Martial Arts Movies

If you've ever seen a real fight, you've likely noticed a lot more shoving, throat-grabbing, biting, groin elbowing, and only like four high-flying aerial maneuvers. That's why we have martial arts movies.

Just The Facts

  1. Not to be confused with kung fu films or chop socky flicks, martial arts movies are much more "Americanized"--meaning wittier one-liners, subtler plot points, and bigger boobies.
  2. Experienced a major boom in the late 80s that carried over into most of the 90s, but fell largely out of fashion as we neared the new millenium. And then The Matrix happened.
  3. Key players: Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Jean Claude Van Damme, Wesley Snipes, Brandon Lee, Jackie Chan, and (somehow) Keanu Reeves.

Things to Know if You Want to Emerge Victorious From Your Martial Arts Movie

Underground tournaments happen as regularly as tennis matches.

There's going to come a point in every martial arts practitioner's life when they receive a mysterious invitation to an underground karate tournament or "kumite"--whether it be hand-delivered or sent via Facebook invite--that will ultimately test their character and allow them to come away with a prize more valuable than money.

Karate trophy

A little gold trinket, probably.

So when you do, take it in stride. Stop spin kicking that ceiling fan and go pack a bag because you're heading to sunny Thailand/Hong Kong/Tibet/anywhere with a somewhat lax court system.

You don't need pants to win a fight.

You know how, in your day to day life, numerous instances come up that make you stop whatever you're doing and think to yourself, "this would be so much easier if I weren't wearing any pants." As it turns out, you're not alone and you'd probably make a terrific martial artist.

Jean Claude Van Damme has actually made an entire career out of kicking people in the face with his bare legs.

Kickboxer pantsless kick

Timecop pantsless kick

The Quest pantsless kick

To his credit, this is actually one of the most practical things he does. In many instances, the restrictions of pants would put him at a severe disadvantage, particularly in those aforementioned underground tournaments. After all, no one in the UFC wears pants.

But sometimes folks take this concept a little too far. Take, for example, a culminating scene in Showdown in Little Toyko, where Brandon Lee and Dolph Lundgren prepare to fight off a home invasion in the middle of the night. It shows two very different levels of sleepwear: Lee apparently sleeps fully clothed, shoes and all, while Dolph opts shorts, we guess?

But you know what that video doesn't show you? Dolph slipping into a pair of sweatpants before he starts knifing bad guys. We'd be less suspicious about the scene if we hadn't already been forced to endure five minutes in a bath house with a room full of grown men in banana hammock/diaper hybrids.

Showdown Bath House

Guns are more your enemy than you're actual enemy is your enemy.

For a martial arts expert, using such a direct and powerful piece of weaponry as a gun would be nothing short of cheating. It would also rob the audience of the one thing they paid to see: a dude flipping and kicking and spinning and punching and busting people open with his acrobatic ways. It would be like Adele using auto-tune or Billy Joel playing the key-tar. (All right, one of those things actually sounds amazing, but you get the point.)

So, as far as the martial artists in these films are concerned, the only good gun is an empty gun with which to bash a bad guy's nuts in with. (Also: laser guns are pretty sweet.) Jackie Chan has used literally every other inanimate object imaginable to give someone a concussion, but he's never touched a gun.

But you can't just not use a gun. It would be inconvenient and really stupid if the hero, with access to more artillery than the NRA, just kind of forgot these things existed or didn't know how to use them. Now, generally, we don't expect to see automatic weapons at the Regional Karate Championships, so Ralph Macchio, this rule doesn't apply to you.

Karate Kid tournament

But when the main protagonist of a movie is a cop or military personnel, there's got to be a clearly-defined reason for not strapping as many guns to their body as anatomically possible, which usually goes something like, "I haven't touched a gun since that time I accidentally shot and killed a guy and the unforeseen consequences of the gun-killing turned me into a part-time Buddhist and wah, wah, wah. Guns are evil."

At some point, you might even be faced with the perilous decision to either shoot your enemy or to very possibly be killed by attempting a fair fight that you are obscenely outmatched in. But, not to fret, this decision is really just a red herring. You'll swiftly kill the bad dude with some ingenious last minute escape and...fingers eventually throwing him off something very tall and onto something very sharp.

And, really, it's all for the better. Look at it this way, if Steven Seagal's character in Out For Justice had used his gun like a regular cop, he never would've had to beat half a biker bar senseless with a cue ball wrapped in a towel. Wesley Snipes' most vampire-killingest character would've been called Pistol. Jean Claude Van Damme's character in Street Fighter wouldn't have needed to dropkick M. Bison off a floating control desk thingy to his certain death.

Guns tend to impede creativity, is what we're saying.

Don't worry, they'll attack you one at a time.

Whoever invented the stereotype that Asians are really good at math has obviously never seen a Hong Kong action movie.

Bruce Lee vs dojo

100 sufficiently-trained kung fu experts + home field advantage = 1 very dead protagonist. Right?

In Fist of Fury, where this trope was first popularized, Bruce Lee takes on an entire dojo's worth of Japanese karate students with nothing but a pair of nunchukus and a devil-may-be-terrified-of-me attitude. The key to his success, however, was not only the melon-sized courage he was hiding in those baggy pants, but also the fact that it apparently isn't "hip" to gang up on your opponent.

But, come on, are you really trying to tell us that the 99th and 100th guys in that fight, who have now watched 98 of their friends and acquaintances get the teeth slapped out of their mouths with some nunchukus, aren't considering taking a run at him in conjunction?

Fist of Legend
Eww, no we're not going to double team that guy...

In the many subsequent incarnations of that famous dojo scene--including The Matrix Reloaded, where Neo battles hundreds of Agent Smith clones as if he was playing Wii Tennis with his nephews--that whole "too honorable to straight-up gang stomp the good guy" reasoning doesn't fly. We know this because Agent Smith looks like, talks like, and smells like a dick. (For those of you who didn't catch the Smell-O-Vision screenings in theaters: your loss.) Seriously, he wouldn't give a shit about honor. The only logical excuse, then? They're afraid of accidentally punching their coworker, which would inevitably lead to a sit-down meeting with HR.

No matter how you look at it, average-looking dudes in crisp, white karate gis or crisp, black suits are the storm troopers of martial arts cinema.

Flashback to your training montage when in peril.

Imagine yourself in a real, bare knuckle brawl with someone who we've already established is much thicker, taller, and bicep-ier than you. Now, the keen among you might think that in a scenario such as this, you'd want to funnel every last drop of your concentration into the act of not being mashed into stew meat. Well, guess what? Every martial arts movie ever made says you're a complete fucking numskull. (Literally, you're not going to be able to feel your brain carriage for days because you totally screwed this up.)

Turns out, the key to living the rest of your days with all your limbs intact is in taking a couple minutes to just chill out and have a good think about all the crane-kicking techniques your sensei taught you back in the first act. Forget your instincts, which are likely screaming at you with bulging eyes that taking time out of your battle to indulge in a brief Karate 101 review is a terrible idea--one that will at least save you the hassle of buying expensive, form-fitting clothes in the future, as boneless blobs don't need to shop at Gap--all you need to do is relapse to that time your instructor beat your ass with an oak branch in his basement.

Victory awaits!

Size doesn't matter. For real.

It's nearing the end of the movie and there's only one thing left to do: beat the baddest bad guy of them all. Not to be confused with the main villain, this dude's name doesn't appear anywhere in the opening credit sequence as he's likely not too famous, unless having pectorals the size of Nicki Minaj's butt bazooka qualifies a person to be famous these days.

It should and it does.

This is the last of the henchmen; the unstoppable force and immovable object put in place to make sure the boss doesn't have to get his hands dirty. He will be built like a shithouse made out of bricks and the fleshy pulp of his previous opponents.

We know what you're thinking: "why didn't the villain just make this barn-sized pummeler his FIRST line of defense and spare all those other poor underlings the heartache and life-ending kicks to the throat?" To that we simply say, "Pfffffftt! Where's the drama in that? (Logic like yours is the reason a fucking animated panda is the closest a martial artist will ever get to Oscar gold.)

In precisely one quarter of all martial arts films, this meaty abomination is played by Bolo Yeung.

As far back as Enter the Dragon, Bolo has been THE Asian responsible for making audiences and protagonists alike crap themselves. You've undoubtedly seen him in at least three of your nightmares, most notably the ones starring Jean Claude Van Damme.

Coming soon to your brain's theater: Wet Pants 8: This Time It's Personal

It's only when we see this guy's face that we stop for a minute and think, "Oh,, our guy might actually get his heart ripped out of his chest very soon." But not to worry...

Your super secret skill will manifest itself in the final battle.

You've trained long and hard. You went through an entire 80's rock song's worth of punching bricks and running up snowy hills. You've defeated so many of your enemies/fellow tournament competitors that it's downright laughable. But the guy standing in front of you could very well perform a back-breaker with his dick.

Chong Li

"We prefer the term cock-breaker."

But it's cool, because you've still got one last trick up your sleeve. You're probably not even aware of it yourself, which will only make it more badass once it's unleashed upon your foe.

Help won't be arriving any time soon.

If it's more than half an hour into your movie and you're thinking that, sooner or later, backup is going to come storming into the picture, guns blazing in a beautiful lightshow of bullet richochets and grenade blasts...well, you're probably already dead, quite frankly.

No one is coming to help you. No one formidable or professional, anyhow. If you are lucky enough to get a sidekick, they're going to be more of a hindrance than anything. They'll be the "comic relief" that tosses off a few horrendous one-liners, the precocious little kid who can't stay out of the way of other people's fists, or, if karma really digs you, the disproportionately hot chick who knows how to kick some ass and just might ride you like a metro rail at some point.

Van Damme and Rob Schneider

But don't get your hopes up, you're probably getting Rob Schneider.\

By Jacob Trowbridge