8 Martial Arts Masters That Changed Cinema - Mania.com

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8 Martial Arts Masters That Changed Cinema

Will Ninja Assassin's Rain Be the Next?

By Kent Ninomiya     November 24, 2009

8 Martial Arts Masters
© Mania


There’s a lot of hype surrounding the movie Ninja Assassin premiering on November 25. It features Korean star Jeong “Rain” Ji-hoon of Speed Racer fame. Rain is an up and coming star. In fact, Megan Fox, the hottie from Transformers says she has the hots for Rain. Lucky bastard. Ninja Assassin boasts some pretty cool FX and kick ass action sequences, but the question is whether it is enough to elevate Rain to the realm of martial arts cinema master. There is a very short list of martial arts masters who can make that claim.

8. Jackie Chan

Master of the Kung Fu Comedy
Why he’s the master: Jackie Chan was a stuntman on several Bruce Lee movies. When he started making his own films as an actor, he was billed as the next Bruce Lee. In fact, he made a terrible movie called New Fist of Fury in 1976. Chan was smart enough to realize that anyone billed as the next Bruce Lee was doomed to failure. Chan decided to be original and be himself. He is naturally funny and does not take himself seriously. Jackie Chan’s masterpiece is Drunken Master released in 1978. He plays a buffoon who is the most skilled with his martial arts when he was drunk. Chan does not play the tough guy, he plays the lovable clown who you root for. He showed that being a martial arts star does not mean you have to be the tough guy.

7. Jet Li

Master of the Wushu Underdog
Why he’s the master: Jet Li does not have classic movie star looks. He is 5 foot 6 inches tall, has bad skin, and is kind of elfish. What makes Jet Li a star is his raw skill and ability to make us cheer for the underdog. He was a Wushu prodigy, winning 15 gold medals in China as a child. This in a country with hundreds of millions of Wushu students. Jet Li is really, really fast. Those super quick kicks and punches you see in his films are not sped up in post production. In fact, he has been known to move too fast for the cameras to detect his movements. Jet Li is known to most American for his English language movies like Lethal Weapon 4, Romeo Must Die and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. However, true fans cherish his work in Chinese language films like Shaolin Temple 1, 2 & 3, Once Upon a Time in China, Hero, and Fist of Legend. These movies demonstrate Jet Li’s talent as an actor as well as his ability as a martial artist. They are inspiring stories of triumph over overwhelming odds, and make you cheer on the little guy, literally.

6 & 5. Michelle Yeoh/Zhang Ziyi

Masters of the Kung Fu Cat Fight
Why they are masters: Women in martial arts movies were somewhat of a novelty act until the release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000. After seeing Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi mix it up, no one will ever doubt that women can kick ass like the dudes. The fight is arguably the finest work of martial arts choreographer Woo-ping Yuen who mapped out all the fight sequences in CTHD. The movements of the women are strong yet graceful, sweeping yet precise, shocking yet harmonious. There is not a single moment spent watching these women fight that you do not believe that they really could kick your ass and all your buddies at the same time. Michelle Yeoh went on to be in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Zhang Ziyi struts her stuff in Hero, Rush Hour 2, and House of Flying Daggers. They made the beauty, actress, martial artist combination legit.

4. Gordon Liu

Master of Shaolin Overacting
Why he’s the master: Gordon Liu was one of the original Hong Kong action stars, cranking out classic Kung Fu flicks through the 1970s and 1980s. His most famous role is as San Te in The 36 Chambers of Shaolin and its sequels. These are the kinds of movies you watched growing up on independent TV stations on weekend afternoons. They had bad dubbing, gross overacting, sudden camera zooming, and ridiculous chopping sound effects. Liu’s old films set the stage for all the kung fu flicks that would follow. In fact, they inspired Quentin Tarantino to make the Kill Bill movies. Tarantino even cast Liu as Crazy 88 leader Johnny Mo in Kill Bill: Volume 1 and Uma Thurman’s master Pai Mei in Kill Bill: Volume 2. Liu’s fame also spread to India where he starred in a Bollywood film. He is truly a worldwide martial arts megastar.

3. Stephen Chow

Master of Kung Fu SFX
Why he’s the master: If you have ever seen Shaolin Soccer or Kung Fu Hustle, then you know Stephen Chow’s work. Chow is a blend of comedian, martial arts star, and cartoon character. His films are made to appeal to a Chinese sense of humor but are hilarious in any culture. Chow was the first to use large amounts of digital animation to make his martial arts films appear over-the-top. The special effects are not supposed to look real. They are supposed to look funny and surreal like a comic book. Chow stomps on a bad guy’s toe and it is smashed as flat as a pancake. He kicks a guy in the head and you see the impact ripple across the skin on his face. He tosses 100 bad guys in the air and they fly through the sky like confetti. Imagine a mixture of Fist of Fury, The Naked Gun, and The Matrix.

2. Donnie Yen

Master of Kung Fu Kool
Why he’s the master: Donnie Yen might be the best martial arts movie star you have seen but never heard of. Yen was in Once Upon a Time in China II and Hero with Jet Li as well as Shanghai Knights with Jackie Chan but played supporting characters. He has yet to breakthrough in a widely released film in America as the star. Yen has his own distinct style. He is ridiculously cool while fighting off a room full of attackers and looks down right bored as he barely moves to get his foes to repeatedly miss him. Yen then unleashes a blinding flurry of blows. See the scene below and watch him dispatch a sword wielding opponent with a feather duster. Unlike most of the others on this list, Yen is understated and lets his quiet confidence do his talking. He promises to be the next big martial arts star to cross the Pacific.

1. Bruce Lee

Master of the Kung Fu Movie
Why he’s the master: Do you really need to ask? Bruce Lee is the grandmaster of all modern martial arts cinema. He was the Jesse Owens of minority action stars. Bruce Lee single handedly changed how Asians were perceived by Americans. After watching his moves, Asians were no longer just villains, laundry boys or sidekicks. He was the first successful non-white leading man action star. Opportunities in film for African-American, Latino and Asian actors opened up after Bruce Lee. He was the first action star who didn’t need stunt men or special effects to impress audiences. Bruce Lee was not only really good at martial arts, he founded his own called Jeet Kune Do. He only made five movies: The Big Boss in 1971, Fist of Fury in 1972, Way of the Dragon in 1972, Enter the Dragon in 1973, and The Game of Death in 1978. The last two were released after his death. All of them are classics that are still popular today. Lee’s mysterious death at the age of 32 solidified his legendary status and inspired generations of imitators. While many emulate Bruce Lee, no one will ever eclipse him.
Disclaimer: It would have been easy to add martial arts movie stars like Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris, Chow Yun Fat, Tony Jaa, and Jean-Claude Van Damme to this list just because they are well known. However we did not feel that they changed martial arts cinema. Sure, they are all big stars, but they didn’t redefine the genre with something new and original. Feel free to disagree with us with your comments. We know you will anyway.
Also read Mania's Ninja Assassin Movie Review

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midwest216 11/24/2009 6:50:59 AM

Joined site just to add a comment!

I agree with the selections, but how in the world could you not mention Tony Jaa? He is well known in Thailand and has an underground following in the states. Not to mention doing his own stunts without wires or camera tricks. And his speed is comparable to Jet Li's.

Also to a lesser known: Bolo Yung, Chuck Norris and Jim Kelly the black actor from some of Bruce Lee's movies. You gotta add these guys, they're apart of the culture.

seaquest 11/24/2009 7:19:27 AM

What was the state of martial art films in the US before Chuck Norris? Didn't he sort of make these movies more main stream?

avidfan 11/24/2009 7:23:57 AM

Norris did and Van Damnme too.  I don't know hardly any of these other guys, but Van Damme exposed a whole generation to the limber, nut wrenching martial arts.

redslayer 11/24/2009 7:58:18 AM

Chuck Norries was actually a student of Bruce Lee, he actually plays the bad guy in one of Bruce's movies.

As good as Chuck is, I do not see him as figure that redefined the martial arts cinema.  I do agree with the comment of "midwest216", we really need Tony Jaa in this list.

steppingrazor66 11/24/2009 8:24:21 AM

I totally agree with this list. I just feel that Tony Jaa's body of work is not as Expansive or Innovative as these actors careers were.

everdreaded 11/24/2009 8:46:47 AM

How can you say Chuck Norris didn't help innovate martial Arts movies?

Prior to that the equivelant of a white man doin any martial arts was Sean connery and his fake Chops in the Bond movies...Chuck was the man cause i dont recall anyone doin a roundhouse the way that man did in the 70's through the 80's.

And where is Sonny Chiba..how his name isnt above Donnie and the newcomers is Dick;riclous! LOL!

Wiseguy 11/24/2009 8:53:30 AM

I really don't have a big problem with the list except that it's missing Woo-ping Yuen. Who IMHO opinion should be #1 without a doubt. I love Lee and Norris but they were part of the natural progression of the genre IMHO. To be sure they advanced and maybe were ahead of their times but Yuen has been doing it longer as an actor and recent times and perhaps more importantly as choreographer. And the latter has elevated the genre to new heights with movies like The Matrix and Kill Bill. Sure he wasn't a big star here but his work behind the scenes is unparallelled

Sonny Chiba needs to be here as well

monkeyfoot 11/24/2009 8:57:48 AM

This list is fine. I just think that Jackie should be No. 2 just under Bruce Lee as No. 1. They are the two that have been the most influential of all cinema kung fu stars.

Bruce Lee is dead... but he can still kick your ass!

- on a bumper sticker

Wyldstaar 11/24/2009 8:59:09 AM

Being caucasian is not innovative.  Chuck Norris made the exact same sorts of movies that Asian martial artists were making.  All he did was change the locales of his films to Texas and be white.  He saw a section of the US film market that was not being addressed by Hollywood, and wisely took advantage of it.  Chuck had it much easier for his career because he was white, not in spite of it.  Just because Norris was the first person you saw doing these things, doesn't mean he was actually the first to do them. 

Whitelotuspriest 11/24/2009 9:13:56 AM

Great list!! Don't have a problem with it at all except I think Gordon Liu should switch spots with Stephen Chow. Yuen Wo Ping is more of like a director/choreographer that's probably why he didn't make the list, but if we were to add directors I think you could add Chang Cheh, Liu Chia Liang, along with Yuen Wo Ping.

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