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Top 10 Iconic Martial Arts Movie Heroes

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These ass-kickers are the stuff of legend. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Iconic Martial Arts Movie Heroes.

For this list, we’re looking at the most recognizable and popular characters from the genre of martial arts film. We’re omitting David Carradine’s Caine from “Kung-Fu: The Movie,” however, as this list is for theatrical releases only. Also, it makes sense to toss out a SPOILER ALERT right about now, as we’re probably going to be delving into the backstory behind these heroic characters and their deeds.

#10: Jen Yu
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000)

Zhang Ziyi plays this beautiful, but deadly, swordswoman in one of the most commercially successful Wuxia films ever made, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” The Wuxia genre, which explores ancient China, has long been a popular staple in martial arts cinema, with its complex and graceful wire techniques adding to the scope and cinematography of the style. Zhang’s character of Jen Yu makes the most of these techniques, bounding across the treetops and through village streets in her battles against the likes of Michelle Yeoh’s Yu Shu Lien.

#9: Ting
“Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior” (2003)

Thailand’s Tony Jaa is one of the most fearsomely legitimate martial arts stars of recent memory, worthy of comparison to Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. This Muay Thai kickboxer, actor, fight choreographer, and stuntman blew our minds with his portrayal of Ting, who is on a dangerous search for a defaced Buddha head stolen from his village by thieves. Jaa’s incredible fighting skill, stylish moves, and ease in front of the camera made his role as Ting one that the actor would reprise in no less than two follow-up films.

#8: Chen Zhen
“Fist of Fury” [aka “The Chinese Connection”] (1972)

Martial arts legend Bruce Lee may have become a household name thanks to his breakout role in another film on this list, but another early hit for the master was “Fist of Fury” a.k.a. “The Chinese Connection.” Lee plays Chen Zhen, a fictional Chinese martial arts student who seeks vengeance for the death of his master, after the latter is - SPOILER - poisoned by a rival Japanese dojo. “Fist of Fury” would become so popular after its release, and its legacy so immense, that it was remade in 1994, with fellow martial arts star Jet Li taking on the role. What do both films have in common, you may ask? One epic dojo fight!

#7: Frank Dux
“Bloodsport” (1988)

Although Jean-Claude Van Damme would co-star in a handful of films before 1988, it was the Belgian martial artist and actor’s turn as the Dux Ryu Ninjutsu founder Frank Dux in “Bloodsport” that would cement him as a certified star. Although claims have been made as to the authenticity of Dux’s backstory as a freestyle martial arts fighter and tournament star, the tales published in “Black Belt” magazine would nevertheless go on to inspire “Bloodsport,” as well as its charismatic lead actor. Highlights include Van Damme’s training exercises as Dux and his final bouts in the Kumite freestyle-fighting tournament.

#6: Rama
“The Raid: Redemption” (2011)

There’s something to be said about bravely facing down overwhelming odds in the pursuit of justice. This is exactly the situation with which special tactics officer Rama is faced in the 2011 martial arts action smash known as “The Raid: Redemption.” Rama’s balance of spirituality, family, and martial arts skill makes him an intriguing character to follow as he enters a foreboding apartment block, filled to the brim with crazed killers seeking to take him and his special police squad down. Does Rama succeed? Watch “The Raid: Redemption” to find out!

#5: Nameless
“Hero” (2002)

Jet Li’s profile as a martial arts star in America rose to further prominence with this 2002 film, as Li plays the titular hero known only as Nameless. “Hero” follows the historical accounts of an assassination attempt upon the King of Qin in 227 B.C., with Li’s character travelling to Qin’s capital city to face the king.

#4: ‘Kuwabatake’ Sanjuro
“Yojimbo” (1961)

A ronin, or samurai without a master, drifts into a small village, and proceeds to play two rival crime factions against each other for personal gain. These are the basic motivations behind Sanjuro, an iconic martial arts character from the 1961 Akira Kurasawa film known as “Yojimbo.” The legendary Toshiro Mifune portrays the ronin as a stoic, calculating mystery with bursts of graphic and bloody violence. Meanwhile, the film’s plot has been adapted into many other genres, including the equally iconic spaghetti western “A Fistful of Dollars,” which helped launched lead Clint Eastwood to superstardom.

#3: Ip Man
“Ip Man” (2008)

Donnie Yen stars as the titular Ip Man in this 2008 film, a biographical picture about Yip Man, a Wing Chun grandmaster and master to the legendary Bruce Lee. Tensions between China and Japan make up a large part of the film’s plot and character motivations, while Yen’s performance as Ip is respectful not only to the real life Ip’s Wing Chun martial arts style, but also to the man’s personal legacy. The filmmakers even went so far as to receive the Ip family’s blessing prior to developing the movie.

#2: Sergeant ‘Kevin’ Chan Ka-Kui
“Police Story” (1985)

Jackie Chan’s career has been defined by many things, not the least of which is the performer’s utter fearlessness when it comes to planning and executing genre-defining stunt work. Many Chan fans point to the “Police Story” franchise as some of the man’s most incredible work, even though he’s had a career that has been marked by success from the early seventies, right on through to Chan’s role as Inspector Lee in the “Rush Hour” franchise. Still, it’s Chan’s humorous, yet death-defying, role as Ka-Kui in “Police Story” that might serve as the performance that makes just about every highlight reel.

Before we reveal our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions!
Beatrix ‘Black Mamba’ Kiddo
“Kill Bill” (2003-04)
Takuma ‘Terry’ Tsurugi
“The Street Fighter” (1974)
Liu Yude / San Te
“The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” (1978)


#1: Lee
“Enter the Dragon” (1973)

The name Bruce Lee is practically synonymous with martial arts cinema, and for good reason, as Lee’s combination of the deadly and the cool served as a template for countless other artists in his wake. It was Bruce’s role as Lee in “Enter the Dragon” that would cement his legacy as THE martial arts master of cinema, thanks to the actor’s easy charisma and magnetic screen presence. Lee’s infiltration into Mr. Han’s secret island base, his battles with such fighters as Sammo Hung, and Lalo Schifrin’s funky soundtrack would make “Enter the Dragon” the defining film of Lee’s storied, but all too brief, career.

Do you agree with our list? Which martial movie characters do you feel are the most iconic? For more heroic top ten lists, published every day, please subscribe to WatchMojo.com!
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