What are the best kung fu fight scenes ever put to film?
Let me preface the following list with the self-evident: The opinion of one person, no matter how well-supported or seemingly objective, in terms of lists like these is always biased, never definitive, and must in some way ultimately boil down to personal favorites. That being said, however, I do feel strongly about these 10 specific movie kung-fu fights as landmarks in their respective eras and as enduring pieces of painstakingly realized, elaborate entertainment. See for yourself. Also, check out my list of Top 10 Bruce Lee Fight Scenes Ever.
When it comes to the post-Bruce Lee, late 70′s Shaw Brothers revolution, the parroting-based, meticulous, rigidly stylized fighting seen in many films was probably best realized in Lau Kar-Leung‘s Mad Monkey Kung Fu. The film’s final showdown, involving a penultimate group attack on teacher and student before the climactic battle, is a massive achievement in expansive choreography. The ape-like posturing and acrobatics on display by the student and the more determined, hard-style Hung Gar of the teacher have a gorgeous visual interplay, complementing one another through their graphic contrast.
If there’s a single fight scene to include from the classical era of wuxia films, A Touch of Zen['s] bamboo forest encounter is certainly unavoidable. Not even Come Drink With Me or Dragon Gate Inn have quite the same gravity or elegance—nor notoriety for that matter—in even the best of their encounters. The aerial movements and gliding, graceful precision of the slashing strikes in this Tawainese King Hu film are enhanced by maybe the most vivid and aesthetically sound series of backdrops in any film of this variety.
I’d love nothing more than to put this particular fight in the top three, but I can’t in good conscience let a personal bias for the underrated sabotage my objective judgment about scope and quality down the road. Yuen Biao is one of my favorite performers in the whole pantheon of kung fu cinema—his acrobatics are stunningly fluid in direct proportion to his more Muy Thai inclinations to drop knees and elbows in jagged lines, and the discord is beautiful to behold. Not to mention that kick. It’s been repeated but never outclassed. Even by Chan. And that says something. Honorable mention: An earlier fight in the film between Biao and Pete “Sugarfoot” Cunningham. Right up there with Chan and Urquidez 1 and 2. Also it should be stated the camerawork is especially creative and prominent here. Really emphatic.
The Five Deadly Venoms is required viewing for any genre enthusiast. Featuring a huge cast of Shaw Brothers regulars who would go on to be known colloquially as “the Venoms” after the film, its appeal is ornate and elemental. The visual landscape is bright and varied, and the five competing styles based on poisonous animals is precisely the kind of classic framework relished and welcomed with this brand of material (other notable examples include revenge and coming-of-age adventures). This fight between the four remaining Venoms is one of many similarly spectacular exchanges throughout the film, though it’s very explicitly the top of the crop. Notice the rigidity and precision of movement, and the pace, slowed and sculpted into bizarre striking patterns and block configurations. Perhaps the most timely.
I don’t know exactly the level of recognition afforded to this Lau Kar Leung-directed, Shaw Brothers-produced film, but it seems under-viewed. And it feels like it should be required viewing right alongside Venoms and Chan’s best. Simple enough premise to grapple with: Chinese martial artist fights a series of Japanese stylists with corresponding weaponry and tactics. The reason he does this escapes me at present. But it’s Gordon Liu at his very best with another set-up packaging ample opportunity in the form of opponents and athletic display. This final showdown with a ninja (coincidentally the same actor fought by Jet Li in Fist of Legend) is the richest and longest. It spans several locales, integrates several styles and weapons, and ends unexpectedly. Truly overlooked to a fault.
5. Drunken Master II aka The Legend of Drunken Master (1994) – Tea House
The only reason this fight is ranked fifth instead of second or first is the presence of Jackie Chan (his political views aside, there’s no question he’s the greatest martial arts performer in history) and how excessive it soon becomes. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s maybe the best all-time group fight ever put on film. Chan’s Wong Fei Hung finds himself in a tea house with de facto mentor Lau Kar-Leung and some fifty Axe Gang members in a massive bout of practical warfare. Makeshift weapons, furniture being flung wildly, axes whizzing by. The absolute best incarnation of Chan’s prop-laden impulses you’ll find. The success lies in Chan and Leung’s flawless choreography, and its scope, both in terms of visual presentation (it stretches outside and sustains its energy) and narrative positioning.
Having just written the Top 10 Best Bruce Lee Fights Ever, and knowing this film is a remake of Lee’s Fist of Fury (originally known in the West as The Chinese Connection – a marketing tool to ally it with The French Connection), it only seemed obvious for inclusion. More than that, it’s Jet Li in his early 30s at the height of his powers, choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping before The Matrix was even a concept, and the story is yet another classic framework. The Lee/Li connection doesn’t hurt either, carrying another strong nationalist message on behalf of their native China. But this fight, more than either of the two one-on-one engagements in the third act, encompasses the prowess of Chen Zhen carried over from Lee’s outing. You can really see notes of what would become Matrix choreography, but it has to be said that no matter how sophisticated Western effects seem to become, there’s no accounting for skill level in the performances. People who really know martial arts will always perform it with more precision and grace than actors trained 3-6 months in advance. And even though, let’s say… Stephen Chow wasn’t the greatest off-screen martial artist, the lot of performers throughout his Kung Fu Hustle (also choreographed by Woo-ping) are so skilled it almost merits inclusion from that film on this list as well. But tough choices have to be made.
In what may surprise some, I’ve decided to opt in favor of the second fight between Jackie Chan and world-champion kickboxer (John Cusack’s trainer I believe) Benny “The Jet” Urquidez from Dragons Forever, and not their original match up in the earlier genre staple Wheels on Meals, both of which co-star Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung. The choreography is pitch perfect and virtually prop-less, showcasing an incredibly visceral striking exchange. It really doesn’t get much better than this. Simply one of the best.
Tsui Hark is one of those people whose every flourish in every scene registers as a measured orchestration. Watch either of his films based off the “Zu” mythology (limited only by budget) to see it on a somewhat larger, if brighter scale. But The Blade, a retelling of Chang Cheh’s One Armed Swordsman from 1969, is as bleak and sanguine a martial arts film as you’re likely see. This final bout between the one-armed swordsman and his father’s murderer is hugely dramatic within the context of the film, and even retains that sense of purpose and high stakes in this excerpt format. The choreography is probably the most stunning weapons-and-wire work that’s been done, with tons of dizzying motion and aerial assaults being executed at a rapid pace. Watch Hark’s deliberate, almost unbelievably evocative camerawork, sliding to reveal On’s back wound in a single shot in which the flap of cloth droops down and the gash across his torso is made visible. That’s anime come to life. Ninja Scroll, perhaps?
1. Drunken Master II aka The Legend of Drunken Master (1994) – Final Fight
Who didn’t see this coming? I feel pretty mainstream right about now, echoing Ebert’s sentiment that this is the best all-time kung fu fight, but it’s hard to dispute when you really look at it. On a personal level, I probably enjoy the tea house fight earlier in the film a little more, and even some other entries on this list and elsewhere. But the fact remains that this fight is a fucking achievement. Its 10-plus minute length, multiple assailants, and shifts in tone and pace are remarkable. The sustained energy throughout, though, is maybe what’s most impressive. Jackie Chan and his real-life former bodyguard Muy Thai and Taekwondo practitioner Ken Lo go back and forth for close to nine uninterrupted minutes, during which Chan falls onto hot coals, is bashed and bloodied from all directions, and finally activates his innermost skills by guzzling jug after jug of industrial-strength booze.