One thing action aficionados have always latched onto is that DNA of reality that stuntwork and fight choreography carry; the knowledge that a real, flesh-and-blood human being is really clinging to the Burj Khalifa in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”, really did execute the “Leap of Faith” in “Assassin’s Creed”, or generally cheated death about five hundred times in “Mad Max: Fury Road”. When it comes to martial arts films, that sense of reality extends to the combatants onscreen, and the audience’s knowledge that the people trading blows before their eyes are real martial artists who’ve developed their skills through years of discipline and tireless training. However, that’s not always the case.
Sometimes, actors with little to no formal martial arts experience are cast in action-heavy roles, requiring them to train diligently for months specifically for the role in question. And, truth be told, quite a few of them have excelled admirably at it. Some prove so devoted to their new craft that they base their entire careers on action-oriented roles, and others stick with their training to become genuinely formidable exponents of their respective arts. And quite frankly, you might be surprised at some of the men and women whose training began not under a seasoned master but on a movie set. Sense what this means? Yep, another KFK countdown! So if you thought…there can be only one…way to be a tour de force on screen fighter, think again readers – here are KFK’s Top 10 Kung Fu Movie Rookies! (in descending order)
- Donnie Yen
- Chow Yun-fat
- Zhang Ziyi
- Ben Affleck
- Andy On
- Keanu Reeves
- Michelle Yeoh
- Bryan Leung Kar-yan (aka “Beardy”)
What’s that, you say? “Donnie Yen is anything but an amateur martial artist!” And yes, Donnie is indeed a lifelong martial artist, having studied with everyone from his own mother, Bow Sim Mark to famed wushu coach Wu Bin. However, what many forget is that Donnie’s constant innovation in the way he designs and coordinates fight sequences has frequently called upon him to learn new sets of skills, and as we’ve seen throughout his career, he’s never had the slightest hesitation to do just that. With the rise of MMA in the 21st century, Donnie is one of the main people to thank for bringing MMA into the mainstream of action filmmaking, through his films, “SPL”, “Flash Point”, “Special ID”, and the upcoming “Big Brother”.
However, Donnie’s signature role in the “Ip Man” films is what cements his place on this list. Prior to taking on the role of the legendary Grandmaster, Donnie spent months training in Wing Chun for the film with Ip Man’s own son, Grandmaster Ip Chun, who would subsequently praise Donnie as having a swifter grasp of the art than anyone he’s ever taught. Three “Ip Man” movies in and a fourth one on the way, and Donnie’s Wing Chun bonafides speak for themselves. Donnie Yen is no newcomer to martial arts, but as his filmography exemplifies, he’s always ready to go back and take up something new!
Throughout most of his career, Chow Yun-fat has been known as the Clint Eastwood of Asia, doing far more gunslinging than sword-swinging in such action hits as “Hard Boiled” and “Full Contact”, and few Asian stars are more closely associated with the “Heroic Bloodshed” sub-genre than him. However, Chow would jump into the wuxia genre with 2000’s “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”, ironically assuming the role from wushu veteran Jet Li.
Chow was a complete newcomer to martial arts films at the time (and a newcomer to speaking Mandarin, as well), but he pulled off the role of scholarly swordsman Li Mu-bai like a pro. Chow would later transition to the role of a nameless sage monk in 2003’s underrated “Bulletproof Monk”, who becomes a mentor to young American thief named Kar, played by Sean William Scott, himself a novice martial artist who didn’t do too bad, either. Both films are pretty much the extent of Chow’s career in martial arts films, but for a guy more accustomed to having a Beretta in his hand than a bo staff, he definitely should be commended for a job well done!
Despite being arguably the focal point of 2000’s “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”, Zhang Ziyi entered the film as a dancer rather than fighter, but that didn’t stop her from rising to the occasion to blow audiences away alongside her co-stars. Zhang proved to be such a breakout star from the film, that it was less than a year later that she would be seen alongside Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker as the villainous Hu Li in 2001’s “Rush Hour 2”, and pretty much stealing the show in her performance as the vicious, butt-kicking Triad leader.
Heck, the most memorable fight sequence in the film sees her breaking out her sword skills against against Chris Tucker, the latter triumphing completely by accident at the last second. Zhang would continue to thrill audiences around the world in the likes of “Hero”, “House of Flying Daggers”, and “The Grandmaster”, but it all began with her portrayal of a hot-tempered young sword prodigy under the direction of Ang Lee, and the fact that she pulled it off without years of martial arts training under her belt earns her a well-deserved place of honour among the world’s greatest Kung Fu Rookies!
The Dark Knight is a man of many talents, but one of his greatest assets is his exceptional fighting skills that make him among the greatest martial artists in the DC Universe. Nowhere has that been better exemplified on the big screen than in Ben Affleck’s portrayal of Batman in Zack Snyder’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”.
Prior to his casting as The Caped Crusader, Mr. Affleck had some previous experience in martial arts action under his belt through his performance as the title character in 2003’s “Daredevil”, but his portrayal of Batman took it to a whole other level. Prior to “Dawn of Justice”, the fight sequences in Batman’s previous big screen adventures were a decidedly mixed bag, but once Mr. Affleck donned the cape and cowl, audiences saw the tough-as-nails martial arts skills of Gotham’s sword protector brought to life like never before. Indeed, so committed was our new Batman to doing justice to his character’s physical skills, that the film’s trippy Knightmare sequence and the actual Batman-Superman showdown aren’t even the best action sequences in the movie. That honour goes to the film’s unforgettable warehouse battle, in which Batman fights a Russian gang to rescue Superman’s kidnapped mother. Like a souped-up hybrid of the “Arkham Asylum” games and “The Raid” films, the warehouse brawl is one of the greatest highlights of Batman’s career on the big screen, and still ranks as one of the best superhero movie fights of all time. Not bad, Ben, not bad at all!
There’s no shortage of martial artists across the globe who can claim imitating Jackie Chan movies as the origin of their martial arts experience even before any classical training. Andy On, however, is among the few who can extrapolate that to actually going head-to-head with Jackie himself on the big screen.
The American-born Rhode Island native got his start in 2001’s “Black Mask 2: City of Masks”, which saw him training at China’s famed Shaolin Temple to take on a then-unknown Scott Adkins in the film’s climactic fight.
Mr. On would continue to hone his skills and show off his capabilities alongside Wu Jing in 2007’s “Invisible Target“. However, he would steal the show completely in 2010’s “True Legend“, going head-to-head with Vincent Zhao in the film’s most brutal battle, which is still a model for integrating realistic bloodshed into wire-fu action. Andy would later hold his own against his good friend, and future Bruce Lee, Philip Ng in 2014’s “Once Upon A Time in Shanghai”. Throughout his career, Andy’s given his all and then some, and more than earns his place among the greatest Kung Fu Rookies to ever grace cinema screens!
Neo’s immortal words “I know kung fu” in 1999’s “The Matrix” marked the birth of one of the greatest action heroes in cinema history. In truth, they were spoken by a novice martial artist who, like many of his co-stars in the film, tirelessly trained for six months under the supervision of the great Yuen Woo-ping.
Of course, audiences around the world were so blown away by the wire-fu driven fight sequences of “The Matrix”, something virtually never-seen-before in Western action films at the time, that we were hard pressed to doubt that Keanu Reeves was indeed The One. However, Mr. Reeves’ work in martial arts films would hardly end with “The Matrix” trilogy. He would go on to make his directorial debut with 2013’s “Man of Tai Chi”, which not only saw him break out his kung fu skills in the film’s climactic fight once more, but he would do so against his own martial arts trainer for “The Matrix”, veteran stuntman Tiger Chen.
Mr. Reeves would further dive headfirst into martial arts action with the “John Wick” films, which would see him expand his skills into judo and other grappling-oriented martial arts,helping to create another of cinema’s greatest action heroes. Through it all, Mr. Reeves has consistently maintained a huge degree of modesty about his own skill level, but his tireless commitment to his many martial arts-laden action roles is something that both veterans and newcomers alike will always tip their hats to.
To this day, I remember walking into the theater for “Ninja Assassin” with the most minimal of expectations. And I just as vividly remember walking out having devoured the bowl of crow the film had just served up! In hindsight, the pretty awesome trailer should have been a dead giveaway, along with involvement of The Wachowskis, who famously added another entry to this list with “The Matrix”.
In any case, “Ninja Assassin” benefited tremendously from lowered expectations, as it allowed the film’s leading man, Rain, to make a quite convincing case to the viewer that he’d been studying Ninjutsu for twenty years. Of course, a quick look behind the scenes would show that Rain spent six months arduously training for the film, but what’s even more impressive is how much of a natural he already was beforehand.
“Ninja Assassin” was born out of Rain’s performance of his fight sequences in 2008’s “Speed Racer”, which so impressed The Wachowskis, that they developed the film with him in mind for the role of Raizo. Not only that, but they even convinced the king of ninja movies himself, Sho Kosugi, to come out of retirement for the role of Raizo’s cruel master, Ozunu. For all 98 minutes of “Ninja Assassin”, Rain simply demolishes viewer expectations in one insane fight sequence after another, and for his efforts, was crowned with the year’s “Biggest Badass” Award at the 2010 MTV Movie Awards. Allow KFK to add another accolade to Rain’s “Ninja Assassin” accomplishments, by adding him to the Hall of Fame of Big Screen Rookie Martial Artists!
Actors take up martial arts for one role or two all the time, but seldom do they make a career out of it the way Michelle Yeoh has. From the very beginning of her career, the former Miss Malaysia has thrown herself head over heels into one action-heavy role after another, and three decades later, you’d never guess in a million years that she entered the Hong Kong film industry as a dancer.
Michelle Yeoh held her own alongside everyone from Cynthia Rothrock and Hwang Jang-lee to Donnie Yen to Jackie Chan, and would rise to become one of the biggest action stars in Asia. Michelle’s skills would eventually earn her the honor of becoming the butt-kicking Bond girl Wai Lin in 1997’s “Tomorrow Never Dies”, and her popularity with audiences nearly led to a spin-off for the character.
For many, however, her most memorable role came in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, which served as the first real introduction to the wuxia genre for millions in the English-speaking world. And that’s without even bringing up her astonishing physical performances in such action hits as “Police Story 3: Supercop”, “Tai Chi Master aka “Twin Warriors”, “Police Assassins” aka “Yes Madam”, “Magnificent Warriors”, and countless other kung fu-driven adventures. Michelle may have begun her career as a newcomer, but that just makes her extensive body of work in martial arts films that much more impressive!
In a career spanning nearly five decades, with appearances in everything from “Enter the Fat Dragon” and “Warriors Two” to “True Legend” and “Ip Man 3”, Leung Kar-yan has utterly defied logic with his natural skill, with an emphasis on “natural”.
The man whom the world would affectionately come to know as “Beardy” would rise to become a Shaw Brothers staple, despite being a complete amateur in martial arts – a fact so stunning after seeing him in action on-screen, that you can’t help but wonder if he’s been secretly hiding some extensive training background from the world all these years just for the heck of it! Joking aside, a visit to the Shaw Brothers lot lead to Mr. Leung being plucked out of anonymity and rising to the greatest heights of martial arts movie greatness, complete with his own personal moniker of “Beardy”. With his extraordinary muscle memory and talent for mimicry enabling him to come across as a lifelong veteran, if anyone can make you a believer in the human potential of making our FUtastic dreams a reality, it’s “Beardy”!
…and in at #1 is…
Jason Scott Lee
“Ironic” doesn’t even begin to describe the fact that prior to his casting as one of the most legendary martial arts masters ever to walk the planet, Jason Scott Lee had no formal martial arts experience of his own. Even more ironic is the fact that, after seeing him in action in 1993’s “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story”, you would think he was kicking and twirling nunchakus around since the day he was born. Indeed, Mr. Lee’s casting as, um, Mr. Lee, may well be one of the best roles for a biopic in cinema history.
In his portrayal of Bruce Lee, Jason absolutely vanishes into the role, recreating Bruce’s mannerisms, speaking style, charisma, and swagger with a conviction that’s pretty astounding. However, his performance in the film’s abundant fight sequences are what seal the deal; from his high-pitched cat-like sound effects to his blindingly swift kicks and punches, and even a little gymnastic flair sprinkled in – and all done by a (at the time) non-martial artist who took up Jeet Kune Do specifically to portray the art’s very founder.
A quarter century later, Jason, now a certified JKD instructor, has continued to display his skills in films like “Soldier”, “Timecop 2: The Berlin Decision”, and “Balls of Fury”, and even had the honor of training at the legendary Shaolin Temple in the documentary “Secrets of Shaolin”. However, his portrayal of Bruce Lee continues to resonate with audiences around the world, and the fact that Jason pulled it off as a then-newcomer to martial arts, well, if that doesn’t embody the adaptive nature of water that was the cornerstone of Bruce’s philosophy, we don’t know what does!
So there we have it folks, that wraps up our list of 10 of the Best Kung Fu Movie Rookies! Which performers from this countdown do you agree with most; are there other rookies you can think of? Let us know in the comments below; Like, share and join in the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter & Instagram. (Be sure to click onto KFK’s other FU-filled Top 10’s too!)