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THE MATRIX (1999)
The Wachowski brothers reignited a nation's love for martial arts with this pivotal action flick, which found Keanu Reeves' Neo discovering that the world he knows is a computer-controlled lie — but a lie he can take advantage of. In a flash, he ''downloads'' everything he needs to know about kung fu. The Wachowskis brought in storied Hong Kong fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping to train his cast in the rigors of ''wire-fu'' and it paid off with a genre-defying blockbuster.
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ABOVE THE LAW (1988)
Sure, Steven Seagal may be a joke now, but don't forget how much of an impact he had in the '80s. A white guy doing what looked like real-deal aikido? Sign America up. All those holds and throws were something to see, and this rogue cop flick was his finest hour.
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ENTER THE DRAGON (1973)
Before Bruce Lee hit the screen in the early '70s, America at large had never been exposed to kung fu — and definitely not to Lee's unique form of it, jeet kune do (the way of the intercepting fist). He was impossibly fast and incredibly precise — even if Enter the Dragon was a little hokey, plot-wise (the now standard ''massive martial arts tournament on private island'' gambit), Lee held the screen with a power not seen since.
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THE LEGEND OF DRUNKEN MASTER (1994)
Here's Jackie Chan doing what he does best: making like Buster Keaton. He mixes slapstick with butt-whup as Wong Fei Hung, a hero out of Chinese antiquity who, here, fights way better when he's drunk.
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FIST OF LEGEND (1994)
As a Chinese ex-pat who returns to Shanghai of the 1930s, only to find his martial arts teacher murdered and his school under political threat by the Japanese, Jet Li made like Bronson. He never said much, but kicked a whole lot of tail in his quest to set things straight.
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CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000)
Good martial-arts scenes are like conversations: each combatant is saying something about the way he — or, more often in Ang Lee's Oscar-winner, she — views life and his/her place in it. So Chow Yun-Fat's legendary swordsman fights with an ethereal aloofness, Michelle Yeoh's veteran warrior fights with a resigned control, while Ziyi Zhang's brash upstart fights with a daredevil recklessness. All in the service of a lush, and lushly told, story of longing and heartbreak.
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Stories within stories tell of a nameless warrior (Jet Li) who killed a band of assassins (played by Donnie Yen, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Zhang Ziyi — heavyweights all) who endangered his king, Qin, the man who would eventually unite all of China under one rule. Director Zhang Yimou used a vibrantly rich palette when constructing this sweeping epic, one of the only foreign language films ever to debut at No. 1 at the US box office.
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THE FIVE DEADLY VENOMS (1978)
After Bruce Lee made it big, grindhouse theaters and syndicated TV stations started running kung fu flicks to feed the hungry audience. And this is one of the craziest: five students, each trained in a style mimicking a venomous creature — snake, lizard, centipede, toad, and scorpion — must avenge the death of their master. Like the Super Friends, but with a lot more kicking.
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POLICE STORY (1985)
Jackie Chan plays a Hong Kong policeman whose big score is the arrest of a drug king — who then frames him for a murder. As in The Departed, Chan must ascertain which of his fellow comrades are on the right and wrong side of the law — all while kung-fu-ing his way to redeem his honor.
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DISTRICT 13 (2006)
Leave it to the French to resurrect the Great White Martial Artist. Here we get two: Leito (David Belle) and Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), mismatched badasses who have to extract a WMD from a nasty futuristic Parisian ghetto. The big innovation here is that the two nimble leads, stuntmen-turned-stars, are devotees of parkour, a fancy French word for the fluid use of urban environments as jungle gyms. Even though parkour itself isn't quite revolutionary — Jackie Chan's been doing the same thing for 20 years — the plethora of fight scenes carry a nifty charge.
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KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004)
Director-star Stephen Chow channeled both Bruce Lee and Chuck Jones when concocting his super-stylized, mega-heightened kung fu flick. Physics has no place in this period film — about a loser who tries to join a street gang, fails, and then is revealed to be a master martial artist — which is fine, since the choreography by Yuen Wo Ping doesn't adhere to any.
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TWIN WARRIORS (1992)
A ridiculous plot — twins are separated at birth; one grows up to be a concert conductor, the other one a hardened gangster — doesn't hamper some terrific Jet Li fireworks. Plod through the silly girlfriend perambulations and hold out for the finale, set in an auto repair shop.
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KILL ZONE (2005)
Like so many martial-arts movies, this one takes a little too long to get to the goods, instead entreating us with a story of renegade cops taking on a ruthless crime lord (Sammo Hung). But when we get to the finale — and Donnie Yen engages in single combat with a flashy, white-leather-clad bladesman before taking on Hung (who's more spry than a guy that big should be) — our patience is duly rewarded.
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THE BRIDE WITH THE WHITE HAIR (1993)
Ronnie Yu's heightened, surreal, pulpy feudal China-set fable follows a pair of star-crossed lovers (played by Brigitte Lin and Leslie Cheung), torn between feuding clans — one of which is named ''Wu-Tang.''
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THE STREET FIGHTER (1974)
The great Sonny Chiba — recently seen as the swordsmith in Kill Bill — bludgeons his way through all comers as a Japanese mercenary with his sights set on a rich man's daughter: first to kidnap her, then to protect her.
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ONG-BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR (2003)
For whatever reason, most of the great martial arts films come from China — a robust film industry mated with a centuries-old fighting tradition, I guess — but this Thai offering deserves a place of honor. The plot is as rote as any other: a rural villager must confront the evils of the Big City to retrieve a stolen artifact. And he does so with the high-flying muscularity of muay thai, Thailand's contribution to the combat arts.
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ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA (1991)
Jet Li takes his turn playing the Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung (who Jackie Chan has also played, more than once), who helped defend the city of Canton from foreign invaders by forming a kung-fu army. Which sounds like the awesomest army ever — with the possible exceptions of the KISS Army and the Army of Darkness. If all you know of Jet Li is his later work, you need to see him as a young man: a furious, acrobatic dervish.
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RETURN OF THE DRAGON (1972)
Much of this Bruce Lee flick is eminently scannable — he pays a visit to his restaurant-owning relatives in Italy, and gets mixed up with the mafia — but it's noteworthy for the climactic battle. Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris, mano a mano, in history's greatest arena, the Flavian Amphitheater — you know, the Roman Colosseum.
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SHAOLIN MASTER KILLER (1978)
I don't know about you, but when I think of kung fu movies, this is the sort of thing that comes to mind. It's got Shaolin temple monks, who train our hero (Gordon Liu) in the ways of kung fu — after hardening his body and mind in a series of chambers. It's got a little revenge-plot for flavor. And a whole mess of the intricately choreographed violence we've come to know and love.