Gareth Evans’s British folk horror thriller, The Night Comes for Us is an Indonesian ultra-violent action flick that’s sure to please fans of the The Raid films. Furiously. Then he pierces it with a fragment of cow femur. The Night Comes for Us invites you to come and stay for the violence—and not just for the violence. Because of the violence, I had to escape. Don’t worry if it sounds like a lot of work; it is. If you’re going to argue it’s part of the purpose, you might as well say it’s a film that doesn’t seem to care about what’s paving the path to hell. It’s on full gas and barreling for the bottomless pit. As a result, it has some of the year’s greatest choreographed and produced combat sequences, and they become better as the film progresses. An action compactor is used in a scene where Joe Taslim’s anti-hero protagonist takes on a crew in a van, compressing bone-crushing violence. The butcher shop level, the car garage level, and a really fantastic later level where you play as a dope alternate character and take on a lethal sub-boss combo who have specialized weapons and techniques and—no, seriously, this movie is a videogame. This movie is a videogame. Even though you won’t be able to remember it, you’ll be so drained and exhausted after defeating the last boss, The Raid star Iko Uwais, with a box cutter, that you’ll forget that you weren’t playing it at all. It’s excruciatingly agonizing, and it lasts a long time. After all, this movie’s storyline is just an excuse for emotional involvement, and the action scenes are stacked on top of each other, but there is something about the ending of The Night Comes For Us that still strikes some sort of emotional chord, despite being mostly unearned in any traditional dramatic sense. Embrace it as a demonstration of the visceral’s sheer power: As if by the rules of physics, certain types of cinematic action demand an immediate response. In the words of Chad Betz:
It’s the second of three Jesse V. Johnson-directed martial arts films released this year, and Avengement is the most crystalline and empirically precise of them all. If Johnson’s work weren’t so consistently excellent, it’d be reasonable to say that he’s a journeyman director who occasionally gets it right. Johnson’s inspiration, Vicious Beefcake, is to be credited. A Johnson film without Scott Adkins as the protagonist doesn’t feel complete because he is a perfectly formed humanoid so firmly planted in Johnson’s sweet spot: melodramatic, archly brutal action filmmaking with enough wit and passion to leave a bruise. Adkins body smashes a sedan going at least 40 mph in a moment in Triple Threat, Avengement’s 2019 precursor, to make you yearn for what may have been. Unlike the other two films, Triple Threat has three writers and a cast of international action movie stars, including Iko Uwais and Tony Jaa, Tiger Chen and Michael Jai White (still in decent shape, but so outmatched by Adkins and his peers’ athleticism he seems practically immobile). Avengement, like Savage Dog and The Debt Collector (both Netflix originals), relies on a preternatural chemistry between director and star, the camera remarkably calm as it captures every amazing inch of Adkins in motion, beating the living shit out of each chump he encounters, Adkins just as aware of how best to stand and pose and flex to showcase his body. In the background, charming character actors encourage the plot’s core functions; we scarcely know we care about these individuals until we achieve a pleasant conclusion by their side. Adkins may be better at drama than most of us have come to expect of our dynamic stars. Perhaps we’ve set the bar too low in terms of what we can expect. In the words of Dom Sinacola:
9. Ip Man 2
While it’s not easy to match the surprising sorrow of Wilson Yip’s original Ip Man, this sequel does what all good sequels must: The action is stepped up to the next level, and the film more than makes up for its own existence. Ip and his family flee to Hong Kong, where he tries to open a school to teach his deadly wing chun techniques to the next generation. But a rival teacher, played by Sammo Hung in one of his best semi-serious roles, challenges his right to do so. To make matters worse, the film then takes a brief detour into Rocky IV territory by introducing an unrepentant foreign boxer who Ip must overcome in order to revenge his newfound comrade. It’s still a joy to see Ip’s lightning-fast strikes as he annihilates entire squads of goons in a bustling marketplace in the second Ip Man film, which is even better than the first. It’s safe to say that you’ll be watching this more for Donnie Yen’s choreography and his innate talent than for the story itself. As said by —Jim Vorel
As everybody who’s ever seen a film like this knows, Ishmael (Iko Uwais) is a true killing machine, a man born to wreak havoc on anyone foolish enough to get in his way. Danny’s past is explored throughout the film to the point that it resembles that of Louis Leterier’s Unleashed (also known as Danny the Dog), in which childhood innocence is linked to adult barbarity. Uwais breaks bones as readily as Uwais breaks hearts in Headshot, an action film meant to break hearts as effortlessly as Uwais destroys bones. Lee’s men hijacked a bus bound for Jakarta with the express purpose of tracking down Ishmael, and the innocent passengers paid the price in more than one incident. Ishmael’s moral onus is further exacerbated when the other passengers are killed and the evidence is burned. If you’re watching Headshot, chances are you’re not there for the tale. For those looking for a solid ass-kicking flick, this one is up there with the best. That Tjahjanto and Stamboel have outdone the overstuffed story-action mix of Gareth Evans The Raid 2 is possibly the better news. While Headshot clocks at just 118 minutes, it manages to keep the viewer riveted with its unhinged yet meticulously staged martial arts brutality without either belaboring the message or stifling suspense. The vast majority of action films are fist-pumping shindigs in which the good guys triumph against the evil guys. Headshot, like the films of Evans, takes our breath away with its fast-paced action. We are relieved of our mounting worry at the end of each combat. Incorporating this dynamic with the emotional weight of Ishmael’s existential angst, Tjahjanto and Stamboel have created a film that is both soul-stirring and heart-wrenching in its execution. This duo’s style of shooting action flicks will make you wish there were more of them, but the truth is, your nerves wouldn’t allow it if there were.