Five years ago, before the lyrical sweep of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “House of Flying Daggers” and “Hero,” America’s idea of martial-arts movies was more flophouse than art house.

Now, things are coming full circle. “Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior,” is classic, fundamental fu, with all flying fists and feet and few discernible acting skills. Enough with the sumptuous cinematography, languid love stories and primping for Oscar recognition; this is what we want: a man on a mission and bad guys dropping like Seattle rain.

Later this spring, “Kung Fu Hustle,” a comedy from director Stephen Chow (“Shaolin Soccer”), will follow in the acrobatic footsteps of early Jackie Chan. So now that old-school is new-school again and Ong-Bak is going to just whet your appetite for more, here are some of the must-rent Asian action films from the last few decades.

The classics

“Enter the Dragon” (1973): Certainly not the first martial arts film, but the first to matter to a global audience. The reason? Two words: Bruce Lee. His sheer ferocity has yet to be equaled.

“Iron Monkey” (1993): With a rockin’ title, action choreography from Yuen Wo Ping (“The Matrix” and “Kill Bill” movies), and a finale fight on flaming poles, what’s not to like?

“Five Deadly Venoms” (1979): This one’s got it all: the bad dubbing, washed-out color and a plot as cheesy as a brie factory. But director Cheng Cheh’s tale of the “poison clan” – who, with their masks, fall somewhere between Mexican wrestlers and Slipknot – is a kung-fu hoot.

Jet pack

“Once Upon a Time in China” (1991); “The Swordsman II” (1991):

For anyone who’s only seen Jet Li’s American films, both the “China” and “Swordsman” series should be required fu viewing. Set in 19th-century China, these films offer Li the chance to show what he can really do, from his lightning-quick reflexes to his electric sense of grace. After seeing these, it’s no wonder Hollywood came knocking at Li’s door.


“Dragons Forever” (1988), “Supercop: Police Story III” (1992): Though many Chan fans might pick “Drunken Master II” or “Project A” as their favorites – and they’re certainly classics – these are my personal choices. The former because it teams Chan with the stalwart comedic talents of Sammo Hung and the fluid athleticism of Yuen Baio and the latter because of Michelle Yeoh and that sensational motorcyle stunt.

Do they shoot people?

“Hard-Boiled” (1991): Director John Woo’s Hong Kong farewell is no tear-stained love letter. Instead, it’s a riot of gunplay and gangsters starring Chow Yun-Fat (“Crouching Tiger”) and Tony Leung (“Hero”). The climax is a brilliantly choreographed 45-minute shootout in a hospital that gives new meaning to the term “emergency medicine.”

There are many other notable Woo titles, such as “A Better Tomorrow” (1986), “A Better Tomorrow II” (1987) and “The Killer” (1989).

“Battle Royale” (2000): In the wake of the Columbine massacre, there was no way a movie with this plot would see the light of American theater: A high school class is given orders by the government to kill each other in a “battle royale” until only one student is left woozily standing. But this explosive Japanese near-future comic-book fantasy, starring Takeshi Kitano (“Zatoichi”) and based on Koushun Takami’s epic, “Lord of the Flies”-like novel, is available on video through specialty shops. Not for the squeamish or for the kids.


“The Heroic Trio” (1993); “Peking Opera Blues” (1986): The former – starring Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung and Anita Mui, is comic-book camp, the latter is “Crouching Tiger” graceful, but both let the ladies take the action spotlight.


“The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi” (2004): My swordsman can beat up your swordsman – and mine is blind. There are many Zatoichi adventures in Japan, but this version has Takeshi Kitano playing the laconic hero who, of course, takes on a Japanese village’s bad guys.

And as long as we’re talking Japanese warriors, fans should seek out the classics from famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, such as “The Seven Samurai” and “Ran,” or just about anything starring Sonny Chiba, who got some exposure in “Kill Bill, Vol. 1” but is better appreciated in his classic “Street Fighter” series from the ‘70s.

Poetic justice

“A Chinese Ghost Story” (1987); “The Bride With the White Hair” (1993); “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2001); “Hero” (2004); “House of Flying Daggers” (2004).

Beautiful films that are as much about their lush look, historical pageantry, spiritual aura and sense of romance as their fight sequences. They appeal to an arty sensibility, but make no mistake, they still put the martial in martial arts.

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