Martial Arts films, also known as wuxia (martial heroes) films first gained popularity in the 70s and 80s. Thanks to the Shaw Brothers, who produced a number of martial arts films with English dubs, martial arts films began to reach across continents and gain attention in the west. We also have Bruce Lee to thank for the spread of the martial arts craze as he brought his moves to the silver-screen, spawning many of the artists we know and love today, including Jackie Chan.
While the subgenre of martial arts films hit its first craze during the Bruce Lee era, a whole new craze emerged in the 90s. Thanks to martial artists like Jet Li and Donnie Yen, there are a plethora of films made during the wondrous decade that will live on forever. These are the best martial arts movies from the 90s, ranked.
8 Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story
Based on the life and career of Martial Arts Movie Star Bruce Lee, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story follows Lee after he moves to America and begins teaching traditional Chinese martial arts as he learned them, hoping to gain the approval of his superiors in Hong Kong, while also gaining popularity as a celebrity along the way. The movie was more than just a biopic, covering a variety of topics and specifically showcasing the racism that Lee was faced with in Hollywood. Jason Scott Lee (no relation) was praised for his performance as Lee and while the film was critiqued for its historical inaccuracies, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story is a heart-warming story about the biggest name in martial arts.
7 Rumble in the Bronx
Jackie Chan’s breakout role in Western cinema was Rumble in the Bronx, a story about police officer Keung who arrives in New York for his uncle’s wedding, but soon finds himself in the middle of a brawl when a biker gang wreaks havoc in Bill’s store. Rumble in the Bronx was one of the highest grossing films of 1996, earning 10 times its budget. The film received marvelous reviews from critics, with particular attention paid to Chan’s performance, both through his comedy and his martial arts. Rumble in the Bronx is a stunt-filled action comedy that even led Chan to break his ankle from one of the stunts. Jackie Chan and Stanley Tong, who choreographed the majority of the fight sequences earned them a Hong Kong Film Award for Best Action Choreography.
6 Swordsman II
Swordsman II AKA The Legend of the Swordsman follows traveling martial artist Linghu Chong (Jet Li) and his partner Yue Lingshan as they are faced with an evil sorceress who possesses magic scrolls. The second installation of the Swordsman trilogy, Swordsman II is a Hong Kong wuxia film, which loosely translates to “martial heroes” film. The film was a box-office smash and received a great deal of praise, particularly for Brigitte Lin’s performance as the film’s antagonist Dongfang Bubai. Swordsman II was nominated for seven Hong Kong Film Awards and won the award for Best Costume Make Up Design.
5 Wing Chun
Featuring critically acclaimed actress Michelle Yeoh and martial arts legend Donnie Yen, Wing Chun follows Yip Wing Chun, a talented kung fu practitioner who goes on the warpath when bandits kidnap her friend. Based on the style of Wing Chun Kuen, invented by Abbess Ng Mui, a Buddhist nun, Wing Chun is a powerful female-centric martial arts film that focuses on the only martial art to be invented by a woman. While Wing Chun manages to maintain a level of seriousness on its critiques about the treatment of women, there is still a great deal of silliness weaved throughout the film.
4 Once Upon A Time in China
Once Upon a Time in China kick-started the long-running franchise, which features five feature film sequels and a TV series of the same name. Jet Li plays the part of Wong Fei Hung, a martial-arts teacher who must protect his school while struggling with his feelings for his aunt by adoption. Once Upon a Time in China was a box office success and ran for two months in theaters. The film was nominated for eight Hong Kong Film Awards and took home four for Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Action Choreography, and Best Original Film Score.
3 Drunken Master II
A sequel to the original Drunken Master, this Jackie Chan film is jam-packed with well-choreographed action sequences balanced with comedy, as done in the first film. As this legendary “Drunken Master” Wong Fei-Hung devastates his enemies with the power of just one drink, not only does he deliver powerful blows, but he also tickles your funny bone. Drunken Master II set the record during its box-office run at a whopping HK$40,971,484 (US$ 5,301,693). The film was subject to a great deal of praise from critics and audiences alike and was nominated for a number of awards, winning a Hong Kong Film Award and a Golden Horse Award for Best Action Choreography.
2 Iron Monkey
Starring Donnie Yen before he became known for his Ip Man franchise, as the Iron Monkey in Iron Monkey. In a world where corrupt officials reign, the only one who has the courage to fight the system is the masked “Iron Monkey.” While no one knows his real name or his true identity, he brings hope to the poor and oppressed, earning himself a title as a living legend. A remake of the original Iron Monkey released in 1977, the film was highly acclaimed for its accounts of the suffering of the people and the entrance of a hero like the Iron Monkey. That said, many fans of Hong Kong cinema were upset with the drastic changes that were made to the North American release of the film, including omitting political context from subtitles and removing entire scenes to “cater” to the American audience.
1 Fist of Legend
Fist of Legend, starring Jet Li, a remake of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury set during the beginning of WWII at Shanghai International Settlement under the occupation of the Japanese Army. Fist of Legend is considered one of Li’s most successful films and left an impact on filmmakers internationally, leading the Wachowskis to hire the same choreographer Yuen Woo-ping for their film The Matrix. In 2010, Gordon Chan and Andrew Lau produced a continuation of this film called Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen starring Donnie Yen.
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