There was a time, in the mid to late 1970’s, when Saturday afternoon television schedules were dominated by martial arts movie showcases. Bruce Lee exploded in popularity with the release of several hit martial arts films throughout the decade, such as ‘Fist of Fury’ (1972). The 1980’s saw the advent of cable television, and less Saturday afternoon Karate binges, however, the ever growing martial arts genre began invading movie theaters in unprecedented numbers. Giving new stars a larger platform, and some of the older stars from the far east getting recognition from younger, enthusiastic American audiences. This list highlights some of the greatest marital arts movie stars of all-time, and the film they are most known for excellent martial arts performance(s).
#15. Jeff Speakman / “The Perfect Weapon” (1991)
Jeff Speakman is a Black Belt in Kenpo Karate & Japanese Goju-Ryu, and for a brief moment in the early 1990’s he was box-office. 1991’s ‘The Perfect Weapon’ was his walk in the sun for a glamorous 15 minutes.
#14. Shin’ichi (Sonny) Chiba / “The Street Fighter” (1974)
Sonny Chiba was a fixture in the martial arts film genre starting in the 1950’s and has continued on until the 2000’s with a role in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill Vol. 1’. (2003)
#13. Toshirô Mifune / “Seven Samurai” (1954)
Toshirô Mifune‘s career has seen him star in well over 150 films, including the unprecedented 16 feature film collaboration with legendary auteur Akira Kurosawa. Among those films was the all-timer ‘Rashomon’ (1950).
#12. Robin Shou / “Mortal Kombat” (1995)
Robin Shou encompassed a new wave of ‘pretty boy’ martial arts film star during the 1990’s. Among his many roles you will find that 1995’s ‘Mortal Kombat’ stands out.
#11. Wesley Snipes / “Blade” (1998)
Wesley Snipes has been studying martial arts since he was a boy at the age of 12. He has earned a Black Belt in Shotokan Karate, as well as a Black Belt in the Hapkido discipline. His ‘Blade’ film property has been a runaway hit with fans worldwide.
#10.Yun-Fat Chow / “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000)
Before Yun-Fat Chow’s breakout starring role in ‘Crouching Tiger’ (2000), he had made a career working with groundbreaking Director John Woo on films such as ‘A Better Tomorrow’,‘The Killer’, and ‘Hard Boiled’. He is no stranger to the martial arts game.
#9. Steven Seagal / “Hard to Kill” (1990)
Steven Seagal is a A 7th-dan Black Belt in the Aikido discipline. He was a groundbreaking martial arts instructor in Japan before any other American. His career has seen him star in some two dozen feature films, among them the hit ‘Under Siege’ (1992). He lives his life with the same toughness of his characters. An unforgettable martial arts star.
#8. Chuck Norris / “The Way of the Dragon” (1972)
Chuck Norris is the post John Wayne western American bad-ass. His syndicated ‘Walker, Texas Ranger’; television series has made Norris a household name in the annals of the American tough guy. He holds Black Belts in Chun Kuk Do, Tang Soo Do, Taekwondo, Karate, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. His starring role in with Bruce Lee in ‘The Way of the Dragon’ (1972) put him on the very martial arts map of which he is such a big part.
#7. Ken Watanabe / “Bruce Lee’s Fists of Vengeance” (1980)
Ken Watanabe is hands down the most gifted actor on this list. His roles over the years have included complex characters, usually dealing with tragic consequences and fallouts within the unfolding drama. See his Academy Award Nomination for Best Supporting for playing Lord Katsumoto Moritsugu in ‘The Last Samurai’ (2003). Ken is flat out talented, and yes he can kick ass also!
#6. Jean-Claude Van Damme / “Bloodsport” (1988)
Depending on whom you might ask, Jean-Claude Van Damme‘s accent is either endearing, or annoying. Nevertheless, his filmography has been an impressive one, as he seemed to release a new film every year in the late 1980’s and through the 1990’s. Including the cult classic ‘Bloodsport’ (1988), and ‘Hard Target’ (1993). His amazing physique, and model good looks made him a likely matinee idol. However, it was his martial arts abilities that made him a star.
#5. Jet Li / “Fist of Legend” (1994)
Jet Li is a talented martial artist and a ‘Wushu’ champion. He came to prominence for his role as a villain in ‘Lethal Weapon 4’ (1998). Martial arts fans remember him from 1994’s ‘Fist of Legend’. He is known for his lightning quick movements, and exciting brand of fighting. He is very entertaining to watch perform. One of the best.
#4. Tony Jaa / “Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior” (2003)
Tony Jaa grew up idolizing martial arts stars such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. He went on to follow in their footsteps and become a martial arts star in his own right. His 2003 film ‘Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior’, followed by numerous others, put Jaa squarely in the greatest martial arts movie star conversation.
#3. Jim Kelley / “Black Belt Jones” (1974)
You can’t spell the 1970’s Blaxploitation film era without Jim Kelley. His 1973 performance in Bruce Lee’s ‘Enter the Dragon’ was Kelley’s worldwide coming out party. He followed that role up with 1974’s ‘Black Belt Jones’, and then ‘Three the Hard Way’. Along with Jim Brown, Kelley was the walking embodiment of black power on the silver screen during the 1970’s.
#2. Jackie Chan / “Police Story” (1985)
You would be hard pressed to find any human being living in the 1st world that hasn’t seen a Jackie Chan film. He’s that popular, and his films that successful. His comical use of improvised acrobatic fighting, first rate comic timing, and his use of everyday items as weapons, make Chan one of the most entertaining martial arts actors ever. There is no shortage of memorable films in his career, including the ‘Rush Hour’ series, as well as the ‘Police Story’ series. There is likely to only be one Jackie Chan in history.
#1. Bruce Lee / “Enter the Dragon” (1973)
Bruce Lee is the greatest martial arts actor of all-time and it’s difficult to argue. His combination of style, grace, intensity, and pure ability is transcendent. It would seem that Bruce Lee was a born performer. His brilliant career was cut short, but fans have his ‘Big 5’ catalog of films to cherish: ‘The Big Boss’ (1971), ‘Fist of Fury’ (1972), ‘Way of the Dragon’ (1972), ‘Enter the Dragon’ (1973) and ‘The Game of Death’ (1978). The world of martial arts has been a better place that Bruce Lee lived among us.