The 10 Best Martial Arts Movies on Netflix

Movies Lists Netflix
Share Tweet Submit Pin
The 10 Best Martial Arts Movies on Netflix

“Martial arts” is a pretty broad qualifier, as far as film genres go—we’re talking samurai (chambara) films and pulpy kung-fu dubs, modern historical epics and blockbuster videogame fodder alike. Which is why we’ve found the best of the best streaming on Netflix and listed them here, all with the hope that you’ll like what you see and really seek out some deep-cut classics when you next peruse your local indie film store.

There are a few gems here on Netflix streaming, largely in the wuxia and modern action subgenres … plus a whole lot of Donnie Yen.

Here are the 10 best martial arts movies streaming on Netflix right now.


The Paper Tigers

the-paper-tigers-poster.jpg Year: 2021
Director: Bao Tran
Stars: Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Roger Yuan, Matthew Page, Jae Suh Park, Joziah Lagonoy
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 108 minutes

Watch on Netflix

When you’re a martial artist and your master dies under mysterious circumstances, you avenge their death. It’s what you do. It doesn’t matter if you’re a young man or if you’re firmly living that middle-aged life. Your teacher’s suspicious passing can’t go unanswered. So you grab your fellow disciples, put on your knee brace, pack a jar of IcyHot and a few Ibuprofen, and you put your nose to the ground looking for clues and for the culprit, even as your soft, sapped muscles cry out for a breather. That’s The Paper Tigers in short, a martial arts film from Bao Tran about the distance put between three men and their past glories by the rigors of their 40s. It’s about good old fashioned ass-whooping too, because a martial arts movie without ass-whoopings isn’t much of a movie at all. But Tran balances the meat of the genre (fight scenes) with potatoes (drama) plus a healthy dollop of spice (comedy), to similar effect as Stephen Chow in his own kung fu pastiches, a la Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, the latter being The Paper Tigers’ spiritual kin. Tran’s use of close-up cuts in his fight scenes helps give every punch and kick real impact. Amazing how showing the actor’s reactions to taking a fist to the face suddenly gives the action feeling and gravity, which in turn give the movie meaning to buttress its crowd-pleasing qualities. We need more movies like The Paper Tigers, movies that understand the joy of a well-orchestrated fight (and for that matter how to orchestrate a fight well), that celebrate the “art” in “martial arts” and that know how to make a bum knee into a killer running gag. The realness Tran weaves into his story is welcome, but the smart filmmaking is what makes The Paper Tigers a delight from start to finish.—Andy Crump


Ip Man

ip-man.jpg Year: 2008
Director: Wilson Yip
Stars: Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Lynn Hung, Gordon Lam, Fan Siu-wong, Xing Yu, Chen Zhihui
Rating: R
Runtime: 108 minutes

Watch on Netflix

2008’s Ip Man was finally the moment when the truly excellent but never fairly regarded Donnie Yen came into his own, playing a loosely biographical version of the legendary grandmaster of Wing Chun and teacher of a number of future martial arts masters, one of whom was Bruce Lee. The film takes place in 1930s Foshan (a city famous for martial arts in southern/central China), where the unassuming master tries to weather the 1937 Japanese invasion and occupation of China peacefully, but is eventually forced into action—limb-shattering, face-pulverizing action. This semi-historical film succeeds gloriously: both as cinematic triumph and as martial arts fan-bait. —K. Alexander Smith


Best of the Best

best-of-the-best-poster.jpg Year: 1989
Director: Bob Radler
Stars: Eric Roberts, James Earl Jones, Sally Kirkland, Christopher Penn
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 97 minutes

Watch on Netflix

A hilariously sincere American cheese-fest, Best of the Best is essentially Cool Runnings, except the stakes are a life-and-death martial arts tournament against that evil foreign superpower we all love so much: Korea. It’s a story about an American team of martial artists thrown together from the dregs of society—“they’re a ragtag bunch of misfits!” There’s the street fighter from Detroit, the guy who’s a cowboy for some reason, the grizzled veteran/widower, and, of course, the young kid seeking vengeance for the death of his brother at the hand of the Korean leader, who, I shit you not, wears an eyepatch while fighting. The ending in particular is pure schmaltz: Rather than give in to hate and kill his opponent in the ring, our hero lets Team Korea win to keep his honor. And then the Koreans apologize, hand the Americans their medals, and everyone hugs it out. With James Earl Jones as the coach who yells stuff! —Jim Vorel


Shadow

shadow-yimou-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Zhang Yimou
Stars: Chao Deng, Sun Li, Ryan Zheng, Qianyuan Wang, Xiaotong Guan, Wang Jingchung
Rating: NR
Runtime: 115 minutes

Watch on Netflix

Zhang Yimou’s latest is Shadow, a wuxia film based on the Chinese “Three Kingdoms” legend. Where Yimou’s recent filmography either favors substance over dazzle (Coming Home) or dazzle over substance (The Great Wall), Shadow does what the best of his movies do by sewing them together into one seamless package. As in Hero, as in House of Flying Daggers, the anti-gravity fight scenes are stunning to behold, but those movies put performance and action on the same plane, and Shadow deliberately separates them with a gorgeous monochrome palette, backgrounded by gray scale that lets the actors, and the copious amount of blood they spill throughout, hold its forefront. Here, in this tale of palace intrigue, Commander Yu (Deng Chao) employs a double to act in his stead (also Deng Chao)—his shadow, if you will—to seize control of a city of strategic value from invading forces against orders from his king (Zheng Kai). The film twists and turns, but through Zhang’s devoted stylization, the intricacies never overwhelm. Instead, the stylization does. —Andy Crump


Blood and Bone

blood-bone-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2009
Director: Ben Ramsey
Stars: Michael Jai White, Julian Sands, Eamonn Walker, Dante Basco, Nona Gaye, Shannon Kane
Rating: R
Runtime: 93 minutes

Watch on Netflix

We begin with the silhouette of Michael Jai White, an impressive specimen of man, and we end on the same silhouette, though this time festooned with a quote from Genghis Khan: “I am the punishment of God…If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.” In between, White defines that silhouette, hardly going a scene without absolutely pummeling one brute after another, rarely if ever showing any sign that he possesses such human attributes as weakness or doubt or moral compromise or even the urge to dull his martial prowess with vice (sex, drugs, technology, food, water). It’s as if director Ben Ramsey wants only to portray White (the titular Bone, no last name, no discernible backstory) as a quasi-spiritual Hand of God, commissioned by untold powers to strike down all who do us dirty with magnificent fury and efficiency. What initially seems like a total lack of stakes gradually emerges as an impressively lean attitude towards an otherwise standard action flick, Ramsey’s fight scenes abundant and brief, the plot’s big baddie (an intimidating Eamonn Walker) exactly the kind of ruthless we love to see brought to his knees, even if the movie shies away from some thorny racial politics in its last minutes. Kimbo Slice is here. Rufio (Dante Basco as the perfectly named Pinball) can’t go half a line without screaming an obscenity. To expect anything more than a sleek, satisfying spectacle of unmitigated, marrow-splitting violence would be no less than a waste of Michael Jai White’s time. —Dom Sinacola


The Debt Collector

debt-collector-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Jesse V. Johnson
Stars: Scott Adkins, Tony Todd, Michael Paré, Louis Mandylor, Selina Lo, Vladimir Kulich
Rating: NR
Runtime: 97 minutes

Watch on Netflix

Playing out like an escalating series of boss battles throughout L.A.’s seedier side, impossibly dependable action director Jesse V. Johnson’s The Debt Collector follows a cash-strapped Iraq-vet-turned-martial-arts-instructor, French (Johnson mainstay Scott Adkins), trying to keep his dojo afloat by making a few collection runs for a local mobster (Vladimir Kulich). As French learns about the vocation of sleazebag-on-sleazebag violence alongside perpetually clammy Sue (Louis Mandylor), a long-time loanshark enforcer more than willing to let French do all the work (i.e., beating the bejeezus out of dips who owe their boss money), Johnson compiles a surprisingly broad glimpse of a City of Angels that’s gotten used to feeling desperate, palm trees limning a world greased with intimidation and built on casual violence. As such, every encounter—in which French pummels increasingly unpummelable human edifices, whatever room they fight within just torn to pieces—could be French’s last, the moral implications of his job catching up to him with every shattered jaw or devastated collar bone. Choreographed by Luke LaFontaine, the battles within lack the grace of many of Johnson’s outings with Adkins, but that’s probably intended: Pulling from ’90s buddy action flicks and inching at a sweaty homage that lands somewhere between Tony Scott and Luc Besson, Johnson can’t help but capture Adkins in motion with an intuition, pace and sense of place that lifts The Debt Collector from VOD time-filler to yet another microbudget triumph care of one of best action auteurs we’ve got working right now. —Dom Sinacola


The Night Comes for Us

night-comes-for-us-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Timo Tjahjanto
Stars: Joe Taslim, Iko Uwais, Julie Estelle, Sonny Pang
Rating: NR
Runtime: 121 minutes

Watch on Netflix

While Gareth Evans confounded fans of The Raid movies by giving them a British folk horror film (but a darn good one) this year, Timo Tjahjanto’s The Night Comes for Us scratches that Indonesian ultra-violent action itch. Furiously. Then stabs a shard of cow femur through it. Come for the violence, The Night Comes for Us bids you—and, also, stay for the violence. Finally, leave because of the violence. If that sounds grueling, don’t worry, it is. You could say it’s part of the point, but that might be projecting good intentions on a film that seems to care little for what’s paving the highway to hell. It’s got pedal to metal and headed right down the gullet of the abyss. It’s also got the best choreographed and constructed combat sequences of the year, and plenty of them, and they actually get better as the film goes along. There’s a scene where Joe Taslim’s anti-hero protagonist takes on a team inside a van, the film using the confines to compress the bone-crushing, like an action compactor. Other scenes are expansive in their controlled chaos and cartoonish blood-letting, like Streets of Rage levels, come to all-too-vivid life: the butcher shop level, the car garage level and a really cool later level where you play as a dope alternate character and take on a deadly sub-boss duo who have specialized weapons and styles and—no, seriously, this movie is a videogame. You’ll forget you weren’t playing it, so intensely will you feel a part of its brutality and so tapped out you’ll feel once you beat the final boss, who happens to be The Raid-star Iko Uwais with a box-cutter. It’s exceptionally painful and it goes on forever. Despite a storyline that’s basically just an excuse for emotional involvement (Taslim’s character is trying to protect a cute little girl from the Triad and has a lost-brotherhood bit with Uwais’s character) and, more than that, an easy way to set up action scenes on top of action scenes, there’s something about the conclusion of The Night Comes For Us that still strikes some sort of nerve of pathos, despite being mostly unearned in any traditional dramatic sense. Take it as a testament to the raw power of the visceral: A certain breed of cinematic action—as if by laws of physics—demands a reaction. —Chad Betz


Avengement

avengement-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Jesse V. Johnson
Stars: Scott Adkins, Craig Fairbrass, Thomas Turgoose
Rating: NR
Runtime: 87 minutes

Watch on Netflix

The second of three films directed by Jesse V. Johnson released in 2019, Avengement is as crystalline, as empirically precise, as micro-budget VOD martial arts action can aspire. With that kind of prolificacy, a journeyman director’s bound to do something right—which would be a valid assessment, were everything Johnson’s done not so undeniably solid. Thanks goes, of course, to Johnson’s muse, Vicious Beefcake Scott Adkins, a flawlessly sculpted humanoid so squarely planted in Johnson’s sweet spot—melodramatic, archly brutal action cinema with enough wit and heart to leave a bruise—a Johnson film without him as the protagonist doesn’t quite feel fully realized. Look only to Triple Threat, Avengement’s 2019 predecessor, to yearn for what could have been, mollified by a scene in which Adkins body slams a sedan going at least 40 mph. Triple Threat boasts three writers and a cavalcade of international action cinema stars, from Iko Uwais and Tony Jaa, to Tiger Chen and Michael Jai White (still in decent shape, but so outclassed by Adkins and his peers’ athleticism he seems pretty much immobile), while in Avengement Johnson works from his own script, winnowing the plot to a series of increasingly higher stakes brawls as wronged nobody Cain (Adkins) makes his bloody way through the criminal organization (led by his brother, no less) that left him to rot in prison. As is the case with Savage Dog and The Debt Collector (both on Netflix), Avengement thrives on the preternatural chemistry between director and star, the camera remarkably calm as it captures every amazing inch of Adkins in motion, beating the living shit out of each chump he encounters, Adkins just as aware of how best to stand and pose and flex to showcase his body. Charming character actors cheer from the sidelines; the plot functions so fundamentally we hardly realize we care about these characters until we’ve reached a satisfying end at their sides. Perhaps Scott Adkins is a better dramatist than we’ve come to expect from our kinetic stars anymore. Perhaps we’ve set our expectations too low. —Dom Sinacola


Ip Man 2

ip man 2 poster (Custom).jpg Year: 2010
Director: Wilson Yip
Stars: Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, Huang Xiaoming, Lynn Hung, Darren Shahlavi, Kent Cheung
Rating: R
Runtime: 109 minutes

Watch on Netflix

The unexpected pathos of 2008’s original Ip Man from director Wilson Yip isn’t so easy to replicate, but this sequel does what good sequels must: Ups the ante in the action department and more than justifies its own existence. Fleeing the Japanese control of his home city, this film sees Ip and his family immigrating to Hong Kong, where he attempts to set up a school to pass on his deadly wing chun techniques. However, his right to do so is challenged by a rival teacher, played delightfully by a late-career Sammo Hung in one of his better semi-serious roles. The film then sort of veers into Rocky IV territory by introducing a ruthless foreign boxer who Ip must defeat to avenge his newfound friend, and it all leads to exactly the “If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!” finale you’d expect. Still, the balletic action sequences are even crazier than in the first film, as Ip’s signature pitter-patter of lightning fast strikes are a joy to watch as he wrecks entire squads of goons in a crowded marketplace. Suffice it to say, this is one you’re watching for the choreography and natural talents of Donnie Yen, rather than the story. —Jim Vorel


Headshot

headshot poster (Custom).jpg Year: 2017
Director: Timo Tjahjanto, Kimo Stamboel
Stars: Iko Uwais, Sunny Pang, Chelsea Islan, Julie Estelle, Zack Lee, Very Tri Yulisman, David Hendrawan
Rating: NR
Runtime: 118 minutes

Watch on Netflix

Anyone familiar with the tropes of this kind of flick can pretty easily guess that Ishmael (Iko Uwais) is a veritable killing machine, a man bred to wreck any poor bastard fool enough to tangle with him. The film takes his backstory beyond the edges of obviousness, though, eventually landing somewhere in the same neighborhood as movies like Louis Leterier’s Unleashed (a.k.a. Danny the Dog), where childhood innocence is tied to adult barbarity. Headshot is surprisingly melancholic, an actioner built to break hearts as easily as Uwais breaks bones, characters paying for the crimes of their past with their lives in the present. In several instances, innocent people end up paying, too: Lee’s thugs hijack a bus on its way to Jakarta, intending on finding Ishmael. When they realize he isn’t aboard, they murder the other passengers and burn the evidence, which just adds to Ishmael’s moral onus. Odds are that you’re not tuning into Headshot for the story, of course. The good news is that the film delivers in the ass-kicking department. The better news, perhaps, is that Tjahjanto and Stamboel have outdone Gareth Evans’ The Raid 2’s bloated fusion of story and action. Headshot clocks in at only 118 minutes and spaces out narrative beats and beatings beautifully, developing the harrowing truth of Ishmael’s upbringing without either belaboring the point or denying the audience the thrill of unhinged but precisely choreographed martial arts violence. Broad swaths of the action movie canon are fist-pumping shindigs that celebrate good guys serving bad guys their just desserts. In Headshot, as in the films of Evans, the action snatches the breath out of our lungs. The end of each fight relieves us of our ratcheting anxiety. Coupling that dynamic with the emotional substance of Ishmael’s existential woe makes the film a soul-rattling, hand-wringing affair made with Tjahjanto and Stamboel’s daringly aggressive sense of craft. You’ll nearly wish that more filmmakers shot action movies the way this duo does—but your nerves probably couldn’t take it if they did.—Andy Crump