The rise of MMA (mixed martial arts) has seen the world of combat evolve in many different directions, with a newfound prominence of grappling becoming one of the most notable. Fighting arts like Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, Judo, Sambo, Wrestling, Chin Na, Shuai Jiao, and many others have seen an explosion in popularity after being utilized by fighters in MMA cages across the globe.
Naturally, martial arts’ films have clocked on to this development with big screen fight sequences incorporating grappling techniques like never before, resulting in some of the most thrilling on-screen battles the world has ever seen. And that, of course, can only mean one thing readers: that it’s time to countdown those that have done it best! So, whip on your gi as we get ready to count and throw down with KFK’s list of the Top 10 Grappling Martial Arts Movie Fights! …in descending order…
- Ding vs gangsters – “The Bodyguard”
- Zhong Wen vs Wu’s henchman – “Police Story 2013”
- Tommy vs Brendan – “Warrior”
- John Wick vs Ms. Perkins – “John Wick”
- John Wick vs Cassian – “John Wick: Chapter Two”
- Bruce Lee vs Ji Han-jae – “Game of Death” / “Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey”
- Nicky Pardo vs Icaro – “Redeemer”
- Kham vs fifty henchmen – “Tom Yum Goong”
- Donnie Yen vs Sammo Hung – “Sha Po Lang” (SPL) aka “Kill Zone”
- Donnie Yen vs Collin Chou – “Flash Point”
As Jackie Chan would go on to do in “Police Story 2013”, Sammo Hung would also show the grappling prowess of Chin Na in “The Bodyguard ” (aka “My Beloved Bodyguard”). In the film, Sammo plays ‘Ding’, an older member of the community who mostly just wants to be left alone, but his refusal to allow the kidnapping of an innocent child to proceed unabated snaps him into action. While Jackie placed a greater emphasis on the restraining techniques of Chin Na, Sammo’s approach is straight out of “Marked for Death” – snapping, dislocating, and disassembling limbs with such deft, pinpoint accuracy that the film could almost qualify as a textbook on human anatomy! For a film that portrays its hero with the same kind of jolly, fatherly personality more closely associated with Santa Claus, you definitely don’t want to be marked down on Ding’s ‘naughty’ list!
With the rise of MMA and its influence on fight choreography in action films, Hong Kong and Chinese films have begun to reveal to the world a lesser known side of Chinese martial arts, specifically their grappling techniques derived from such arts as Chin Na and Shuai Jiao. In “Police Story 2013”, Jackie Chan, the man most known for bringing Drunken Boxing to the world stage, plays a world-weary Beijing cop who must step into a literal MMA cage to save a group of hostages. For the film, Jackie largely eschews the flips and kicks he displayed in the earlier instalments of the “Police Story” series and gives the viewer a welcome glimpse of the grappling manoeuvres of Chin Na. In case it needs to be reiterated (and it doesn’t!), Jackie Chan is a true master of action – well over forty years in front of the camera, and he’s still able to cook up something fresh and new!
Look up the term “tear-jerker”, and the poster for 2011’s “Warrior” is likely the first thing that’ll come up. The film pits two estranged brothers against one another in the biggest MMA tournament on the planet, and as the late Roger Ebert so aptly put it, “this is a rare fight movie in which we don’t want to see either fighter lose.” Tom Hardy put to rest any lingering doubt that he wouldn’t make a convincing Bane in the then-upcoming “The Dark Knight Rises”, and by the ending when the two brothers finally come to terms in a rear-naked choke (that’s almost more of a hug between adult siblings) you may well find yourself buried under a mountain of Kleenex with the amount of tears that you’ll have shed. The film’s 2015 Bollywood remake “Brothers” utilized much more fist and foot action than “Warrior” but still showcases plenty of grappling, as well, and both films are equally action-packed, emotionally potent MMA dramas.
2014’s sleeper hit “John Wick” melded guns with grappling to create a new cinematic martial art, and the results were absolutely stunning. For most of the film, our title character, played by Keanu Reeves, zig-zags back and forth between sending enemies to the grave with a sidearm he wields with the accuracy of a heart surgeon to incapacitating them with his Olympic-worthy Judo skills, bringing the two together in such a way that his enemies and the audience don’t know what hit them. However, his knockdown, drag-out brawl with the nefarious Ms. Perkins, played by Adrianne Palicki, is a show-stopping battle of rival assassins whose banter and sly stares toward one another suggests they may have once had a decidedly more affectionate relationship in another life. Then again, it does kinda make sense that this is how couples therapy would play out inside The Continental, doesn’t it?
Nothing beats seeing a sequel top its predecessor, and good gravy, does “John Wick: Chapter Two” show you how it’s done! For the sequel, the world’s most feared assassin encounters a new foe in the form of ‘Cassian’ on the streets of Rome. You don’t need Mr. Reeves or Common to tell you that they both went home black and blue at the end of the day with the number of times they drop each other on those cobblestones like a sack of potatoes. The Continental’s policy against assassins carrying out business on hotel grounds is the only reason Cassian and Mr. Wick both walk away from this one alive, and their subsequent encounter on a New York City subway isn’t too shabby, either!
It’s often said that Bruce Lee is the father of MMA as we know it, and given the emphasis he sought to instill in the martial arts world on being able to adapt to any method of attack an opponent brings to the game, it’s certainly difficult to argue otherwise. In his unfinished film “Game of Death”, Bruce strove to teach the world exactly that with the film’s premise, whereby he ascends the levels of a pagoda, encountering an exponent of a different fighting technique (or ‘style’) on each level and having to adapt his skills to counter theirs. In his duel with Ji Han-jae, Bruce encounters a master of Hapkido and mostly overcomes his throwing techniques with some grappling manoeuvres of his own. “Game of Death” was one of the first times audiences were exposed to grappling techniques in a major martial arts film, showing just how far ahead of the curve Bruce truly was. It’s a tragedy we’ll never get to see the completed version of “Game of Death”, but we get the closest to it in the documentary “Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey”, which showcases all the footage Bruce completed prior to his untimely death – sans the distraction of unconvincing body doubles and cardboard cut-outs of his face trying to pass themselves off as the real deal!
For arguably the most crisp, refined and picture perfect Brazilian Jiu-jitsu outside of a Donnie Yen MMA movie, Marko Zaror‘s “Redeemer” takes the crown in our title character’s blazing duel against his pursuing adversary. A fight that begins with kicking and punching heads to the ground for grappling, before moving upright once more and repeating the same cycle several times before concluding with an expletive worthy coup de grace. Nearly as amazing is how poker-faced our two combatants remain as they alternate between pummelling and strangling each other, a true indicator of how evenly matched our hero and villain are here. Indeed, the duel continues with such an evenly matched amount of punishment both given and received (by each) that it proves an ideal template for keeping you in suspense as to how the hero is going to trump the predicament – the aforementioned payoff most certainly delivers, in spades!
Has there EVER been a movie before or after “Tom Yum Goong” to snap as many human limbs, in such a short a time span? Following his leap into worldwide super stardom with “Ong Bak“, Tony Jaa followed up with 2005’s “Tom Yum Goong” (aka “The Protector”) where he showcases a grappling-oriented variant of Muay Thai known as Muay Kodchasaan, or “Elephant Boxing”, in which the arms mimic the trunk of an elephant. Our hero reaches his breaking point when he discovers one of his prized elephants has been killed and goes into a berserker rage worthy of Wolverine. When all is said and done, over fifty henchmen lay writhing in agony on the floor, with their knees, elbows, shoulders, and just about every other opposable limb snapped like twigs. Watch out for a quick cameo from Dutch kicking machine Ron Smoorenburg – who, quite frankly, gets off a lightly with only a tornado kick to the face! (Ron said: In the end fight scene where he [Jaa] takes on lots of fighters dressed in black, I appear as one of them and he kicks me in the face, as a result I lost some teeth!)
Looking at Donnie Yen’s career trajectory since the turn of the century, it resembles, in many respects, where Bruce Lee’s career would have gone had he not left us so unexpectedly. For 2005’s “Sha Po Lang” (released in the English-speaking world as “Kill Zone”), Donnie would single-handedly bring MMA into the mainstream of martial arts films and both Chinese and Asian culture alike. A devoted MMA fan, he and Sammo Hung transform a Hong Kong nightclub into the setting of an MMA smackdown, putting each other through the ringer with grappling techniques right out of a UFC match.
And…leave it to Donnie to outdo himself because taking top spot in our Top 10 Grappling Martial Arts Movie Fights is…
If “Sha Po Lang”/ “Kill Zone” introduced the grappling arts to audiences around the world, 2007’s “Flash Point” solidified them as the new emerging trend in martial arts cinema. Donnie and Collin Chou certainly slam the living gremlins out of each other with crippling kicks and punches, but the grappling techniques Donnie brings to the game made “Flash Point” into a must for action fans and MMA lovers alike. The film also incorporates some of the best sound effects you’ll ever wince to in a fight sequence, with whip thwack strikes landing and the straining, squeezing crack of limbs tightening when our hero puts the psychotic enemy into a choke or leg lock.
Donnie’s innovated still further in the world of martial arts films with his subsequent appearances in the “Ip Man” series of course, which kicked the global popularity of Wing Chun into the stratosphere, but for fight sequences predicated around grappling, the finale of “Flash Point” has yet to find an equal!
So, there you have it, KFK’s selection of ten great grappling martial arts movie fights, did any of your choices make the list? Let us know in the comments below, join in the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. And feel free to check out our other martial arts’ Top 10’s!