Watching individuals beat each other up is a primitive thrill. When they do it elegantly, particularly! That is one of the reasons why in recent times, the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) sport has become so prominent. That is also why everyone enjoys a good movie about martial arts performed by martial arts actors. Kung fu, Karate, Kickboxing, Muay Thai, Jiu-jitsu: name every form you can dream of and a performer who has demonstrated his talent on the silver screen is likely to be there.
We are looking at the very best of such practitioners nowadays: the performers who have mixed their martial arts mastery with a flair for the dramatic. Some of the names on the list of top martial artist in the world you will certainly recognize, while others might be less recognizable. Hard-earned talent, a gift for success and some of the greatest martial arts films ever made are what they all have in common.
Bruce Lee is considered one of the top martial arts actors across the world. While his life at the age of 32 was cut sadly short, Bruce Lee had already achieved more than most individuals in a century at that time. He learned Kung Fu in his short life, invented his own styles of martial art (first Jun Fan Gung Fu, then Jeet Kune Do), published many books, starred as Kato in The Green Hornet series, defied tradition by educating Westerners in the Chinese martial arts, and became one of the world’s greatest movie stars.
The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, Way of the Dragon, Enter the Dragon and Game of Death, his martial arts films, are still held up as the benchmark by which all others are judged, nearly 50 years after his death.
Gravely, who is not in love with Jackie Chan? He is a legitimate hero, renowned for the most of his career for performing all his own stunts (eventually catching up to him before age) and fracturing numerous bones in the process. He is one of the most famous martial arts actors around, apart from that. Whereas other action stars are renowned for their scowls and simmering anger, the best characters of Jackie Chan always appear to have fun, and that fun is irresistible.
Having endured years of rigorous training as a child at the Peking Opera School, Chan was already an accomplished martial artist when in the 1970s, he started acting as a stuntman. Before standing out as a star in his own right, thanks to movies such as Drunken Master, The Big Brawl and Police Story, he had bit appearances in some of Bruce Lee’s movies. In his later Hollywood productions, too, there are plenty to love, including Rush Hour, Shanghai Noon and The Forbidden Kingdom.
Following in the footsteps of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan before him, before taking Hollywood by storm, Jet Li gained success in his homeland. His work in films such as Once Upon A Time In China, Black Mask, and the outstanding sequel of Fist of Legend set him apart as one of his generation’s best martial arts actors.
It was only a case of time before he made a splash on the Western movie scene, which he did in 1997’s Lethal Weapon 4 with his role as the villain. Since then he has kept working steadily in American films. They might not match the likes of Hero, but it is always worth checking out films like Romeo Must Die, The One and Battle. He got the fame of being one of the best American martial arts actors in Hollywood.
In his native land of China, Donnie Yen has long been a Chinese martial arts actors. Yen, an extraordinarily talented martial artist trained in a variety of different styles, broke into the organization as a stuntman in 1983. It was not long until he choreographed the action, directed and acted in the films himself. His leading roles in movies such as Iron Monkey, Ip Man and Hero have strengthened his reputation as one of the most bankable stars in China.
In a handful of Hollywood films, namely Highlander: Endgame, Blade 2 and Shanghai Knights, he broadened his appeal across the pond with supporting roles (and behind the scenes work). Last year, thanks to his role as Chirrut Imwe in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, his global fame reached new heights. Playing the devotee of the blind force enabled him to highlight his martial arts prowess as well as his acting chops.
Chuck Norris is probably best known to mainstream viewers for the “Facts” meme that emerged about a decade ago. You know, “Chuck Norris can slam a revolving door.”… “Chuck Norris doesn’t sleep, he waits.” While he may not be as incredible as those facts suggest, make no mistake: Chuck Norris is the real deal.
It is a multiple black belt in a variety of different styles for instance, such as Karate (fifth grade), Taekwondo (eighth grade) and Tang Soo Dooo Dooo (ninth degree). He has also developed a style of his own, Chun Kuk Do.
His first key role was as a villain in Way of the Dragon, a film by his friend Bruce Lee, wherein the two stars performed an iconic battle in the Colosseum of Rome. Since then, thanks to movies such as The Delta Force, Missing In Action and Firewalker, and his long-running Walker TV series, Texas Ranger, he has become one of the world’s best-known action stars.
Thanks to her work in a few well-chosen Hollywood productions, Michelle Yeoh, one of the most celebrated martial arts actresses in Chinese cinema, is now an international star.
In her youth, Yeoh was a ballet dancer who parlayed her exceptional athleticism into a career as an action star. Like her Police Story 3 co-star Jackie Chan, in several films she became known for doing her own stunts. Before gaining international fame as Chinese agent Wai Lin in the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, she rose to fame with starring roles in films including Magnificent Warriors, Executioners and Tai Chi Master. Wai Lin, hardly the traditional “Bond Girl”, was just as professional as Agent 007 himself.
For the role of Yu Shu Lien in 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, she was nominated for a number of acting awards and returned to the role sixteen years later for the sequel, Sword of Destiny. As she is scheduled to star in the new series Star Trek: Discovery and had a surprise appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, her career is still going high.
Thanks in large part to its success among MMA fighters, everyone knows about Muay Thai today. But when Tony Jaa exploded onto the scene in 2003 with Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, “the art of eight limbs” was considerably less well known. The professional martial artist took the combat style to global attention, which he would later display in two Ong-Bak prequels as well as The Protector of 2005.
As a boy, thanks to his passion for the films of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, Jaa was motivated to learn martial arts. Ultimately, his own films attracted the attention of Chan, who wished to cast him in Rush Hour 3, but it was stopped by scheduling conflicts.
In 2010, Jaa stepped down from the organization to become a Buddhist monk, but returned to acting in 2013. He has since starred in such films as Furious 7, XXX: Xander Cage’s Return and Skin Trade.
Jean-Claude Van Damme
The Brussels Muscles! Okay, maybe Jean-Claude Van Damme would never win any prizes for his capacity to act. Who is caring? For over thirty years, he has been taking it to great martial arts action films.
A second degree black belt in Shotokan Karate, before beginning his acting career, he performed in a number of karate and kickboxing tournaments. He practised Taekwondo and Muay Thai as well.
The 1988 cult classic Bloodsport, which told the real (ish) story of martial artist Frank Dux and his fights in the underground fighting tournament known as the Kumite, broke out with Van Damme. In 1989’s Kickboxer, another cult classic soon followed, wherein he performed a professional martial artist seeking revenge for the murder of his brother at the hands of a ruthless warrior.
In films like Double Impact, Hard Target, Street Fighter and Universal Soldier, more unforgettable performances followed. Thanks to a surprising success at the 2008 JCVD, he has enjoyed a bit of a comeback in recent years.
The newest entry on this ranking is Iko Uwais, which is fantastic news for action fans. At just 34 years of age, his career is just beginning.
Uwais has a classic Hollywood storey of origin (or in his case, Jakarta). Filmmaker Gareth Evans, who was so fascinated with the young martial artist that he cast him in his first film, 2009’s Merantau, spotted him in his Silat dojo. But it was their second collaboration, The Raid of 2012, which blew off the proverbial doors and signalled his emergence as a star of the martial arts. It is action packed, exquisitely choreographed and utterly brutal, regarded as the best martial arts movies of all time. Equally celebrated is the sequel, 2014’s The Raid 2. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he also had a brief but unforgettable cameo.
Kara Hui, a legend of Chinese cinema and one of the greatest female action stars of all time, has an impressive five-decade resume of film credits.
Uncovered by director Lau Kar-leung, Hui was cast and never looked back in his 1976 film Challenge of the Masters. Her early life was dominated by roles made by the legendary Shaw Brothers Studios in a variety of martial arts films, including Invincible Shaolin, Crazy Monkey Kung Fu, Return to the 36th Chamber and White Lotus Clan. In 1982, My Young Auntie, an action comedy for which she won Best Actress at the inaugural Hong Kong Film Awards, was her most iconic appearance. For her, it was the first of three such awards: she also won for At The End of Daybreak in 2010 and Happiness in 2017.