Martial arts films first gained popularity in the U.S. during the 1970s with movies that featured stars like Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba. However, this action-driven genre can trace its history all the way to the days of silent cinema with classics like The Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery. While there are innumerable martial arts films that feature well-known action stars or entertaining fighting sequences, there are some films in this genre that also manage to present an enjoyable story with good character development, as well as exceptional martial arts action. In no particular order, here are the five martial arts movies that every fan should see.
1. Enter the Dragon
This 1973 martial arts classic is a must-see for any fan of the genre. Although it was not Bruce Lee’s first film, it secured his legendary status and inspired legions of imitators. Enter the Dragon is also widely credited for establishing the mainstream popularity of martial arts films in the U.S. by merging elements from both Chinese and American cinema.
The film stars Bruce Lee as a martial arts specialist who is recruited to investigate a mysterious island controlled by an evil character known as Han. The film also costars well-known action star John Saxon and celebrated karate expert Jim Kelly. Kelly later parlayed his popularity from his minor role in Enter the Dragon into several starring roles in other martial arts films.