We are living in a golden age of martial arts fandom. As a kid in the ‘90s, I used to have to order DVDs in the mail or stalk the foreign language cinema section of Blockbuster Video to score the latest martial arts film or recent UFC event. But today, we have a plethora of martial arts content at our fingertips through streamers and on-demand video; from international film and tv selections to live MMA sporting events, it’s truly a glorious time to be a martial arts fan.
But the sheer mass of content can be overwhelming; what to choose with our limited viewing time? To help you out, here’s a curated list of my favourite martial arts TV and film:
Warrior (TV, 2019 – present)
Based on a treatment written by the late Bruce Lee, this show takes place in San Francisco at the second half of the 19th century, where Chinese tongs (gangs) fight for their stake in the city against discrimination and other long-established migrant groups.
Warrior is an action-packed show with quite a bit of intelligence behind the stream of gritty martial arts violence viewers are treated to. We see the world from many POVs, from the virtuoso fighter just arriving on American shores, to the conflicted son of the tong leader, to the southern policeman fighting corruption, to the brothel madam who is more than meets the eye.
Performances by leads Jason Tobin, Diane Doan, Andrew Koji and Olivia Cheng are spot on, and I can’t wait for Season 3 to start later this month.
Fist of Legend (Film, 1994)
An oldie but goodie, Fist of Legend was Jet Li’s masterpiece. Set in Shanghai in 1937 during Japanese occupation, Li plays Chen Zhen, a Chinese virtuoso martial artist who is returning from Kyoto to his old academy.
This film is for both fans of modern mixed martial arts, as well as old school Hong Kong action flicks. Throughout the film Zhen tests various fighting styles, including his native style of kung fu, western boxing and Japanese karate. The fighting is cinematic without being over-the-top, and is rooted in the historical realism of the times.
Born a Champion (Film, 2021)
This film starring Sean Patrick Flannery is a love letter to Brazilian jiu jitsu. It follows Mickey Kelly, a former marine and one of the first BJJ black belts, as he is pulled from his love and family into an underground no-holds-barred event.
Flannery is a long time BJJ black belt and teacher, and his love for the art truly comes across in the details of the film; not only the incredibly accurate action sequences but also his portrayal of the mindset of a fighter. Flannery, who also penned the script, includes a variety of scenes that will remind fans of the early days of the art, when it was first introduced to the world through the Gracie Challenge and UFC.
Warrior (Film, 2011)
The 2011 film starring Tom Hardy was the first to truly depict the world of MMA in realistic fashion. Though the movie has a convincing and dramatic plot focused on family dynamics, the real star is the portrayal of fighters; the highs and lows, stress, focus and dedication that are centerpieces to a fighter’s lifestyle.
Warrior also has some of the most realistic MMA action sequences we’ve seen to this day. Stars Hardy and Edgerton suffered for their art, with numerous broken bones and torn ligaments inflicted during production.
Rocky (Film, 1977)
“That’s not a martial arts film,” you say. “It’s a sports movie!”
Boxing is a martial art. And just as Jet Li or Donnie Yen train kung fu for their battle against the ultimate boss in their many films, Rocky Balboa similarly dedicates himself to the art of boxing to achieve a goal.
In fact, Rocky follows the classic martial arts narrative: fighter shows promise, tests and trains his skills through failure, and finally confronts the final spiritual test in the form of a physical opponent.
Not to mention the groundbreaking training montage the film introduces, along with an Academy Award winning screenplay written by Stallone; Rocky is truly one of the best martial arts films of all time.