Now that you’ve seen The Legend of the Ten Rings, what else can slake your thirst for butt-kickery?
So *pulls up chair, turns it backwards and sits down* you went to see a martial arts movie. You did good. But now you need more, and are maybe wondering where to start.
We got you — assembled are 10 (natch) more stops for anyone interested.
This is by no means and exhaustive list (either in terms of time period or genre breadth, because there’s, uh. . . a lot to cover on both fronts), but hopefully serves as a solid starting point for anyone wanting more of the martial arts action and fantasy that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings so ably showcases. You won’t find gimmes like the Rush Hour films or The Matrix or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (but, like, watch those if you haven’t), more an exploration along closely related tangents. We’ll definitely showcase some familiar faces and settings, and try to offer a variety of “flavors” of eastern action and fantasy. There are decades of this stretching back across dozens of countries and multiple continents, but I’m mostly trying to focus on modern-ish (within the past 3 decades) examples.
Starting (in chronological order of release) with a couple giants:
POLICE STORY 3: SUPERCOP (1992) — Directed by Stanley Tong
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Michelle Yeoh starts walking away with Act 3 of Shang-Chi almost as soon as she shows up in the movie, given that she swiped Jackie Chan’s signature series out from under him during its third entry.
Police Story became Chan’s defining action film because of its canny alchemy of comedy, melodrama, fast-paced action, and legendary stunt work. For the third entry, Chan teamed up with Yeoh — an established Hong Kong action star herself, on something of a second career boom. She not only ably matches Chan’s action chops and immediately establishes an enjoyable “prickly partners” buddy dynamic, she also jumps a gotdamn motorcycle onto a moving train.
For. Real. Life.
Police Story 3 is a cracking showcase of the more “street level” action that Simu Liu so deftly showcases in the first half of Marvel’s latest (such as the dynamite bus fight from all the trailers), alongside the film’s larger showcase set pieces. Chan, Yeoh, director Stanley Tong, and a veteran stunt team (which would soon include the late, great Brad Allen, Shang-Chi’s action coordinator) are all operating at their peak.
And they weren’t the only ones on a hot streak at the time. . .
FIST OF LEGEND (1994) — Directed by Gordon Chan
The fact that I could probably fill half this list with Jet Li films and still have huge landmarks missing says, I hope, enough about his body of work that I don’t need to devote paragraphs here explaining why you should watch a ton of his movies.
(But seriously, he’s made so many bangers.)
However, if I were to recommend just one — not necessarily just “the best” one or “the most famous” one, but the film that best captures his electric screen presence as well as showcasing his martial arts skills, it would be Fist of Legend. In a crackerjack story of love, responsibility, brotherhood, and kicking fascists in the fucking face, Li plays the role of Chen Zen, a Chinese modern folk hero first portrayed by Bruce Lee, as he takes on the Black Dragon Clan in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in 1937. He finds enemies and allies in unexpected places, discovers uncomfortable secrets, and every time he’s forced into a fight, the film is exploring character, theme, or planting information for a later reveal.
The result is exactly what you’d expect with legends acting at the top of their game, from an explosive one-vs.-the-room fight to a two-on-one finale that almost certainly influenced The Matrix and The Raid, among countless others.
All in all, a slightly more serious affair than the previous entry, but if it’s laughs you’re looking for. . .
KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004) — Directed by Stephen Chow
Sometimes a unique artist plunges both hands into a genre’s past and decides to make a movie using literally everything they managed to pull out. Kung Fu Hustle isn’t just an action comedy tweaking the nose of Chosen Hero narratives, and it’s not just a reverent tribute to decades of martial arts cinema legends (some of whom appear in the film or worked on it), and it’s not just a showcase for Stephen Chow’s considerable comedic and action chops.
It’s somehow all of those things at the same time as well as being a full realization of the exaggerated action sensibilities director/star Chow showcased in Shaolin Soccer, used to tell the story of a down-on-his-luck petty criminal, the malevolent Axe Gang, and the colorful cast of characters who live in Pig Sty Alley. With fights designed by genre giants like Sammo Hung and Yuen Woo-Ping as well as actors who’ve been putting in the work in this genre for decades, Chow strikes a miraculous balance between putting his own stamp on the genre and writing a love letter to the film’s Hong Kong forebears.
But as much as we love seeing seasoned professionals work, it’s also nice to see an exciting new face enter the scene. Which leads me to. . .
CHOCOLATE (2008) — Directed Prachya Pinkaew
Smarter writers than I could spend a whole article diving into the relative merits of neuro-atypical representation in this film (Yanin plays Zen, an autistic young woman who’s able to learn martial arts by copying the moves of students at the school near her home and from Bruce Lee and Tony Jaa movies), but as action films go, it simply whips ass. The familiar theme of “running from a toxic family” is on full display here, as Zen’s initially well-meaning “debt collections” for her mother’s cancer treatment put her in the cross-hairs of a Yakuza boss.
Who’s also her dad.
Fortunately, after some empathetic outreach and explanations, everyone’s able to compromise on a — NAH, I’M JUST JOKING, it turns into Ass-whoopin’ O’clock, and it rules. The film takes a while to ramp up, but then barely stops to catch its breath for the entire final act. There’s one particularly rad extended shot of Zen kicking and punching her way down the side of a building that deserves any action fan’s time.
Speaking of time commitments…
RED CLIFF I & II (2008/2009) — Directed by John Woo
I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if there weren’t a John Woo movie on this list, but there’s a reason I went with the 4 1/2 hour historical epic.
Spoiler: it’s because it’s one (or sometimes two) of the best films of its kind from the past 25 years.
Set at the end of the Han dynasty just before the “Three Kingdoms” period of Imperial China, the 2-part film centers on the Battle of Chi Bi (the titular Red Cliffs) and the great alliance of historical figures — highly fictionalized, by Woo’s own admission — who stood against the treacherous Chancellor Cao Cao. Tony Leung (reteaming with the Hong Long legend for the first time since 1992’s Hard Boiled) is warrior/poet Zhao Yu, who joins strategic minds with Takeshi Kaneshiro’s Zhuge Liang to coordinate the alliance’s stand against the Chancellor’s much stronger force. Woo applies his signature clearly-choreographed and slow-mo-filled action to the stage of large-scale sword-and-horse action without missing a step, applying just the right measure of superhuman strength or agility when needed. But the film is often just as happy luxuriating in lyrical dialogue scenes or flights of symbol-heavy magical realism.
It’s not unlike a “What If…?” episode pitched as “What if WenWu used the 10 rings to do good?” but told over two movies and starring enough memorable characters for four more.
And if it’s more sagas you’re wanting. . .
RUROUNI KENSHIN: ORIGINS (2012) — Directed by Keishi Ōtomo
Yeah, I’m back on my bullshit. I won’t spend much more time than I already have on either the fantastic live-action trilogy or the two-part conclusion that dropped on Netflix this year. But the simple fact is that the Rurouni Kenshin films comprise one of the best action sagas ever — as in: all bangers, no duds, constant growth, great finish. I’m irrevocably reminded of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films when it comes to comparable success in adapting hundreds of pages of source material to film.
But why include this particular film? In addition to also technically being a “comic book” hero, Kenshin Himura is a former assassin (ding) who turned his back on his old life (ding) only to be pulled back into the fight after his new Found Family is threatened (ding ding ding). And, like Legend of the Ten Rings, Keishi Ōtomo’s Rurouni Kenshin: Origins is a great self-contained (ahem) origin story for the title character as well as a springboard to further adventures with its endearing cast.
It’s also a showcase of doing memorable and stylized action on a smaller budget than Hollywood competitors, and our next entry is a perfect example of making even less into something special.
NINJA II: SHADOW OF A TEAR (2013) — Directed by Isaac Florentine
No list of modern action film recommendations could be considered complete with a showing of either DTV action legend Scott Adkins or “small-screen” guru Isaac Florentine, and Ninja II may just be their masterpiece*.
(*It’s either this or Undisputed III: Redemption)
A sequel to the 2009 DTV actioner Ninja, followup Shadow of a Tear finds American Casey (Adkins), adopted member of the Koga ninja clan, on a quest for vengeance against the shadowy organization that killed his wife. It’s like what a feature-length version of WenWu’s own vengeful rampage might have looked like, minus the power of the rings. And Adkins is no Tony Leung — but in spite of that thoroughly “a little ’80s even for the ’80s” plot and the specter of White Dude Action Tourists clogging the genre over previous decades, he and Florentine craft a highly compelling bare-knuckle revenge yarn mostly on the strength of Adkins’ charisma and acrobatic fighting style.
But if a tight 95 isn’t what you’re looking for. . .
BAAHUBALI: THE BEGINNING/BAAHUBALI: THE CONCLUSION (2015/2017) — Directed by S.S. Rajamouli
Over 320 minutes, telling a tale spanning 50 years, this multi-generational action epic answers the question “what if superheroes were mythic heroes and gods” with another question: “what if mythic heroes whipped ass like superheroes?”
S.S. Rajamouli’s 2-part opus was inspired by concepts from the writer-director’s father and comics from his youth that retold religious legends and myths, as well as the Mahābhārata (one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India). The result is —for those seeking a reductive western frame of reference — akin to Hamlet playing out on the scale of Exodus with a high gloss visual aesthetic that delights in the obvious exaggeration of its practical scale as well as its physics-defying digital effects. The film begins with the infant prince Mahendra Baahubali (Indian superstar Prabhas) being rescued from death by his grandmother and raised in secret far away from his father’s (also played by Prabhas) kingdom of Mahishmathi in the wake of betrayal and murder.
The structure is unconventional, following the young hero from birth to young adulthood as he returns to his homeland, finds love, joins a rebellion, and discovers his birthright, only to stop for an extended flashback and hour and a half into the first film, which then also takes up most of the second film. It’s like pausing the Star Wars Trilogy right after Empire to watch the Prequels, except the Baahubali movies deliberately use these nested narratives for compounding dramatic effect.
It also knows when to follow the question of “could this conversation be a sword fight?” with “could this sword fight be a musical number?” — an attitude that exemplifies the film’s aim to explore as much possible story while also delivering some of the most buck while awesome shit you’ve ever seen.
On the other hand, if you’re in the mood for a period action film with an all-star cast that’s a bit less of a time commitment. . .
MASTER Z: IP MAN LEGACY (2018) — Yuen Woo-Ping
Much like Shang-Chi and the rest of the MCU, you don’t have to have seen the Ip Man films to have a blast with Master Z.
I mean, you should watch them. There’s 4 of them, they’re all great, they’re all on Netflix, Donnie Yen fights Sammo Hung in the second one and it’s amazing, BUT. You can just jump into the story of Wing Chun master Cheung Tin-chi (Jin Zhang, reprising his role as the antagonist from Ip Man 3) as he tries to leave the world of martial arts behind to run a grocery store and care for his kid. But like any good reluctant badass, he must once again strap on his butt-kicking shoes to deal with local street gangs and drug lords, including heavies played by none other than Dave Bautista and Michelle Yeoh.
Master Z is playing a lot of familiar notes, but director Yuen Woo-Ping (Drunken Master, In the Line of Duty IV, Iron Monkey, Tai Chi Master, Wing Chun — you’re writing these down, right?) knows how to play them damn well, and how to add a few new elements to the mix. Bautista in particular gets two absolutely show-stopping brawls, and the filmmakers also know exactly when to employ Michelle Yeoh’s still razor-sharp skills.
Not everyone can age as gracefully, of course — but you can make that work, too. . .
THE PAPER TIGERS (2021) — Directed by Quoc Bao Tran
One of the things a martial arts movie has to do is make you care about the fights, weaving character and narrative into the violent ballet so that the fight is the only possible way to explore the emotional moment of the story to its fullest cinematic extent.
They also have to be exciting to watch, which is why it’s a bit of a flex for Quoc Bao Tran to center his feature film debut on a trio of middle aged Average Joes who would rather go out of their way to avoid a fight because they know how it’ll mess up their joints in the moment and feel even worse in the morning. Three former Kung Fu prodigies are unexpectedly reunited when their master is killed, and the journey toward absolution will examine past grievances as well as current struggles with jobs, health, families, and legacy.
What makes The Paper Tigers special, apart from the clear passion for the genre infusing the independent production (you tell an entire Karate Kid style story just using the material from the film’s opening montage about the Tigers’ training), but how Tran cannily employs the expected genre trappings of Hong Kong action comedies against the backdrop of Seattle and the complex dynamics of Asian-American communities. The filmmakers have a genuine talent for applying the right kind of “old guys in minivans with bad knees” twist to genre staples like slapstick chases and final showdowns, often landing on a key ingredient to landing the film’s dramatic beats.
Of the other possible contenders this year, this is the one I felt most appropriate to include and therefore end on. But this is hardly meant to be an even partially “complete” list — Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee films or The Yin Yang Master are more extreme examples of the sort of vibrant (and often fuzzy) fantasy that pervades the final act of Shang-Chi, and you could easily make another entire list just off the filmography of Donnie Yen or Gordon Liu, and if you go off on a tangent before hitting every item on this or any other list, do so. What’s important isn’t finding everything immediately.
What’s important is that you’re looking.