Fighting, whether sanctioned or no-holds-barred, is without a doubt the oldest form of competition that mankind has ever engaged in. At times, it has been a necessary tool of survival—kill or be killed—and that proved an extremely effective motivation and crucible for enhancing mankind’s fighting prowess. Technology rapidly came into play and has been seen out to its inevitable conclusion, which removes man from the equation almost entirely. Today, robotic drones are poised to do much of our fighting for us—whether we ultimately end up in a Robot Jox scenario where wars are decided by giant mech battles is a valid (and awesome) question.
And yet, despite all of our sophistication and technology, we still fight by hand as well. Some is driven by necessity. Others fight professionally, and have only continued to expand the complete picture of what a fighter is. Look at the exponential growth in sophistication from the early days of mixed martial arts to how the sport has become in 2015, going from big guys winging punches at one another to a beautiful, scientific system of mixed grappling and striking styles. The audience has never been bigger, because on some level, we love fighting, if only because it reminds us of our most primal roots that have long been shelved and put aside by civilization.
And nowhere is appreciation for the beauty of fighting more apparent than in the wide, storied genre of martial arts cinema. Violence is the selling point of these films, but seeing as that violence is achieved through trickery, stunt work and movie magic, it’s not truly the audience’s bloodlust that drives the industry. It’s an appreciation for the beauty of violence, a reminder of the exceptional abilities derived through training and a celebration of ancient, classical storytelling, in the vein of “Avenge me!” No genre reveres classic themes as this one does, because at their root they speak to us like cinematic comfort food, and they provide excuses for what people have really wanted to see all along: The action.
And so, let us celebrate the martial arts genre from its top to its bottom, old and new. Epic and modest. Comedic and tragic. Grave and absurd, all represented in equal measure. These films contain many wondrous sights: Monks training their bodies to repel bullets. Men with prosthetic iron hands shooting poison darts. Flying heads. Incredibly silly ninja costumes. It’s all here.