As far as cult cinema goes, the martial arts genre has generated one of the most devoted fanbases in movie history. The genre dominated the Hong Kong scene in the late 1960s, but really took off in the 1970s, thanks to the rise of the first international martial arts superstar, Bruce Lee.
After Lee’s untimely passing, another household name in martial arts arrived to pick up the gauntlet, and his name was Jackie Chan. Both very different in their approach, Chan and Lee are often the first names that come to mind when discussing martial arts films. However, over the years, stars around the world have built their careers on fast punches and high kicks. Here are just a few of the many martial arts superstars who belong in the same conversation as the big two.
Despite being a staple of the 90s martial arts scene, Donnie Yen didn’t really explode in popularity until the release of Ip-Man in 2008. It was there that he showed his lightning-fast reflexes and his mastery of Wing Chun. The film would go on to spawn several sequels and spinoffs, ushering in a long-awaited renaissance for Yen’s career.
In addition to Wing Chun, Yen is an expert in multiple forms of martial arts, ranging from Muay Thai to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Great films for newcomers to Yen’s work include the Ip-Man franchise, iron monkey and Killing area.
Known for his bowl cut and heavier physique than most martial arts stars, Sammo Hung is a unique presence and absolute power in the genre. He is often credited with keeping the genre popular in the 80s and supporting the careers of other martial arts icons.
While best known for his memorable supporting roles and his keen sense of fight choreography, Hung has also proven himself to be a worthy leading man. Some of his best work can be found in the prodigal son, Eastern condors and Encounters of the Spooky Kind.
While the early 2000s is often seen as a weaker period for the stock, Jason Statham was busy making the kind of B-movie stunt-based action gold that entire fandoms were built around in the ’70s. With his hybrid gymnast/martial artist background, Statham is as nimble as he is hard-hitting.
Now firmly in his 50s, Statham is still going strong, having fought his way into resounding success fast furious franchise and earn its own spin-off with The rock. For more on Statham’s action brand, check out The carrier, Crank and The mecanic.
Having made a name for himself in a male-dominated industry, michelle yeo helped pave the way for women not just in martial arts cinema, but in the action genre as a whole. She played alongside by Pierce Brosnan James Bond and the legendary Jackie Chan himself, proving to be just as fierce and dynamic as his male counterparts.
With recent movies like Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Everything everywhere all at once, Yeoh finally received some well-deserved international appreciation. For more of Yeoh’s charisma and acrobatic finesse, look for The heroic trio, Supercopand Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
When the trailer was first released for Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior, before its 2003 premiere, action fans went wild. It promised hard-hitting fight sequences, practical stunts and, of course, the introduction of an all-new martial arts superstar, Tony Jaa. The film delivered on all counts, catapulting Jaa into immediate cult status.
While many of his later films struggled to live up to the hype of his first release, Jaa continued to deliver intense Muay Thai action, even collaborating with other legends of the genre. It goes without saying, Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior is a must-have if you haven’t already, but some solid follow-ups include The protector and Triple Threat.
King of the Redbox and VOD martial arts film circuit, Scott Adkins slowly built up a loyal fan base over the years. His movies aren’t exactly known for their high production value or prestige cinema, but Adkins’ fast, brutal fighting style and commitment to stunt work often prove more than enough to make up for that.
With a background in multiple martial arts disciplines, Adkins was a rare English import to break into the Hong Kong action scene in the early 2000s. For a look at how he achieved this cult status, find Ninja 2: Shadow of a Tear, Undisputed II: The Last Man Standingand revenge.
Having made a living in several Hong Kong films during the 90s, Jet Li is probably best known for his explosion on the Hollywood scene in the early 2000s. Although he often plays the calm and stoic hero, Li has a warm charisma that shines through in every performance.
Making appearances as recently as the 2020s Mulane, Li is still on the mainstream radar and could possibly be the third biggest name in international martial arts fandom, behind Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. For a look at his unique star power, check out Without fear, fist of legendand the Once upon a time in China trilogy.
Michael Jai White
Michael Jai White made his breakthrough as the first on-screen African-American superhero in 1997 Spawn, then pursued a career in underground action film. He has studied in a handful of martial arts styles since childhood and has continued to improve his craft over the years.
Although he doesn’t retain the highest-profile martial arts filmography, White’s intensity and commanding presence as a fighter has earned him a cult following in the genre, even splashing the Asian martial arts market on several occasions. . Some of his best work can be found in Falcon on the rise, Undisputed 2 and blood and bone. As a bonus, check out his hilarious counter-type performance in the blaxploitation parody, black dynamite.
Jean Claude Van Damme
Known affectionately as “The Muscles of Brussels”, Jean Claude Van Damme joined the ranks of other muscle beefcake heroes in the 1980s, distinguished by his martial arts training and incredible acrobatic prowess.
After going through a rough patch and falling into obscurity in the early 2000s, Van Damme finally made a low-key comeback with the TV series. Jean-Claude Van Johnson, showcasing his ever competent martial arts skills, as well as a self-aware sense of humor. For Van Damme at his peak, look no further than blood sport, Kickboxerand hard target.
One of the Newest Action Movie Stars, Indonesian Martial Artist Iko Uwais took the world by storm Gareth Evans The Raid: Redemption in 2011. Uwais and his teacher, yayan ruhianchoreographed the kinetic fight sequences and introduced action cinema to the Indonesian martial art of Silat.
Uwais has since continued to hone his craft in the martial arts scene, collaborating with other top martial artists and making cameos in high-profile blockbusters like Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The Raid 2the sequel to Uwais’ hit, is arguably his best showcase as an action star, but other great examples include The night is coming for us, Head shotand Triple Threat.
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