Holiday weekends in California must be a dream; laze about on the beach, BBQ by the pool, cocktails on the patio until dawn. This weekend in the UK, odds are we’ll get rain, but don’t let that put you off a fun long weekend, and we’ve put together a list of our top 10 Hong Kong action movies just in case you get bored.
Chronicling the eponymous character, most famous for training Bruce Lee, Ip Man is one of the most purely entertaining movies of any country over the last decade. Ip Man proves that Donnie Yen has finally ascended to superstar status as his unmoving calm is the backbone of the movie. The fight scenes are breathtaking, and though there has been many films about the legendary martial artist (even Wong Kar-Wai has his Ip Man movie out soon), this one is the undoubted greatest.
Yen projects such power that he appears invincible, not unlike Bruce Lee is his all too short film career. Yen is perhaps getting a little old to continue in the martial arts genre, but Ip Man will surely be his high point. It would also be wrong to overlook the narrative that is interesting and engaging throughout and a nice compliment to the breathtaking scenes of Wing Chun. They made a sequel which is also first class and a third film has been rumoured, and that one will portray the relationship between Ip Man and Bruce Lee. I’m normally opposed to sequels of great films, but Ip Man has so far bucked the trend and hopefully that would continue with a third picture.
An awesome kung-fu spectacle that features the very best of Jackie Chan, before he tried to be a kids’ entertainer in America, Drunken Master is a montage of great action combined with punk adolescence. Chan brand of martial arts was revolutionary and his injection of comedy into fighting ended up being a masterstroke and his trademark.
There is no shortage of great fight scenes in Drunken Master and the great mix of styles from Taekwondo to Hung Ga make this an interesting one for martial arts practitioners and specialists. For those of you who only know of Jackie Chan through Rush Hour and his American films, then this is a much watch as it features the icon at the top of his game.
Considerably more political and angry than his other films, Fist of Fury depicts Bruce Lee as a righteous avenger combatting the racist Japanese and all other oppressors. A simple premise where the master is slain and the pupil has to avenge him is turned into an interesting political commentary as well as a brilliant martial arts picture. The plot is just an excuse for a non-stop ensemble of perfectly choreographed fight scenes and you will find few people who have a problem with that.
Fist of Fury was years ahead of its time, it’s purely cinematic and features a fine appreciation of martial arts. It would take years before anybody could get close to the standard Lee set, particularly in the scintillating dojo scene where he leaves many an adversary crumpled in a heap. A fiercely triumphant work, perhaps best known for its iconic freeze frame.
Johnnie To has been delivering first grade action flicks to cinema for decades. Films such as Election, Election 2, PTU, Vengeance and Drug War are all the work of To, though his finest work to date is Mad Detective – a deeply psychological thriller routed in dark violence. Far more tightly written than most would think, To and his frequent collaborator Wai Ka-Fai really hit a home run with Mad Detective as it is really more ingenious than the B-movie title suggests.
It’s also a lot weirder than you would think too. The central concept is based around the eponymous mad detective who has the ability to see the inner demons of others. Mad Detective is the perfect example of why To and Wai are such a great pairing – Wai is very much interested in the supernatural and To has his noir and action tendencies, creating something truly unique.
It may have took the best part of half a century, but wuxia finally conquered the world with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It wasn’t a typical entry into the genre as repressed love and romance were key to the film, but all the swooshing violence and hypnotic showdowns were there in abundance. Received much more favorably in the US than it was in China or Hong Kong, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was never meant to be an international success, but it grossed hundreds of millions at the worldwide box office and led to a resurgence in popularity for martial arts films.
Directed by the now Oscar winning Ang Lee, he himself described it as “Sense and Sensibility with martial arts” which is surprisingly close to the truth. A stunning movie visually, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is a landmark film for Hong Kong as it helped user in a new era as studios realised that there was a global audience for wuxia and martial arts films.
A personal favourite and perennial classic, Enter the Dragon is Bruce Lee’s most popular film. A simple premise is elevated by stunning choreography and the mighty presence of Lee himself. One of the most famous films of all time, Enter the Dragon has long been in the pop culture pantheon, being parodied more times than anybody can care to count.
Eerily similar in plot to the James Bond film, Dr. No, a generic lack of innovation can be forgiven because of the pure excitement that Enter the Dragon delivers. The film is all about Bruce Lee and the picture acts as a vehicle for the late great man to showcase his talents. Though a surprisingly good actor, the focus is on his martial arts skills and he emphatically delivers. Lee truly is a master and this is the film that brought him the wider recognition he so obviously deserved.
You haven’t truly experienced action cinema until you’ve seen Hard Boiled. John Woo’s frenetic and super stylish direction make this an insane experience and the most exciting film in his canon. His last film before departing for Hollywood, Hard Boiled was the perfect way for Woo to sign out of Hong Kong cinema as it features everything that makes him such a great director. Every one of his tricks is on display here and it became one of Woo’s most influential pieces, particularly having a big effect on Western filmmakers.
Through leading man Chow Yun-Fat, the audience has a hero they would kill to be. Tequila is unstoppable and seemingly possesses guns that have unlimited ammunition. The last act is a real treasure that almost plays out like a video game level as Tequila battles through the floors of the hospital along with Tony Leung’s undercover cop. Hard Boiled made a superstar out of Fat and propelled Woo to worldwide fame, and it was all deserved as Hard Boiled is one of the finest pieces of action cinema you’ll ever see.
Bruce Lee’s directorial debut, Way of the Dragon is a martial arts extravaganza like no other. It’s the breath-taking skill of Lee that draws you in, but it’s his grace and presence that keep you there. With the man himself starring and in the director’s chair, this is undoubtedly his movie and it’s his ability both in front and behind the camera that powered it into becoming a classic. It’s very easy to forget just how good Way of the Dragon is, as Lee’s legend always seems to get in the way when discussing the strength of his movies. Because, the fact is, Way of the Dragon is on this list for a reason – that reason being it is arguably the greatest martial arts flick ever.
It’s choreographed to perfection with each individual set-piece being different and memorable. The most famous sequence for the film is of course Lee’s duel with Chuck Norris in a battle to the death. The best martial arts movies are like watching musicals – they have a hypnotic rhythm and have to be staged with such nuance and delicacy to work. It’s the purity of Lee’s work that makes it stand the test of time as no wires or post-production magic was weaved here. It’s nothing but pure skill and a stark reminder that Lee was taken from us way too soon.
The clear inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, City on Fire is a tough, intense action movie with plenty of character developing exposition. Starring Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee who would be partnered again in The Killer but in reverse roles, Ringo Lam’s script allows both men to enjoy the scintillating action whilst also giving them license to show off their acting talent. Criminality never looked cooler than it does in City on Fire as Lee, a gangster is decked out in the coolest shades and seemed to inspire a whole generation of American directors in the process. Bares some similarities to Infernal Affairs in the way that it depicts an undercover cop under incredible pressure. The cop, played by Yun-Fat is committed to his job, but loathes the way he has to betray the men who have become his friends, even if they are killers and drug dealers, posing complex questions about identity that aren’t often mentioned when discussing City on Fire.
Tarantino ‘borrowed’ a great deal from the film for his debut. One scene, the Mexican standoff looks almost identical and some of the dialogue is very similar, which in turn diminishes Reservoir Dogs quite a great deal. It’s also the film that helped catapult Chow Yun-Fat to stardom, at least in Asia anyway, as he would have to wait for The Killer and Hard Boiled before getting worldwide recognition. An incredibly stylish picture that is as fun as it is gritty – and proof that Hong Kong is the home of action cinema.
John Woo’s ultra-violent action thriller is the finest picture in a filmography that also includes the likes of Hard Boiled, Red Cliff and the aforementioned A Better Tomorrow. The film would have a great influence over western directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Luc Besson and also in Hong Kong with Johnnie To. It’s a spectacular film in every way imaginable as the action is explosive even by John Woo’s lofty standards. Woo is the master of the Hong Kong action flick, but he slows down the film just enough to give the characters depth and make them interesting, something all the great action directors have to do.
The Killer is superbly crafted and immaculately shot, no mean feat considering each frame is so full and explosive. No matter how much Woo throws at you in The Killer you always crave more, and it really is a benchmark for action cinema. The Killer possesses such a swagger with Chow Yun-Fat in the lead that we are left with pure high-octane velocity that’s impossibly addictive. You could watch The Killer a thousand times and still never get bored.