12 Movies That Only Die-Hard Martial Arts Fans Have Probably Seen

There's no singular definition of a martial arts movie. They can be deadly serious, endlessly silly, and sometimes even feature anthropomorphic turtles named after classic Italian artists. The common thread is the presence of fights that go beyond boxing or brawls in their style and form. Action cinema is filled with talents who've made a career showcasing those skills such as Bruce Lee, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jackie Chan, and many more. You know them, you've seen them, and you love them, but for every well-known and celebrated film of theirs, there are four dozen more movies featuring equally great (or better) talents that don't get the same kind of love.

This brings us to this list of martial arts movies that only die-hard fans have probably seen. The number one reason why is straight-up unavailability. A precious few are "rediscovered" with new home video releases, but thousands more remain lost in the ether or only available on old DVDs and YouTube. Die-hard action fans will scour the Earth, but casual viewers will typically only see what's easily available. We've dabbled in underseen films before with a column called The Best Films You Haven't Seen, but this time the focus is on martial arts movies that have yet to find the audience they deserve. This list could be a hundred movies long, but we'll settle for 12 martial arts films that only die-hard fans have probably seen.

Sun Dragon (1979)

Two men seek revenge on the villains causing them grief beneath the baking sun of the Arizona desert. One is a young Black man whose entire family is killed by thieves, and the other is a good samaritan helping out his fellow natives of China in a foreign land. Those villains don't stand a chance.

Hua Shan's 21st feature leaves China behind to deliver the unexpected in a martial arts-fueled revenge picture set in the United States. It's a western in many ways, set in a nebulous time period that could be the late 19th century ... but also the baddies are all wearing muscle shirts? Hilariously bad dubbing via the American edit retitled "A Hard Way to Die" seems to be the only viewing option, which adds to the uncertainty, but what isn't in doubt is the action. Carl Scott is the main reason to watch as his presence in the genre as a truly talented Black martial artist given a starring role was a real rarity in the late '70s, and from the training montage on he's a force to be reckoned with. Billy Chong's fellow protagonist also delivers the goods thanks in part to clean choreography by Hsiao Sung Liang (who also plays Carl's sifu). Hua captures the action clearly with wide shots and smart edits ensuring that all of the fights work to make the film's detriments less weighty.

Tiger Over Wall (1980)

Shanghai in the early 20th century is a place of dueling powers and wavering honor. While a corrupt police captain sides with British oppressors, a young man and his family choose instead to stand up for what's right. Carnage ensues.

Chinese genre films often feature the Brits and their supporters as villains, and honor is pretty much a required ingredient in martial arts cinema. What earns praise in Tony Lou Chun-ku's 1980 film is the way the film sets up its protagonist and antagonist as supporting players in an ensemble about corruption, clashes of loyalty, and the mystery of a missing dog before blowing it all out with an epic third-act explosion of fight action. Hwang Jang Lee is a morally bankrupt and vicious policeman, and Phillip Ko is the young man who stands up to him. Bodies fall around them, but the two go at it for an extended period with a fight that moves through various weapons and styles before one emerges victorious. It's a violent, mean-spirited ride choreographed by Tang Tak Cheung to move the men from one technique and form to the next. We also get some bloody kills (and one wickedly twisty demise) adding thrills to an ultimately triumphant and true storyline.

We're Going to Eat You (1980)

A policeman heads to a small island in pursuit of a thief, but he finds something far more dangerous. It seems this island community has a taste for human flesh.

Director Tsui Hark's filmography is filled with action classics that have made him a top name in the genre including "Once Upon a Time in China" and "The Blade." Fans who dig deeper and earlier are rewarded with unforgettable genre mashups. Released the same year as his nihilistic gem "Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind," "We're Going to Eat You" is a horror-comedy that succeeds on both fronts while also injecting plenty of fight action throughout. It's easy to mistake it for silliness given the title and broad comedy within, but the horror delivers some bloody and gory beats. To the point of its inclusion here, martial arts fans know that it delivers with the fights too. Our hero may be self-conscious about his body (a running gag), but there's no doubt his action chops and dexterity are unassailable. He faces off against masked blade-wielding cannibals several times, and their kinetic/acrobatic sequences suggest Hark had his priorities in place from the very beginning.

The Champions (1983)

A country bumpkin on the lam finds new friends in the big city, but it's the game of soccer that catches his heart and mind the most. Can a talented but naive young man navigate the rough and tumble world of professional sports?

Yuen Biao plays the bumpkin, and that alone is already enough reason to watch this action-comedy from the early '80s. What makes this one extra special is the way Biao and writer/director Brandy Yuen Jan-yeung are able to blend martial arts into an otherwise traditional sports framework. Skills Yuen's character used while collecting goose eggs in the country serve him well on the field, and soon his fancy footwork is wowing fans, players, and team owners alike. Rivalry and corruption rear their ugly heads leading to a make-or-break game, and it's goofy while still being cheerworthy. Yuen often felt as if he worked in the shadow of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, but he was every bit their equal (they were superior when it came to pure athleticism). It may be little seen by today's audiences, but Yuen's film walked (and tangoed in one delightful scene) so Stephen Chow and "Shaolin Soccer" could run.

Magic Crystal (1986)

A mysterious green rock found in Greece becomes the target of various international agents, but it finds a home with a young boy named Pin Pin ... then it starts talking to him.

Released the same year as Lam Nai-choi's even more bonkers action/fantasy mashup "The Seventh Curse," director Wong Jing's lesser-known adventure stakes its own ground as a silly but exciting riff on "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial." The alien here is a rock with a phallic arm (?) who needs the boy's help getting back to his spaceship. The effects are enough to convince one that the budget is low, but a chunk of the film unfolds amid sun-drenched Greek ruins so it looks good all the same. It's a family film of sorts, filled with wall-to-wall fights and the occasional bit of sexual harassment. Look past the family fantasy label and it's all about the action, with the likes of Andy Lau, Cynthia Rothrock, Phillip Ko, and Richard Norton. Rothrock and Norton are the most entertaining combatants, but everyone gets a piece of the action here. One sequence even lets Huang Wei-wei shine as she fends off numerous home invaders. Pair it with "Mac and Me" for a weirdly fun time.

Mirage (1987)

A photographer in 1930s China sees a mirage in the desert sky, and he decides to see where it leads him. The answer is a lot more exciting than he was probably expecting.

Fans of big, boisterous westerns like Kim Jee-woon's "The Good the Bad the Weird" owe it to themselves to seek out this epic, action-filled adventure. Director Tsui Siu-ming, who also co-stars and performs many of the film's biggest stunts, kicks off his wild tale with a bang. A big action scene involving hundreds of extras opens the film with gunfire, explosions, and numerous hand-to-hand fights erupting throughout. Our hero and his sidekick jump from one scrap to the next and face their biggest hurdle in the form of a female bandit leader more than capable of dishing out the pain herself. It's the scale of it all that makes Mirage a must-see, as chase scenes, battles, and more fill the screen on a journey through Mongolia. The personalities are big, but the stunts are bigger (and wildly dangerous), up to and including a mesmerizing gag featuring a motorcycle and a man engulfed in flames attempting to ride it. This is awe-inspiring stuff.

Iron Angels 3 (1989)

Terrorists are attacking high-ranking politicians, and a religious cult is behind the carnage. The only thing standing in their way is the secret agents known as "angels."

Director Teresa Woo's "Iron Angels" trilogy may not get the respect or attention of other similar series ("In the Line of Duty," "The Inspector Wears Skirts"), but the films are still very much worth the time of action fans. The first entry remains the best, and audiences seem to have decided that this one is the worst, but we're here to disagree. Moon Lee is a powerhouse of a performer, and her tiny frame exudes confidence with the skills to back it up. It's understandably disappointing that she's relegated to a supporting role, especially as that leaves Alex Fong taking the lead ... He's charismatic and a solid fighter, but he's no angel! The dedicated fans who make it through all three films are in for a treat. Lee's presence may be brief, but one of the best fight scenes of her career unfolds here as she takes on dozens of baddies in the hallways of a large mansion. Double use is minimal, so it's pure Lee delivering lightning-quick kicks and deadly glares. Worth the price of admission!

The Holy Virgin Versus the Evil Dead (1991)

When a high-kicking human monster with a thirst for blood starts slaughtering nubile young women, the police initially come to suspect a nerdy college professor. As you do.

Donnie Yen is a big name in Hong Kong action cinema, but he didn't really come into his own until the early 2000s. Before then he gave supporting roles in movies both great and forgettable, and 1991's wonderfully named "The Holy Virgin Versus the Evil Dead" sits somewhere in between. He plays the geeky teacher forced into blistering action when Ken Lo's rapacious Moon Monster demon starts tearing through his students' clothes and flesh. Both talents are always worth watching, and here their physical skills are employed for a salacious adventure filled with bloody bits, plentiful action, and a surprising amount of skin. It's possible that the excessive nudity and grimly supernatural shenanigans have served to distract some viewers while distancing others, but neither can hide the film's abundant — and high-quality — action. Yen is in his youthful prime, and Lo is just two years away from his epic showdown with Jackie Chan in "The Legend of Drunken Master." It's B-movie antics with A+ action.

Kick Boxer's Tears (1992)

A kickboxer is killed during a fixed match, and his sister vows revenge. Little does she know that her checklist is going to run several corpses deep.

We know what you're thinking. Another Moon Lee film?! (She's also in "The Champions" above...) To that, we say simply that you're lucky because we could have easily made this entire list a Moon Lee love fest. Shen Da-wei's 1992 feature (his sole directorial effort) makes the cut not only because it puts Lee front and center, but because it tasks her dramatic chops as well as her action ability ... and she delivers. It's far less flashy than others in the so-called "girls with guns" subgenre and is often ignored because of it, but fans know it moves beyond the sports drama to deliver on the action front in a big way. Lee faces off against numerous male opponents, from a champion kickboxer to henchmen to the big boss himself. The heart of it sees Lee fight the great Yukari Oshima, and the two frequent co-stars never fail to bring the goods. They shared the screen five times in 1992 alone! Don't let the title and sports angle scare you off, as the third act gets nasty.

21 Red List (1994)

It's the early 20th century, and a secret treaty has been signed giving Japan dominance over China. A small band of Chinese rapscallions — adopted siblings trained in the arts of both fighting and theft — are tasked with finding the document before it can go into effect.

Director Chuang Yan-chien released two Taiwanese films in 1994 (this and the fancifully titled "Revanchist"), and both are bangers unfairly relegated to shoddy import DVDs and bootleg streamers. "21 Red List" is the more action-heavy of the two, and in addition to being plentiful in its fights and large set pieces, it's also wildly creative in its choreography. Things start small, but it breaks free from the genre mold by building to more elaborately staged clashes featuring swords, bamboo poles, strategically placed ropes, and severely outnumbered heroes. Chuang and choreographer Alexander Lo-rei also employ wirework to fantastically entertaining effect as fighters spin through the air and are sent flying through walls, poles, floors, and more. The political angle grows increasingly dramatic, but the blistering action continues until the very end with a fantastic dual duel as two pairs of combatants (including two equally capable women) fight to the death before everything goes up in flames.

Redbelt (2008)

A martial arts instructor in Los Angeles sees his bad luck turning around after a series of unrelated events. The other shoe drops, though, and soon he's forced to practice what he preaches outside of the ring.

This is admittedly something of a cheat as "Redbelt" had a theatrical release and is pretty widely available via streaming. It still hasn't been seen by nearly enough people and, more importantly, it's not often you get the chance to include David Mamet on an action movie list. The action is good and understated as it often unfolds quickly and efficiently rather than be turned into a big set piece. The only real exception is a terrifically gritty and methodical end fight. Mamet's film might not constitute an action movie to some, but he crafts it with an interest in — and appreciation of — the sincerity of martial arts practitioners. Honor is a part of most action films, but here it flows through the film's veins in the form of Chiwetel Ejiofor's lead performance. His respect for jujitsu puts him at odds with competition for profit, and the character's journey to staying true to that belief is a fascinating one. Die-hard martial artists watch the film for that aspect, and the rest of you should too in addition to enjoying a typically strong Mamet cast including Alice Braga, Emily Mortimer, Ricky Jay, Max Martini, Jake Johnson, Tim Allen, and more.

Plan B (2016)

Three friends hoping to make their mark as stuntmen in the movie business stumble into action that has far more dangerous consequences. What they think is an audition is actually a hostage situation.

Just as you don't expect an understated action drama from David Mamet, you probably don't expect a brilliantly executed action-comedy from Germany either ... but here we are. "Plan B" features a lead trio of real-life stuntmen — Can Aydin, Yoon Cha-lee, and Phong Giang — whose filmographies include big franchises like "John Wick," "The Matrix," and more. All three are also naturally charismatic actors who show off solid comic chops and exceptional martial arts skills here. Its low budget means most of the fights unfold in familiar locales like warehouses, but you'll be having far too much fun to care. This is an action-comedy where both halves succeed beautifully as big laughs and thrilling fights keep the energy high and the blood flowing. Villain cameos from the likes of Heidi Moneymaker and Mike Moller add to the fun of a movie about stunt performers. It's telling that die-hard martial arts fans continue to seek out viewings of this recent film despite the lack of a North American release.