Source: Pastermagazine

Wading through the abundance of wretched Chuck Norris flicks is difficult enough, so with the surprising abundance of martial arts movies currently available on Netflix, becoming acquainted with the genre, in all of its permutations and subgenres and fighting styles and time periods, can seem intimidating. After all, “martial arts” is a pretty broad qualifier—we’re talking samurai (chambara) films and pulpy kung-fu dubs, modern historical epics and blockbuster video game fodder alike. Which is why we’ve found the best of the best martial arts movies streaming on Netflix and have ranked them here, all with the hope that you’ll like what you see and really seek out some deep-cut classics when you next peruse your local indie film store.


Equilibrium

Equilibrium

20. Equilibrium

Year: 2002
Director: Kurt Wimmer
In Equilibrium, Taye Diggs plays a future fascist law enforcement officer named Brandt, and near the climax of the film, Brandt gets his face cut off. That’s his whole face, impeccably separated from his head, hair- to jawline. This follows a kind of lightning-quick, future samurai sword fight in which Christian Bale’s character, the heroically named John Preston, has singlehandedly massacred his way, gun in one hand and sword in the other, through one law enforcement officer after another, determined to wrench humanity from the binds of a totalitarian state that has outlawed—you guessed it—feelings. Much like Taye Diggs’ face, Equilibrium is quite pretty in its action, very symmetrical. But also like his face, the fact that I just gave away a meaty part of the climax should be easily disconnected from whether or not you should still watch Equilibrium. You should: it’s all as simultaneously bonkers and well-mannered as the moment in which Taye Diggs’ face slides off the front of his head like salami from a meat slicer. —Dom Sinacola


Bloodsport

Bloodsport

19. Bloodsport

Year: 1988
Director: Newt Arnold
There are tomes to be written and classes to be taught on the perplexing existence of Bloodsport, but perhaps the film is best summarized in one moment: the infamous Scream. Because in these 40 seconds or so, the heart and soul of Bloodsport is bared with little concern for taste, or purpose, or respect for the physically binding laws of reality—in this moment is a burgeoning movie star channeling his best attributes (astounding physicality; years of suppressed rage; the juxtaposition of grace and violence that is his well-oiled and cleanly shaven corporeal form) to make a go at real-live Hollywood acting. While Bloodsport is the movie that announced Jean-Claude Van Damme and his impenetrable accent to the world—as well as serving as the crucible for (seriously) every single plot of every Van Damme movie to come—it’s also a defining film of the decade, positioning martial arts as certifiable blockbuster action cinema. Schwarzenegger and Stallone? These were beefy mooks that could believably be action stars. Van Damme set the bar higher: his body became a better and bloodier weapon than any hand-cannon previous mumbling, ’80s box-office draws could ever wield. —Dom Sinacola


The Karate Kid

The Karate Kid

18. The Karate Kid

Year: 1984
Director: John G. Avildsen
Ralph Macchio’s crane-legged Karate Kid would become an icon of the ’80s, as would Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi, the sensei who trains the bullied Daniel LaRusso in martial arts.

While many of the scenes can feel a little worn, that’s mostly due to how much the film has been copied in the years since its release.

It also features one of the great villains of ’80s cinema in the merciless Cobra Kai coach, Sensei John Kreese: “Sweep the leg, Johnny.” —Josh Jackson


The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi

17. The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi

Year: 2003
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Takeshi Kitano is Japan’s jack of all trades, a filmmaker who’s as comfortable generating slow-burning Yakuza flicks as he is making arthouse enigmas like Takeshis’or comedies like Glory to the Filmmaker!. With Zatoichihe manages to do all three at once and have a grand old time in the process. Maybe it’s offputting to describe a film in which gangsters get sliced and diced like so much veg as “joyful,” but such is Zatoichi’s weirdly ebullient tone. And why wouldn’t it be? Shintaro Katsu’s screen vision of the blind swordsman is a national treasure; Kitano totally vibes with that, and the result is as much a celebration of the character as it is a terrific modern chambara film. —Andy Crump


Man of Tai Chi

Man of Tai Chi

16. Man of Tai Chi

Year: 2013
Director: Keanu Reeves
It’s still a phrase that lodges in the throat: “Director: Keanu Reeves.” But for anyone who left John Wickloose-limbed and exhausted due to the sheer grace of Reeves’ action chops, it should come as absolutely no surprise that the man—the one and only Neo—can direct the fuck out of a martial arts movie. With little frills, a paint-by-numbers plot, a Tai Chi phenom in Tiger Chen (who also served as Reeves’ teacher and, for Kill Bill, Uma Thurman’s stunt double), a strong woman character who seems smarter than all the beefy dudes beating each other senseless surrounding her, and Reeves’ ever-present sonic mangling of the English language, Man of Tai Chi is pretty much exactly what the title suggests: an exhilarating, inertial obsession both with movement as art as power and with those who wield it inimitably. Testament to Reeves’s intelligence as a self-didact who just wants to do right by those folks who put their trust in him over the course of his many-decade career, Man of Tai Chi is exactly what you most hoped for when you first saw who directed it. That it’s awesome is surprising—and it’s even better for that. —Dom Sinacola


Red Cliff

Red Cliff

15. Red Cliff

Year: 2008
Director: John Woo
When we think of John Woo, we tend to think of gun ballads and Chow Yun-Fat. We’re not wired to think of large-scale portrayals of warfare, much less period dramas set during the end of the Han Dynasty. Magnolia split the film more or less in twain for its U.S. release; you won’t find the full 288-minute version on Netflix Instant, but Red Cliff feels complete even with roughly half its content rotting on the cutting floor. This is a towering film, one that’s filled with allusion and metaphor, stratagem and scheming, sentimentality and philosophy, and eye-popping battle sequences that afford Woo plenty of room to harmonize historical accuracy with the signature flourishes that make him an action maestro. —Andy Crump


13 Assassins

13 Assassins

14. 13 Assassins

Year: 2011
Director: Takashi Miike
An adaptation of Seven Samurai more in spirit than in tone and plot, Miike’s 13 Assassins is a sprawling blood bath of mythic proportions—so, in other words, nothing new for the Japanese auteur. What Miike later expounded upon with his faithful adaptation of Masaki Kobayashi’s Hara-kiri (also available on Netflix streaming) he began here, translating classicchamabara films into neo-realistic accounts of a gritty, painful time for Japanese culture, making historical epics literally eviscerating experiences. Long and grueling, 13 Assassins could easily be Miike’s best film—a high honor coming from such a multifaceted and unsettling filmmaker—but the film is worth watching if only for the moment when the phrase “TOTAL MASSACRE” makes its reappearance. Just … goose bumps. —Dom Sinacola


Chocolate

Chocolate

13. Chocolate

Year: 2008
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Chocolate is a pretty odd premise that succeeds because the action is just so good. One might summarize it thusly: “It’s like Rain Man, except with more muy thai.” As in, the lead character is an autistic savant, except instead of counting toothpicks, her talents mostly lay in kicking people in the face. Casting is critical to its success; lead Yanin “Jeeja” Vismistananda is an ostensibly adorable waif, which makes her appear as a most unlikely butt-kicker. After a childhood spent mnemonically absorbing martial arts movies, however, she turns into a tool of vengeance unleashed upon the gangster threatening her mother. The fight scenes are over-the-top ridiculous but thnankfully wireless, which makes for a stylish, exuberant film. —Jim Vorel


Shaolin

Shaolin

12. Shaolin

Year: 2011
Director: Benny Chan
It’s pretty rare that one can look back on the history of a genre, pick out a classic style of film, and say, “Let’s lovingly recreate it as it would have been made in the modern era.” Look at horror: How well did that work for Van Helsing or The Wolfman? But Shaolin somehow manages to pull that off, a modern revitalization of the classic “Shaolin temple” film subtype. It integrates tropes, such as a man on the run begging entry into the temple, with the expected training sequences established by The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. But it also gets the best it can from its modern effects budget, and features Jackie Chan in the most sensible way one can use him in the 2010s, which is as fluid comic relief. This is the kind of premise that could have simply felt like nostalgia or a cash-grab, but is pulled off with excitement and reverence in equal measure. —Jim Vorel


Flash Point

Flash Point

11. Flash Point

Year: 2007
Director: Wilson Yip
Flash Point could probably have gotten away with spending its whole running time simmering through its central cat-and-mouse crime yarn, so long as it still ended with Donnie Yen and Collin Chou beating the tar out of each other. Theirs is a brawl for the ages, a knock-down, drag-out scrap between two titans of the martial arts genre that holds back nothing in the brutality department. Luckily for us, Wilson Yip makes the rest of Flash Point just as propulsive and exciting as its climax, but the film’s real draw lies in seeing its two biggest stars lock horns. —Andy Crump


Wing Chun

Wing Chun

10. Wing Chun

Year: 1994
Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Michelle Yeoh would become well-known six years later with the release of cross-cultural smash hitCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but she was a star in martial arts cinema from the 1980s onward, and Wing Chun is one of the best overall star vehicles for her great physical (and comedic) talents. Tonally, it’s sort of an unusual film, as much romantic comedy as it is martial arts movie, but without sacrificing the gravitas of the action sequences. It manages to be both charming, as the story of a country woman protecting her village, and a thrilling collection of set-pieces largely practical in their special effects. It’s hard not to fall in love a little bit with Yeoh by the end—she’s as beautiful as she is talented.—Jim Vorel


Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

9. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Year: 2013
Director: Stephen Chow and Derek Kwok
No list like this would ever be complete without an entry care of Stephen Chow, and so while the Hong Kong director’s Western breakthrough, the bonkersShaolin Soccer, is also available to stream, the even bonkers-ier Journey to the West is a better place to start. Monumentally popular in China, breaking all-time box office records (even beating out Transformers 4, so you know this shit means business), Journey is based on a Chinese literary classic of the same name, but saturated with Chow’s now infamous wit, slapstick, and barely-containable glee at the possibility of fantasy filmmaking. Every scene is an elaborate tour de force of stunts and battles and exaggerated athleticism—just like every scene in every film of his to come before—but Journey takes that extra step to imbue its traditional genre tropes with grotesquerie and phantasmagorical imagination, transforming a pretty basic story about one monk’s path to enlightenment into Terry Gilliam’s wet dream, replete with pig monsters and monkey spirits and steampunk and practically everything in between. So much more than a martial arts flick, this feels like a super-gifted filmmaker doing exactly what he was born to do. —Dom Sinacola


The Legend of Drunken Master

The Legend of Drunken Master

8. The Legend of Drunken Master

Year: 1994
Director: Chia-Liang Liu
1994’s Drunken Master II (released in the U.S. as The Legend of Drunken Master) is Jackie Chan’s best movie—by far. It features everything uniquely awesome about Chan’s martial-arts movie stardom while showcasing each of his prime elements (fluidity of motion/technique, comedic timing, sheer athleticism) better than in any one of his other cinematic punch-outs, including the original 1978 Drunken Master(starring an obviously much younger Chan). Here he leads as Wong Fei Hung, a Chinese folk hero who employs his Zui Quan (Drunken Boxing) skills to stop the corrupt British consul set on illegally exporting Chinese artifacts out of the country. While nearly all the action sequences are wonderfully exhaustive and memorable, the final fight is a breathless show-stopper. —K. Alexander Smith


Ip Man

Ip Man

7. Ip Man

Year: 2008
Director: Wilson Yip
2008’s Ip Man was finally the moment when the truly excellent but never fairly regarded Donnie Yen came into his own, playing a loosely biographical version of the legendary grandmaster of Wing Chun and teacher of a number of future martial arts masters, one of whom was Bruce Lee. The film takes place in 1930s Foshan (a city famous for martial arts in southern/central China), where the unassuming master tries to weather the 1937 Japanese invasion and occupation of China peacefully, but is eventually forced into action—limb-shattering, face-pulverizing action. This semi-historical film succeeds gloriously: both as cinematic triumph and as martial arts fan-bait. —K. Alexander Smith


The Grandmaster

The Grandmaster

6. The Grandmaster

Year: 2013
Director: Kar Wai Wong
Kar Wai Wong will indefatigably make anything elegant, and so it’s a given that The Grandmaster is a gorgeously paced historical epic told in patient piecemeal. A loose chronicle of the nascent legend of Yip Man (see #7), the film skirts the line between noir-ish tragedy and chiaroscuro thriller, rarely leaving room to discern the difference. From an opening set-piece that will leave you wondering why any other director since would ever bother capturing rain droplets in slo-motion, to one masterfully orchestrated balsa-wood-tower of martial arts prowess after another, there is little left to say about Wong’s directing other than the cliché: this is balletic action filmmaking, heartfelt and beautiful but never so far removed from the brutality of the action at hand that it romanticizes the pummeling of so many hapless foes. There are penalties to these punches and consequences to these kicks—there should be little doubt that The Grandmaster is not just a masterpiece of its genre but one of Kar Wai Wong’s best. That Netflix is only streaming the dumbed-down American version shouldn’t keep you from enjoying what brilliance is on display. —Dom Sinacola


 Iron Monkey

Iron Monkey

5. Iron Monkey

Year: 1993
Director: Yuen Woo-ping
One might reasonably call Iron Monkey the quintessential Hong Kong martial arts film of the ’90s, well known in the U.S. as well thanks to the enterprising efforts of a young Quentin Tarantino, who convinced Miramax to give it a successful U.S. release. However, one should really see the original Chinese version in its unedited state for the performances by Yu Rongguang as the vigilante Iron Monkey and Donnie Yen at his best as the father of a boy who would go on to become one of China’s greatest folk heroes (and subject of many films as well). Purely entertaining, Iron Monkey never takes itself overly seriously, striking an easygoing balance between hyper-kinetic, somewhat unrealistic action and a broadly appealing, Robin Hood-like story. It’s the definition of a kung fu people-pleaser. —Jim Vorel


Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior

Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior

4. Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior

Year: 2003
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
After a decade-long trend toward ever more prominent wire work and special effects, Tony Jaa’s 2003 Thai star vehicle Ong-Bak was a return to insane stunts (all performed by Jaa himself) and hard-hitting action. Featuring an utter lack of both wire-fu and CGI, Ong-Bak is a jaw-dropping viewing experience. While the story is little more than an excuse to trek across Thailand (both Bangkok and the countryside) in a constant stream of crazy chase sequences and even crazier fights, the film is so unashamed of being exactly what it is and nothing more that one can’t help but smile and fully resign to being blown away by some of the most impressive displays of martial arts—and physicality in general—to hit the screen in the new millennium. —K. Alexander Smith


The Way of the Dragon (Return of the Dragon)

The Way of the Dragon (Return of the Dragon)

3. The Way of the Dragon (Return of the Dragon)

Year: 1972
Director: Bruce Lee
Bruce Goddamn Lee. That’s probably as much incentive as anybody needs to check out Way of the Dragon, because let’s face it: Lee is a screen god, a dynamo of physicality and magnetism whose legend is still revered today. Here, he does battle with the mob to protect his family’s restaurant in Rome, eventually locking horns with Chuck Norris in the Colosseum. (The mob flies Norris in as a last-ditch effort. It makes as much sense in the film as it does on paper.) You probably didn’t know that you needed to watch that bout to lead a full, meaningful existence, but you do, so no matter how willfully goofy Way of the Dragon may sound, it’s a martial arts essential. And if that’s not enough: The Big Boss and The Game of Death are also available. —Andy Crump


Kill Bill Vol.1 and Vol. 2

Kill Bill Vol.1 and Vol. 2

2. Kill Bill Vol.1 and Vol. 2

Year: 2003, 2004
Director: Quentin Tarantino
The greatness of Kill Bill Vol. 1 was in its finely tuned balance between acting as an homage to classic martial arts movies (both Chinese and Japanese) and as a blistering entry into the genre canon on its own visceral, offbeat merits. In the early 2000s, there was perhaps no cinematic experience like it (well, at least until Vol. 2 arrived). The gory but graceful tea house battle with the Crazy 88; the intensely claustrophobic kitchen showdown—these are only two excellent examples of everything that makes a martial arts movie superb. That Tarantino filled two movies with this stuff of greatness makes for some truly transcendent viewing. —K. Alexander Smith


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Year: 2000
Director: Ang Lee
Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning epic is not only the highest-grossing foreign film ever, but it also happens to be yet another foreign film that changed the cinematic landscape: a kung fu flick with pulpy soul and a romantic heart. Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi play 19th-century warriors whose loyalty and vitality are tested by a series of events that lead each to contemplate their many life decisions that brought them to that point. Beyond the entrancing and lyrical storytelling, Crouching Tiger stands as a rare, beautiful beacon of hope: a foreign film that was actually universally embraced by Western audiences. Here’s to hoping that happens more often. —Jeremy Medina