Just a few weeks ago, the world rapturously celebrated the arrival of the New Year and decade, with all of us reflecting on everything 2019 brought us while anticipating the new possibilities to come in 2020. However, for action fanatics, one additional thought of gratitude occupied our minds – namely, that 2019 spoiled and satiated us with a veritable feast-of-fu!
Whether it was a buddy-movie team-up of former adversaries, a single mother on a desperate mission to rescue her kidnapped child, a cat-and-mouse game between two super spies, or an urban crime series with supernatural elements, there’s no denying that all who sought the thrill that only the most sharply-orchestrated stunt work and martial arts action can offer were very happy campers by the year’s end, indeed.
2019 proved such a satisfying journey for audience members of our persuasion that it’s genuinely a more challenging proposition than usual to pinpoint which big screen offering excelled the most. Compounding that, is the fact that martial arts action on the small screen has skyrocketed to new heights in recent years, to the point where many action-laden series unquestionably deserve a place at the table alongside their big screen counterparts.
Still, as much of a challenge as it may be to determine the Best of the Best (no pun intended) of 2019, we’re certainly not going to let that stop us. So strap in for a wild ride down recent memory lane, readers – as here, (in descending order) are the Top 10 Martial Arts Movies of 2019!
First off, an honourable mention to:
For a movie whose main character spends much of its running time in a Gi, surprisingly few fists actually fly in “The Art of Self-Defense”, and yet that’s the furthest thing from a criticism.
When a timid accountant named Casey is mugged, he steps into the dojo of the perpetually stoic ‘Sensei’ to learn how to defend himself and strengthen his sense of self-worth. However, he soon finds himself tumbling down a rabbit hole of just what it means to master martial arts, and even more importantly, what it means to be a man.
“The Art of Self-Defense” is at once a hilarious black comedy and a brilliant deconstruction of the “why” of martial arts, one that uses its handful of action scenes not to thrill the audience, but to confront them with the question of what our diminutive hero should aspire to do with his newfound confidence.
The film also satirizes the idea of manhood with Casey’s relationship with his fellow student Anna, whose gender has kept her perpetually barred from being promoted to black belt by Sensei, even as her obvious skill says otherwise.
As the three pillars of the film, Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, and Imogen Poots each channel a different angle of martial arts mastery and masculine identity that forms the core of the movie, while the script unnerves the audience whilst tickling its collective funny bone. It can truly be said, “The Art of Self-Defense” is this generation’s “Fight Club”. Be sure to also check out KFK’s interview with the movie’s extraordinarily talented fight choreographer, Mindy Kelly. And now, let’s get back to the list!
Basic maternal instinct is at the core of “Furie”, wherein our single mother heroine, Hai Phuong, is forced to return to the depths of the Vietnamese criminal underworld she left behind for the sake of her kidnapped daughter, Mai.
Awash in the neon lighting of “John Wick”, “Furie” puts Hai Phuong through the same battery of, well, battery as Jackie Chan was subject to in the early days of his career, and pushes her to her physical and emotional limits in her efforts to rescue her daughter from a human trafficking ring.
Veronica Ngo entered action movies as a martial arts newbie with 2008’s “The Rebel” but it would require a look behind-the-scenes to know that she finished that movie on a broken foot, and if there were any similar physical obstacles for her to overcome in making “Furie”, you’d certainly never guess it.
It’s hard to say whether “Furie” is more trying for our heroine physically or emotionally, but the bitter note on which she and Mai were separated leaves her that much more desperate to save her, with the audience rooting for her all the more so in every electrifying martial arts battle the movie serves up. As emotionally gripping as it is stunningly action-packed, “Furie” is a Vovinam-laden emotional thrill ride that’s not to be missed!
Our two heroes, the grizzled Kabir and his younger apprentice Khalid, played by Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff respectively, spend the movie going from allies to enemies and back again, and to elaborate any further would be to spoil the movie’s marvelously orchestrated third act twist.
If you haven’t seen “War”, suffice it to say that it’s home to some of the year’s most amazing stunt work and finely tuned action sequences. From a pulse-pounding aerial battle aboard a cargo plane to a motorcycle chase of the kind that leaves you wondering how no one was killed making it. All roads lead to a Northern Arctic car chase and a final showdown in a snow filled chapel, the specifics of which would spoil everything, other than to say that Hrithik Roshan kills it as the year’s the ultimate crusty tough guy mentor, while Tiger Shroff is as ripped and agile as ever.
For all who request further details, you’ll find no spoilers from KFK – just get on watching the movie and keep the celebratory dance number of “War” by your side to tide you over until then!
At this point, it’s safe to say that the “Fast and Furious” movies have roughly the same tenuous relationship with reality as “Last Action Hero”, and it’s equally safe to say that they’re way better off for it.
What began as a low-rent “Point Break’ on wheels” has morphed into a series that wears its outlandishness as a badge of honor, and “Hobbs and Shaw” takes the franchise into new territory with bigger and crazier stunts, a terrorist organization right out of “G.I. Joe”, and plenty of buddy movie banter between The Rock and Jason Statham.
Faced with the prospect of teaming up after their previous adversarial relationship in “Furious 7”, Hobbs and Shaw respond exactly as you’d expect them to. But with Shaw’s sister, Hattie, carrying a deadly virus in her body that the shadowy Eteon organization will do anything to get their hands on, putting aside past rivalries is a must.
The daredevil car chases and stunt work that are the series’ calling card are as thrilling as ever while upping the ante for how much the series can continuously top itself, while the increasingly centralized role of martial arts action is kicked up to a whole new level.
Beginning the movie battling tangentially connected foes on different continents, Hobbs and Shaw find themselves facing down the hybrid of man and machine that is ‘Brixton Lore’, played by Idris Elba, in a glorious, rain-soaked, speed-ramped showdown.
Idris Elba hams it up to make Brixton the best “Fast and Furious” villain by far, while Vanessa Kirby’s Hattie Shaw makes such a great first impression that one seriously hopes this won’t be her last rodeo in the series. Never before has it been a compliment to say that an action movie franchise has Jumped The Shark, and “Hobbs and Shaw” stands as proof that the “Fast and Furious” franchise has truly pulled off the seemingly impossible!
All good things come to an end, but the end has truly come too soon for AMC’s “Into the Badlands”. Raising the bar for both action on the small screen and wire-fu on any screen, the latter half of its third season would sadly be announced as its last. Although marking an unexpected end, season three’s final eight episodes are crafted to perfection to deliver the emotional crescendo the series has always been building towards.
With Pilgrim tightening his stranglehold on the Badlands and coming to see himself as a god among men, it is up to Sunny and his allies to put a stop to him once and for all. However, things are far from that simple, with Sunny finding himself forced to band together with his most sworn enemies, as well.
One of the best villainesses the small screen has ever known, The Widow becomes the new ally Sunny is the most reluctant to join forces with, along with his long-standing feud with Nathaniel Moon. The finale of season three is simply a breathtaking battle of gravity-defying swordplay and fists of fury, rarely, if ever, seen on television before.
And the conclusion makes clear that the makers of “Into the Badlands” had at least one more story to tell. We can only hope they get the chance to do so elsewhere, but “Into the Badlands” nevertheless remains a stunning achievement of martial arts on the small screen, one episode at a time!
If there’s one thing that Netflix has proven over the past few years, it’s that when it comes to action, they know what they’re doing. That’s certainly made abundantly clear by Netflix’s first original martial arts series “Wu Assassins”.
Merging urban crime with martial arts mysticism, “Wu Assassins” follows Kai Jin, played by Iko Uwais, an aspiring San Francisco chef who finds himself bestowed with the supernatural abilities of the Wu Assassin and tasked with bringing down the five Wu Warlords, one of whom just happens to be his adoptive Uncle Six, played by Byron Mann. An every man who just happens to be able to throw punches with the speed of Barry Allen, Kai is forced to navigate a cabal of supernatural and otherworldly villains, along with the completely human but relentlessly vicious Zan, played by JuJu Chan.
The core of the show is Kai’s relationships with his close friends who range from drug dealers to drug addicts, and how much he serves to guide them back to the right path along his unexpected mission. And with action-driven episodic series begin to outdo their bigger screen counterparts more and more, “Wu Assassins” is as sparkling a specimen of that ongoing trend as the streaming world has ever seen. Your move, season two!
2019 was truly a banner year for Scott Adkins, who was not only at the center of some of the year’s best martial arts action scenes, but who also demonstrated just how exceptionally talented he is at playing bad guys.
In “Avengement”, Scott portrays the deranged escaped convict Cain Burgess, who relates the story of his wrongful imprisonment to a bar full of ruthless bruisers as he prepares to unleash his vengeance on the men who put him behind bars.
Cain may be the hero, but his time in prison essentially forces him to turn himself into a monster, or as he describes it, “a hardened, rusty nail” for the sake of his own survival. The movie zigzags back and forth between the past and present, while it is always crystal clear just what it’s building up to.
When that crescendo finally arrives, “Avengement” wraps the story up with the mother of all bar fights, and to call it an explosive final bar-room brawl would be the understatement of the year. The hits come hard and fast in “Avengement”, while Scott Adkins delivers one of his all-time great performances of a man who’s forced to become a psychopath due to the enemies he faces being that much worse.
And it simply cannot be overstated, the showdown in the pub that caps the movie off is a home run of bar-room battle insanity. Check out KFK’s “Avengement” interview with Scott Adkins where he talks all about bringing the powder keg ending of “Avengement” to life!
From the moment Bruce Khan strolls into frame, mask obscuring his face and straight-jacket hardly obstructing his mobility, “Revenger” becomes a wild ride of hard-hitting action that blends “Enter the Dragon”, “The Hunger Games”, and “The Raid 2” into one deliriously delicious cocktail.
Bruce Khan barely says a single word for the entire run time, but that’s clearly by design. In the role of Yool, he’s a former cop on a revenge mission who simply doesn’t speak unless he has something to say. And when he’s got something to say, it’s either demanding directions to the object of his vendetta, or letting his enemy know that his time is finally up.
The abundant fight scenes of “Revenger” are astonishing to behold, and that much more exhilarating for their simplicity. With nary a somersault or aerial maneuver in sight, Yool is all about what’s going to get the job done, and if it takes him more than three moves to put an enemy down, it’s likely just because they’re a little more conditioned at taking the hits.
The penultimate sword battle is a modern masterpiece of bladed combat, while Yool’s final showdown with the nefarious crime boss, Kun, brings the build-up of a Western quick-draw contest to a prison setting for one last, glorious exchange of butt-kicking.
If streaming platforms like Netflix are the way forward for bringing Asian action to the English-speaking world, the future for action fanatics looks very bright indeed with “Revenger” opening those doors. Be sure to check out KFK’s well-received exclusive interview with Bruce Khan himself, where he lets the world know how much pain he put himself through to bring the incredible action of “Revenger” to life!
In an age where half a dozen comic book movies hit cinema screens every year without anyone batting an eye, “Alita: Battle Angel” arrived to stunningly set the standard for manga making the leap to live-action.
In a dystopian world of cyborgs, floating cities, and the cutthroat sport of Motorball, the amnesiac cyborg Alita, yearns to start a new life in the utopian metropolis above, that is Zalem. She has her new family, Doc Ido and Hugo, but must first contend with the underlings of the city’s nefarious man behind the curtain, Nova.
As can always be expected from a movie that James Cameron has spent years developing, “Alita: Battle Angel” is simply breathtaking to behold, blending vast CGI landscapes with the endless possibilities of performance capture to bring its world and its inhabitants to life.
With every tool at its disposal, it also takes superhuman-driven action to the next level with blazing martial arts battles and eye-popping Motorball sequences that are like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
However, what truly brings the movie together is Alita herself, with Rosa Salazar’s captivating performance at once channeling a girl with the purest of hearts and a warrior with the most furious of fists. Alita did not stand by in the presence of evil and in so doing captured the hearts of millions around the world. To all who wish to see her adventures continue, in the words of Ms. Salazar herself, buy those Blu-rays, baby! Be sure to also check out KFK’s in-depth interview with the movie’s stunt coordinator, Garret Warren.
Bringing together a murderer’s row of the worlds most respected big screen martial artists, it’s “Five Deadly Venoms” meets “The Expendables” in “Triple Threat”, helmed by stunt veteran Jesse Johnson.
Mercenaries Payu and Long Fei think they’ve been recruited for just another routine rescue mission, only to realize that the former allies who left them for dead are targeting a philanthropist intent on bringing down an Asian crime syndicate. Our heroes soon find themselves teaming up with Jaka, who is on his own quest for revenge after the death of his wife in the team’s earlier mission.
Just listing off the talent that comprises the principle cast of “Triple Threat” is enough to send any red-blooded action aficionado into an ecstasy of anticipation, much less seeing it unfold before their eyes. In its economical 96 minutes, “Triple Threat” truly lives up to the concept of non-stop action, taking a breather for maybe ten of those minutes, and only then to give viewers a glimpse of each character’s unique idiosyncrasies, from the craftiness of Iko Uwais’ Jaka to the chef’s savvy of Tony Jaa’s Payu to the sixth sense of Michael Jai White’s Devereaux in weeding out when he’s being lead on.
As the head of the movie’s villainous cabal, Scott Adkins is unforgettable as the vicious big boss Collins, while the finale is an out-of-this-world smackdown of martial arts movie royalty doing what they do best and giving the audience their money’s worth five times over. For action lovers, “Triple Threat” is an ensemble that can only leave viewers waiting with baited breath for “Triple Threat 2” – and the fact that it delivers a more satisfying Iko Uwais vs Tiger Chen match-up than their previous big screen encounter sure doesn’t hurt either!
…and in at #1 is….
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
By the time the closing credits of “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” arrive, there’s simply nothing that can be uttered but a meek and solitary “Wow.”
Picking up right where “John Wick: Chapter 2” left off, our hero finds himself on the run after violating the most sacred rule of The Continental, with every assassin in New York City wanting a piece of him. However, as Winston observes, considering who they’re going after, that makes the odds about even, with Mr. Wick battling his way to a meeting with the High Table to remove the bounty from his head.
Where other franchises face a downturn in their third chapter, “John Wick” continues to outdo the previous entry, with “Parabellum” demonstrating just what a modest start 2014’s “John Wick” represented. That movie may have been one of the most well-written and exhilarating English-language action movies in a good long while, but its comparative simplicity provided the series with a sturdy foundation on which to build upon.
Make no mistake, “Parabellum” goes “Mad Max: Fury Road” on the series, rivaling many action movie finales in just its opening twenty minutes. “Parabellum” only gets crazier from there on in with a battle in Morocco alongside Halle Berry’s ‘Sofia’, a sword-battle aboard speeding motorcycles that homages 2017’s “The Villainess”, and a final showdown in the de-consecrated Continental with Mark Dacascos, Yayan Ruhian, and Cecep Arif Rahman (watch out for 87eleven Action Design alumnus, Jon Valera here, as well!).
Where “John Wick: Chapter 4” takes the movie’s cliffhanger ending is something fans will spend the next year-and-a-half pondering, but with the “John Wick” series constantly topping the prior movie with each subsequent installment, one can only imagine what Baba Yaga’s impending showdown with the High Table has in store for us.
The “John Wick” franchise, it can safely be said, IS what “The Raid” movies would have become if they’d kept going, and with that, “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” takes the crown of the Best Martial Arts Movie of 2019!
So there we have it folks, KFK’s Top 10 Martial Arts Movies of 2019! Which of the above entries got you to the edge of your seat? Are you excited for all the out-of-this-world fight, stunts and action coming up in 2020? Let us know in the comments below; Like, share and join in the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter & Instagram.
Stay tuned for the Top 10 Martial Arts Movie Fights from 2019 as well as the Most Anticipated Martial Arts Movies of 2020!
In the meantime, get all LIT up in a FUniverse of dynamite movie reviews, in-depth interviews, more Top 10’s, Top 5’s, gear up KFK-style, and subscribe for more explosive action on YouTube!