Sometimes it’s not all about the heroes in our favourite action films. It’s often the case that a movie is only as good as its main villain!
Over the years martial arts films have provided us with a veritable smorgasbord of bad guys and girls to choose from. In some films there are several to choose amongst. For instance, Bruce Lee‘s Enter the Dragon featured a trinity of formidable foes in the shape of Bolo, O’Hara and Mr Han.
Actors such as Hwang Jang Lee, Dick Wei and Yuen Wah have made careers out of playing their villain roles to great effect in many classics of the genre. Sometimes it’s the henchmen that steal the show, such as Benny the Jet Urquidez in his classic duels with Jackie Chan in Wheels on Meals and Dragons Forever.
In the past, we’ve covered plenty of our favourite heroes to cheer, but now here’s our Top 10 of the most memorable Martial Arts Movie Villains to boo and hiss at! in descending order…
- Drunken Master II – John (Ken Lo)
- Once Upon a Time in China II – Commander Lan (Donnie Yen)
- SPL: Sha Po Lang / Kill Zone – Wong Po (Sammo Hung)
- The Karate Kid – Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka)
- The Raid – Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian)
- Secret Rivals – Silver Fox (Hwang Jang Lee)
- Game of Death – Hakim (Kareem Abdul Jabbar)
- Eastern Condors – Giggling General (Yuen Wah)
- Fist of Legend – General Fujita (Billy Chow)
Jackie Chan’s friend and former bodyguard really came into his own as the wicked henchman “John”. It is arguably Ken Lo’s best physical performance in a martial arts movie. His sublime and precise kicking skills elevated the final drunken battle into becoming one of Jackie’s last great fighting finales and a firm fan favourite.
Tsui Hark wanted to up the ante after the huge success of the first Once Upon a Time in China movie starring Jet Li. He did so by bringing in action star Donnie Yen as a villain of at least equal ability to our hero’s. It was the first time the two stars had faced each other onscreen, and they did not disappoint. The final fight with the long bamboo poles not only demonstrates their exceptional weapons skills, but also their acting talent, with Yen in particularly fine form in a rare role as the bad guy.
Whilst the obvious choice might be Jacky Wu Jing’s deadly white-suited assassin, Jack, the real surprise for me when I first saw this film was Sammo Hung’s performance as the ruthless gang boss Wong Po. Along with many comic roles, Sammo has played it serious in the past, but I had never seen him as ice cold and dangerous as he is in “SPL”. I don’t just mean dangerous in his physical capabilities, but the palpable tension that Sammo brings as you fear he will snap and explode at any moment. A perfect example is a scene in which he slowly walks out into the street to confront the hard-boiled cops played by Simon Yam and Donnie Yen, menacingly tapping a beer bottle on a metal bannister. Sammo doesn’t say a word, but his face and body language mean he doesn’t have to. It’s not all just about the acting though, and Sammo shows that after five decades in the business he can still mix it up, not least in his MMA-style final battle with action star Donnie Yen
We all love a tale of the underdog overcoming a bully, don’t we? 1984’s “The Karate Kid” is virtually a template for this classic theme, with Ralph Macchio’s wimpy Daniel LaRusso learning how to overcome the Cobra Kai Dojo’s top student and number one bully, Johnny Lawrence played by William Zabka. Zabka had no previous martial arts experience at the time but was an accomplished wrestler. His participation in the film inspired him to learn the martial art of Tang Soo Do. What the leads may lack in flashy martial arts skills, they more than make up for with their dramatic performances, especially Zabka as the sneering, arrogant Johnny. It ensures that by the end fight the audience is rooting for our hero in the now classic showdown. “Sweep the leg!”
One of the most talked about martial arts films in recent times is director Gareth Evans‘ action masterpiece “The Raid”. Whilst working in Indonesia Evans became fascinated with the traditional art of Pencak Silat. Its combination of grapples and strikes were stylish to look at whilst also being devastatingly effective in a fight. It was the perfect style for action movie fan Evans to incorporate into his own films. Having successfully dipped his toe in these waters with the well-received movie Merantau, Evans went all-in with his follow up, “The Raid”. As he had done with Merantau, he cast real-life Silat experts Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian in key roles, with Ruhian also serving as a fight choreographer. Although Uwais as the hero Rama is undoubtedly the star, Ruhian memorably steals his scenes as the psychotic and aptly-named ‘Mad Dog’. His impressive but vicious skills coupled with the rage in his eyes ensure Mad Dog is one of the most terrifying villains in modern martial arts cinema.
Although he would find greater fame playing the villain to Jackie Chan’s hero in the films “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow” and “Drunken Master”, Hwang Jang Lee will forever be known by many fans as ‘Silver Fox’. Hwang’s impressive kicking skills as the white-haired villain in producer Ng See Yuen’s first movie for Seasonal Films, “The Secret Rivals”, ensured his character became, and remained, one of Hong Kong’s most popular movie villains. As such he reprised the role in the 1977 sequel Secret Rivals 2, and the nickname “Silver Fox” stuck with him!
Although Bruce Lee sadly passed away before he could complete what would be his final film, he did manage to shoot several of the planned fight scenes. Lee wanted to use the final fights in the film to illustrate the fighting philosophy of his Jeet Kune Do concept. Having defeated the more formal ‘styles’ of martial arts, Lee works his way up to the final level to confront Hakim, who is apparently “formless” and not defined by any one fighting style. Lee chose his real-life student 7′ 2″ (2.1m) NBA basketball legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar. The contrast in height and reach between Lee and Hakim gives the scene a “David vs Goliath” edge to it. To emphasise their difference in size, Lee receives a giant black footprint on his now-famous yellow tracksuit when Hakim lands a powerful front kick! In this classic duel, Lee must use all his agility and wits to survive against his giant opponent!
Sammo Hung’s opera school brother Yuen Wah had already established himself over the previous two decades as one of the most versatile martial arts and Hong Kong stunt performers. For the ensemble piece that is “Eastern Condors”, Sammo elevated Yuen Wah to the role of lead villain. Aside from his incredible acrobatic and flexible fighting skills, Wah brought a memorable quirkiness as the ‘Giggling General’. In another actor’s hands, the performance could potentially become too comical, losing that deadly edge. In Yuen Wah’s hands, the general is a sinister, schizoid foe facing stars Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao.
“Fist of Legend” is considered my many fans to be one of Jet Li’s best martial arts films. A big part of that reputation stems from the incredible end fight with real-life kickboxing champion Billy Chow Bei-lei. Choreographer Yuen Woo-ping and director Gordon Chan kept the use of wires to an absolute minimum. It results in the lead actors using their genuine physical skills in one of the all-time great onscreen fights. As General Fujita, Chow is ruthless, evil, and utterly convincing and as a powerhouse puncher and kicker.
…and in at #1 is…
Enter the Dragon – Mr Han (Shih Kien)
A real-life martial artist of the Chin Woo Association, Shih Kien was an Eagle Claw and Choy Li Fut master. As a former opera performer, he became a popular Chinese film and television actor for his portrayal of the villain in the popular “Wong Fei Hung” series of films starring Kwan Tak Hing, starting in 1949. He played the role of the antagonist in several films during the first 20 years of his career, with his iconic “villain’s laugh” later mimicked and parodied by several actors. In 1973, he found worldwide fame as the James Bond-like villain in Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon”. Although his English dialogue was dubbed, with Kien having to learn the script phonetically, his performance as the sophisticated but deadly one-handed villain, Mr Han is the archetypal mold for hyperreal cinematic bad guys. Often copied, frequently parodied and regularly quoted, Mr Han is up there with Darth Vader as one of the most memorable movie villains.
Of course, there are so many more to choose from. Honourable mentions go to Michael Qissi as ‘Tong Po’ in “Kickboxer”, ‘Twister’ played by Darren Shahlavi in “Ip Man 2”, Dick Wei as the ‘Pirate King’ in “Project A”, Collin Chou in “Flash Point”, Cheng Pei Pei as ‘Jade Fox’ in “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”, Wang Baoqiang as ‘Fung’ in “Kung Fu Killer”, and many, many more. Who are your favourite fighting villains? Let us know in the comments section below, join in the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter! Meantime, why not check out our other martial arts Top 10’s?