I am an ardent fan of action films, especially martial arts films. I have been watching films since childhood and watched a ton of action and martial arts films over the years. In the last few years, I have developed this weird desire to discover martial arts films not produced in Hong Kong and mainstream Hollywood and much to my delight, I have come across some really great ones that I’m going to share. The films included in the list are on the basis of their martial arts content, and not necessarily the film making aspects such as acting, direction, story etc. My only goal is to share the list with hardcore martial arts fanatics like myself who have grown up watching films of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Van Damme, and others.
Just a little disclaimer –
The list is completely based on films that I have watched and doesn’t include cult films such as The Raid, Ong Bak, Undisputed sequels etc. since a lot of people have seen these already and have a cult following. Still, if any particular film is missing in the list then it’s pretty obvious – I haven’t seen it, or I didn’t like it. Finally, the list is not ranked in any manner so please don’t go by the numbers.
1. Kampfansage – Der Letzte Schüler
Director: Johannes Jaeger
Many consider it as the first ever martial arts film from Germany, not sure if that is true or not, but I absolutely enjoyed watching this film a few years back. In 2002, a short film named Kampfansage 2 was released and later developed into a feature film by the same team, which also included some of the cast members and the director (although there is no connection between the two films).
The film was released in 2005 under the title Kampfansage – Der Letzte Schüler. The English title of the film was named The Challenge. The fights are brilliantly choreographed without any CGI or wires (there is a little towards the end but very less). The story is set in a post-apocalyptic world with a rather simple narrative and has fair performances by its cast. It may not be a breakthrough film like Ong Bak or The Raid, but it definitely introduced German martial arts talents such as Mathis Landwehr, Volkram Zschiesche and Mike Möller in front of a global audience.
Director: Gareth Evans
Before The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2, the world of martial arts cinema were introduced to the deadly combo of director Gareth Evans and martial artists and actors Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian. After watching Merantau, I knew it was just a matter of time before Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian become modern icons, and I’m glad they didn’t prove me wrong. The film has some really classic action scenes without any CGI or wire works, something I really love to watch, and something which was reinvented by Tony Jaa. The climax fight was simply euphoric. The film also introduced me to Laurent Buson another great martial artist, sadly, he didn’t get the exposure he deserved.
Finally, a lesser known director from Welsh named Gareth Evans announced his potential to become one of the greatest action directors of our age and he didn’t disappoint either. Its kind of a must watch if you haven’t watched it yet.
Watch the Movie Here.
3. Die Fighting
Director: Fabien Garcia
It all started with Merantau when I saw Laurent Buson for the first time and after a little research on the internet, I discovered the Z-Team, a group of talented yet highly underrated martial artists and actors. I have seen all their short films, which you can find on YouTube, and some of them are even better than any major Hollywood release.
They have won several independent action awards for their shorts which includes Brothers Forever, Fantasy Story and Duel. It took a long time for them to finally come out with a full-length feature Die Fighting that was earlier titled The Price of Success. The film did not get a widespread release, commercial success or critical appreciation, but it is unquestionably one of the best martial arts film from independent production.
The film pays tribute to old school kung fu movies including a Fist of Fury‘ish Dojo fight, Jackie Chan’s drunken boxing, and a spectacular climax fight which will surely give you an adrenaline rush. Fabien Garcia directed, wrote and also choreographed the fights in the film. He is one of those exquisite talents ignored by the big studios. This is certainly one of the must-watch martial art films in recent years. Also, don’t forget to watch their shorts as well.
Watch the Movie Here.
Director: Ernesto Díaz Espinoza
Marko Zaror is a name that needs no introduction in the world of martial arts cinema and Redeemer to me is one of his best works to date after Undisputed 3. The film marks the fourth collaboration between Marko Zaror and director Ernesto Díaz Espinoza after the duo worked on films like Mandrill, Mirageman, and Kiltro. Redeemer showcases Zaror’s fighting skills to his full extent and brilliantly choreographed by none other than Zaror himself that includes a mix of traditional martial arts and MMA. The film’s climax fight is one of the foremost highlights, which stands out from all the other brilliant fight scenes in the film.
Watch the Movie Here.
5. Fighter AKA Fightgirl Ayse
Director: Natasha Arthy
This is presumably one of the most underrated martial arts films of all time. Fightgirl Ayse may not be a high octane action flick like the others on the list, but it is a genuine female-centric martial arts film about women empowerment. It is one of my favourite films as there are not many female-oriented martial arts films that brilliantly balances relationship drama with some beautifully choreographed fights that will remind of The Matrix. The film deals with the life of a high school girl belonging to a conservative Turkish family whose parents want her to be a doctor, but her only passion in life is Martial arts.
The film deals with the consequences and conflicts that unfold due to her passion. It’s really sad that neither director Natasha Arthy nor debutant actress Semra Turan got the widespread recognition that they deserved, in fact, the later hasn’t worked in a film till date. Fighter may not be an action fan’s ultimate dream but it is certainly a gem of a film.
6. Jie Tou Zhi Wang aka The King of the Streets
Director: Zhong Lei, Yue Song
Despite low ratings on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes The King of the Streets is a pretty intriguing action film that boasts to be mainland China’s first street fighting film. The fight scenes are highly impressive, and unlike traditional Chinese films, this one doesn’t use wires and cables. There’s plenty of full contact fights with impressive choreography. Off course, you have to ignore the few aspects such as acting, direction, and a few other elements, but if you are someone like me, who loves to watch films with kickass action, then it is worth watching. Actor and co-director Yue Song does an impressive job in his debut film showing off some impressive fighting skills, if not direction.
Watch the Movie Here.
7. The Rebel or Dòng máu anh hùng
Director: Charlie Nguyen
The Rebel is undoubtedly yet another highly underrated martial arts film of our time. Remember that guy from Tom Yoon Goong fighting against Tony Jaa in the restaurant fight scene. Well, Vietnamese martial artist and actor Johnny Nguyen has been around for quite some time. He was Tobey Maguire’s stunt double in the first two Spider-Man films and also acted as a villain in Tamil science fiction martial arts film – 7aum Arivu (7th Sense).
The Rebel is his best film till date, and it is a real shame that the film never received a cult following like other South Asian films such as Tom Yoon Goong. The film is written, directed and edited by Johnny ‘s own brother Charlie Nguyen. Set in a periodic backdrop, the film features some of the best martial fight scenes that you’ll ever see. The film also features Vietnamese sensation Veronica Ngo and action star Dustin Nguyen. So, if you are looking for a breathtaking martial arts film, then do check it out.
Watch the Movie Here.
8. Unlucky Stars
Director: Dennis Ruel
Do the names Dennis Ruel, Ken Quitugua, Vlad Rimburg, Sam Hargrave, and Emmanuel Manzanares ring any bell to you? If it doesn’t, then you are missing out on some quality martial arts stuff in the indie circle. So, don’t forget to check out their videos on YouTube. Unlucky Stars is an independent martial arts film which pays a great tribute to the Hong Kong action films of the ’80s & ’90s. It took ages for the film to get a release, which is understandable due to various financial and production constraints, but there are no better martial arts films than Unlucky Stars that have come out of the United States in recent times. It’s a shame that big studios fail to notice their talent and passion for martial arts. So, don’t be one of them and check out his brilliant film available for free on their website.
Watch The Movie Here.
9. Once Upon A Time in Shanghai
Director: Ching-Po Wong
Country: Hong Kong
This Philip Ng starrer action vehicle with fight choreography by legendary Sammo Hung will certainly remind you of the good old Bruce Lee films. Philip Ng’s fighting style will make you feel like Bruce Lee is still alive and kicking. The film has some nice visuals, vibrant costumes, and grandeur production design, which makes it even more interesting. Add in few punches, few kicks, some Sammo Hung magic and Andy On in the mix, and you get yourself one of the most entertaining and action-packed films to come out from Hong Kong in the recent years. While most of the films on the list are mostly independent productions without any major studio involvement, Once Upon A Time in Shanghai is not exactly an independent film, but it is definitely underrated.
10. Six String Samurai
Director: Lance Mungia
The only movie on the list which was made before 2000 and arguably yet another highly underrated film. Almost everyone associated with the film has vanished in thin air. Six String Samurai is like – Mad Max meets Kung Fu meets Samurai meets Elvis. The film not only has some excellent fight scenes but also has some great music and even a guitar war. Jeffrey Falcon starred in a few Hong Kong films before Six String Samurai, which also happens to be his first and only major role in his entire film career. He also produced and wrote the screenplay for the film with director Lance Mungia.
Falcon has not appeared in a single film since Six String Samurai, and a very little is known about his whereabouts, rumour has it that he is currently living in China. It’s a shame that we don’t get a chance to see him anymore. Brian Tyler composed the music for the film along with the Red Elvis. Kristian Bernier deserves a special mention for his brilliant cinematography. This movie is for a selected audience who love to watch distinctive or experimental flicks, or if you want to catch some dystopian Samurai-fu-rock n’ roll cocktail.
Watch the Movie Here
That’s It, Guys..! Here is my list of most Underrated Martial Arts Films.
Write down in the comments below if you feel any other movie deserves to be in the list.