Can’t wait for “Marvel’s Iron Fist” to strike Netflix March 17, but not quite inspired to get up off the couch and hit your local martial arts studio? Here are my recommendations for films featuring literal ass-kickers, in no particular order, that you can stream now on Netflix in honor of the last Defender’s arrival.
Editors’ note: These picks reference the US version of Netflix. Alternative movie titles included where applicable.
‘The 36th Chamber of Shaolin’ (1978)
Aka: “Shaolin Master Killer” and “The Master Killer”
This influential revenge thriller is, arguably, the best film from Shaw Brothers, the powerhouse production studio that dominated Asian cinema during the ’60s and ’70s. An origin story about the legendary 18th-century monk vigilante San Te, “36th Chamber” is known for hellish and inventive training sequences you won’t find in modern martial arts schools for obvious legal reasons. But the film’s timeless political and philosophical depth are what make it special. “Kill Bill” fans may recognize lead actor Gordon Liu as Johnny Mo of the Crazy 88 yakuza gang in “Volume 1” and Pai Mei in “Volume 2.” (Tarantino admires Shaw Bros. Studio. In fact, Pai Mei was originally a villain from some of its movies.)
‘Ip Man’ (2008)
Bruce Lee’s combat prowess was the stuff of legends, so the guy who trained him must’ve been decent, right? The events in the titular “Ip Man” biopic series are heavily fictionalized, but the effects the film had on viewers were real: It inspired tons of people to take up Wing Chun and made Donnie Yen an international star, helping him land Hollywood roles in films like “Rogue One.” The entire trilogy is on Netflix and “Ip Man 2” is as excellent as the first. “Ip Man 3” has Mike Tyson, so interpret that how you want.
“Ip Man” is particularly memorable for me because I watched it with karate friends after training. We couldn’t help but wince (and laugh at our wincing) as he beat the crap out of 10 karateka; their pain was our pain.
‘Big Trouble in Little China’ (1986)
The extras look like they took just one kung fu class — and they took it on YouTube. The weapons seem like they were stolen from a hodgepodge of other film sets. The special effects don’t even try to look real, not even by the standards of the time. Kurt Russell’s one-liners make no sense, especially when delivered with a John Wayne impression. All those things are OK, though. If you’re willing to turn off your brain and embrace the silliness, be sure to catch this ’80s-as-hell cult favorite. It’s got wind, fire, all that kind of thing!
‘The Legend’ (1993)
Aka: “Fong Sai-yuk” and “The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk”
All kung fu dramedies in the bargain bin wish they were “The Legend.” It’s got everything you’d want, from slapstick to subtle dick jokes, cheesy melodrama that doesn’t wander into cringe territory, and creative wire fu. Jet Li plays the hero of the eponymous movie, but the real star is Josephine Siao, acting as Fong Sai-Yuk’s hilarious, irrepressible mother. Siao, a Hong Kong cinematic veteran in her own right, arguably plays the best wingman of all the films on this list.
Note: In Netflix’s menu, “The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk” is actually the sequel and will show up as “The Legend 2” only once you’ve started playing it. It doesn’t help that both films came out in 1993. If you couldn’t get enough of the first one, definitely watch it.
’13 Assassins’ (2010)
Avant-garde director Takashi Miike’s remake of the 1963 samurai epic of the same name doesn’t disappoint. Some have drawn comparisons to Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece “Seven Samurai,” since both films feature a roster of heroes made up of samurai and one weird dude. But this comparison is a bit unfair. “Seven Samurai” emphasizes poignant character development in a thoughtful, elegiac story… and “13 Assassins” has a lot of people getting their guts spilled out. Both are glorious, just in their own way.
‘Way of the Dragon’ (1972)
Honestly, the main reason to watch this is the fight scene between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris at the Roman Coliseum. Many aspects of the story are nonsensical, but the faceoff at the end is worth it. Beyond that, “Way of the Dragon” is interesting in that it was Bruce Lee’s only project where he had full creative control. He even did percussion for the soundtrack. Unfortunately, the one audio option on Netflix is a clumsy English dub. But since the movie is heavy on goofiness, that really just accentuates the purposefully campy tone.
‘Kill Zone 2’ (2015)
Aka: “SPL II: A Time for Consequences”
“Kill Zone 2,” which is completely unrelated to the Killzone video games, features Tony Jaa (“Ong-Bak”) and Wu Jing as dual protagonists in a multicultural crime melodrama about an organ-trafficking ring. You don’t have to watch the first “Kill Zone,” since the stories are unconnected. “Kill Zone 2” has a more complex plot than its macho title might suggest, weaving themes of compassion and family between the violence. Also, I have to laugh at the way the film incorporates the Sony Xperia phone’s waterproof feature into the plot.
‘God of Cookery’ (1996)
Netflix’s decision to include this movie in its martial arts category is questionable. “God of Cookery” is more of an action-comedy with a pinch of kung fu seasoning. Regardless, it’s a film by Stephen Chow, the same guy who did “Shaolin Soccer” and “Kung Fu Hustle” (Netflix removed both of them, to my dismay) so it’s definitely worth watching if you want to see more of Chow’s signature Looney Tunes-type humor that made his international hits stupidly funny.
Aka: “Wu Xia”
That generic title cloaks a uniquely stylish amalgamation of noir and kung fu — a match made in silver-screen heaven. The rooftop chase scene even has a bit of parkour instead of the standard flying aesthetic of wuxia. The story follows a cynical detective’s investigation of an attempted robbery and the unassuming paper mill worker who foiled it. “Dragon” takes place in the early 1900s around a picturesque Chinese village whose mossy stone structures and foggy bamboo forests make the film all the more mesmerizing. We also get to see Donnie Yen’s impressive acting range as he goes from simple-minded villager to… well, a type of character Donnie Yen would play.
Anyone who’s seen director Zhang Yimou’s work, which includes “House of Flying Daggers” and most recently “The Great Wall” (but let’s not get into that), knows his films drip with style. “Hero” is no exception, copiously using color psychology to differentiate multiple versions of the same story. The wuxia epic is loosely based on an assassination attempt on China’s first emperor in 227 BC, with Jet Li starring as the nameless protagonist.
Bonus: Free movies from other services
Netflix’s focus on original content is a double-edged sword. Its library continues to dwindle as it places less priority on paying for licenses in favor of producing its own content, like “Iron Fist.” But Netflix isn’t the only place you can go to stream martial arts movies. Here are some excellent titles you can find through other services without paying a dime.
‘The Raid: Redemption’ (2011)
Aka: “The Raid”
This Indonesian movie set a new bar for the genre; few martial arts films released since have been able to match its well-paced action, grit and suspense. It’s also nice to see the pencak silat fighting style represented in a category overflowing with kung fu period pieces. “The Raid” is about a SWAT team raiding a building full of gangsters to take down a drug lord, so it’s basically “Dredd” with more hand-to-hand combat. You can find it on Crackle, Sony’s online library.
‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (2000)
The masterpiece that needs no introduction — and it’s free on Hulu! (OK, you do need a Hulu subscription, so it’s technically not free, but you can always do the one-week trial to spare your wallet.) If you feel compelled to see the sequel, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny” is available on Netflix. Just don’t expect the greatness of the original.
‘The Legend of Drunken Master’ (1994)
Aka: “Drunken Master II”
Netflix is depressingly low on Jackie Chan movies at the moment. Luckily, one of his best, ” The Legend of Drunken Master,” is on Hulu. There’s nothing like seeing Jackie pound hard alcohol while pounding down baddies. He’s just a complete troll to his opponents, making the fight choreography some of the most genius and entertaining in the genre. While titled like a sequel, the film is technically a reboot of “Drunken Master” from 1978, so you don’t need to watch the original to understand what’s going on.
Aka: “Jet Li’s Fearless”
You can watch Jet Li’s last wushu movie on Crackle. ” Fearless” is inspired by the life of Huo Yuanjia, a Chinese historical figure who became famous in the early 1900s for challenging foreign fighters in publicized matches when Japanese and Western influences were threatening China’s sovereignty. But “Fearless” isn’t all about fighting others. It’s a simultaneously tragic and inspiring movie that reminds us our greatest enemies are ourselves.
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