- Martial arts movies use different fighting styles to distinguish the personalities of heroes and villains.
- Common martial arts types in movies include tai chi, karate, boxing, kung fu taekwondo, silat, and wing chun.
- Each martial art requires discipline and commitment to master, showcasing the training and character development of the characters.
Martial arts movies often employ popular fighting styles from around the world to help differentiate the personalities of the protagonist and the antagonist. The heroes in most martial arts movies typically use graceful yet precise strikes to defeat their foes, as these styles tend to be more consistent with their personalities. Meanwhile, the villains often use powerful and aggressive techniques as they best represents their psyche. From all around the world, the martial arts genre has bred some of the most interesting and unique fight scenes and choreography, with many of them borrowing techniques from real-life fighting styles and martial arts disciplines.
Even in instances where martial arts movie villains were better fighters than the hero, the intensity of their fights often display both combatants’ ways of life, personalities, and, in certain cases, their backstories via their approach to combat. Another way in which martial arts movies convey their characters’ way of life is through the effective use of martial arts training montages, a staple of the genre that often provides further context about the hero and villain for viewers of martial arts movies. Whether from classic martial arts movies or modern action masterpieces, the combat styles of fighters in this genre give great insight into their characters.
Martial arts movies use physicality as the primary storytelling tool, and the best directors of the genre push boundaries with their techniques.
12 Tai Chi (Chinese Martial Art)
Examples: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Tai Chi Master, and Man of Tai Chi
The Chinese martial art of tai chi relies heavily on employing graceful and fluid strikes reminiscent of ancient Chinese dance routines. As such, its practitioners often tend to be calm and refined warriors of peace. Perhaps the strongest cinematic example of the martial art on display is in the 1993 Hong Kong martial arts movie Tai Chi Master, in which a monk attempts to restore peace and balance to his temple during times of war. One of tai chi’s greatest strengths is utilizing minimal effort to achieve maximum effect, thus many of the martial art’s users tend to be minimalists both in combat and philosophy.
11 Boxing (Popular Western Fighting Style)
Examples: The Rocky & Creed movies, Million Dollar Baby, and Southpaw
Although boxing has influenced many warriors worldwide, it’s most commonly used to great effect in American movies, as it is one of the nation’s most popular sports. Moreover, boxers are often depicted as analytical thinkers, as it is a result of them utilizing their fists, footwork, head movement, and ring IQ to win competitive fights. The nine-movie Rocky and Creed franchise is among the strongest examples of the tropes commonly associated with the martial art, with viewers seeing both titular protagonists maintain form and discipline when fighting dirty opponents. The discipline also often translates well into their personal lives, as boxers are typically shown fighting their demons outside the ring.
10 Taekwondo (Korean Martial Art)
Examples: Undisputed III: Redemption, Karate Kid, and Blood and Bone
The Korean martial art Taekwondo involves the primary use of one’s legs to effectively dish devastatingly swift and precise kicks to an opponent’s body and head. As such, its users are often depicted in martial arts movies as very agile and austere in combat, rarely ever showing glimpses of weakness on the battlefield. Undisputed III: Redemption is a shining example, as protagonist Yuri Boyka and antagonist Raul “Dolor” Quiñones exchange fast and lethal kicks while muscling through the pain. Although Yuri Boyka has fought many opponents, his climactic duel with Dolor stands as one of the best displays of Taekwondo in martial arts movies.
9 Hung Gar (Chinese Martial Art)
Examples: Executioners from Shaolin, Challenge of the Masters, Heroes Two, and The Spiritual Boxer
Hung Gar is a Chinese martial art that emphasizes a series of strong stances, such as the horse stance, to deal devastating blows to one’s opponent. The martial art’s users are often disciplined warriors, but more importantly, Hung Gar is used as a way to preserve China’s old customs and ways of life. In the 1975 movie The Spiritual Boxer, the protagonist uses it to reluctantly protect a small village after they’re raided by bandits. Despite his insistence upon not being a hero, he proves everyone – including himself – wrong as he uses Hung Gar to vanquish armed guards, thus helping the village maintain its way of life.
8 Wing Chun (Chinese Martial Art)
Examples: The Ip Man franchise, Five Deadly Venoms, and The Grandmaster
The Chinese martial art Wing Chun utilizes a series of blinding fast punches and powerful kicks to beat foes into submission, and has seen a resurgence in popularity thanks to Donnie Yen’s Ip Man movie franchise. Created by the martial art grandmaster Ip Man, one of the core tenets of Wing Chun is that its users are often honorable and patient both in combat and in life. Interestingly, the Ip Man franchise’s villains who practice Wing Chun have occasionally displayed those traits. One notable example is Ip Man‘s Jin Shanzhao, who concedes to Ip Man after losing, and even allies himself with the titular character in Ip Man 2.
7 Silat (Indonesian Martial Art)
Examples: The Raid: Redemption, The Raid 2, Merantau, and Yasmine
Silat is an Indonesian martial art that involves the primary use of elbows and kicks to defeat opponents, while also using acrobatics and one’s surroundings to evade incoming attacks. As seen throughout The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2, silat users are tenacious warriors who can seemingly will themselves through nearly any amount of physical harm. However, in the case of Rama, Jaka, and other heroic silat users, they tend to favor neutralizing strikes to incapacitate foes. Villains like the notorious Mad Dog and The Raid 2‘s Cecep, on the other hand, instinctively opt for lethal means of dispatching their targets, thus showcasing the martial art’s vast effectiveness in combat.
6 Jeet Kune Do (Martial Art Founded By Bruce Lee)
Examples: Bruce Lee’s filmography, Fearless, and The Last Dragon
Jeet Kune Do often incorporates precise and fluid punches, kicks, grapples, and footwork to dismantle opponents. Jeet Kune Do users are often portrayed as highly focused individuals who are capable of dispatching multiple foes at a time. Pioneered by the legendary Bruce Lee, Jeet Kune Do was prominently featured in each of his Hong Kong films, and it was used as a way to exemplify the years of training and discipline one had to endure in order to perfect the fighting style. Jeet Kune Do was one of the many ways Bruce Lee changed martial arts movies, and the legendary fighting style still influences the genre today.
5 Drunken Boxing (Chinese Martial Art Imitating Drunk Peoples’ Movements)
Examples: The Drunken Master series, Dance of the Drunken Mantis, and Revenge of the Drunken Master
Drunken boxing relies heavily on its users’ ability to improvise and be unpredictable in a fight, and despite beng highly trained, many of the style’s users are stubborn and quickly abandon their strenuous training. Prominently featured in Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master series, drunken boxing is frequently used in a literal context, as his characters will intoxicate themselves with alcohol before fighting waves of enemies. Interestingly, the heroes primarily use the martial art in many of the films that feature it, as it is meant to reinforce the often young heroes’ blissful ignorance and youth. Nevertheless, drunken boxing tends to be useful despite its unreliable nature, often emulating the characters themselves.
4 Kickboxing (Hybrid Martial Art Of Muay Thai & Karate)
Examples: The Kickboxer franchise, Bloodsport, and the Bloodfist franchise
Kickboxing involves the masterful execution of both punches and kicks to defeat opponents, and because of this mastery, kickboxers tend to be arrogant. In the case of Bloodsport, one of the best martial arts tournament movies, Frank Dux, the film’s protagonist, and many of his opponents all have an overconfident edge to them. However, this works to the film’s benefit as it gives Frank a realistic character arc to embark on – humbling oneself to become strong enough to win the tournament, or failing because of one’s ego. Additionally, kickboxers tend to execute complex and intricate techniques in the heat of battle, thus reinforcing each character’s strenuous training.
3 Muay Thai (Thai Martial Art)
Examples: The Ong Bak franchise, The Protector, and The Protector 2
Thailand’s Muay Thai incorporates a series of crushing elbows, knees, kicks, and throws to incapacitate foes. Despite their raw strength and explosive power, most Muay Thai users are often depicted as peaceful warriors, since the practice often involves prayer and meditation. Perhaps the most famous example of Muay Thai practitioners in martial arts movies is Tony Jaa’s Ting and Tien from the Ong Bak franchise. Despite their ferocious power, the characters tend to use violence as a last resort, often opting for peace instead. However, when words don’t work, they effortlessly display the effects of their discipline and training when seen besting foes with devastating force.
2 Karate (Japanese Martial Art)
Examples: Master of the Flying Guillotine, Fist of Legend, and The Karate Kid franchise
The Japanese martial art Karate incorporates strong stances, controlled breathing, and precise punches, kicks, and chops to pick opponents apart. As such, karate practitioners tend to be very patient, often favoring counterattacks to overpowering offense. In the case of Jet Li’s Fist of Legend, his Chen Zhen character is a man of few words who is often seen training and refining his technique. Karate is often depicted as one of the fundamental styles of martial arts considering how long it’s been around, thus it requires absolute devotion from any would-be practitioner to master. As such, anyone seen mastering it is often portrayed as an unstoppable force.
1 Kung Fu (Chinese Martial Art)
Examples: Come Drink With Me, The Matrix, and Kung Fu Hustle
Kung Fu in martial arts movies often employs techniques from different martial arts, and whether it be from the east or the west, kung fu masters are typically capable of utilizing every known style to great effect. As a result, kung fu masters tend to be the most humble warriors depicted, as their journey to attaining this mastery requires overcoming strenuous and near-impossible challenges. Films like Kung Fu Hustle and The Matrix offer some of the best examples of their protagonists attaining enlightenment through overcoming the odds, and thus, have resulted in the greatest cinematic displays of human expression through martial arts.
While each style of martial arts has a specific purpose given its country of origin, the common thread between each of them is that they require discipline and commitment in order to master. Even in the case of some of the respective films’ villains, mastery of a specific martial art tells its audience that the character has to undergo an immense amount of training and character development similar to the protagonist. Martial arts movies are beloved worldwide for their contributions to excellent fight choreography, as well as for their ability to help develop some of the best characters in the action genre.