Top 15 Must-See Asian Action Movies of the 1970s–1980s

Top 15 Must-See Asian Action Movies of the 1970s–1980s
The Top 15 Asian Action Movies From The 70s and 80s

The 1970s and 1980s were a golden era for Asian action cinema, revolutionising the genre with groundbreaking films that left their mark on global filmmaking. This list counts down the top 15 must-see Asian action movies from these two decades that every action junkie needs to experience.

But first, a bit of context:

The 1970s and 1980s were fertile breeding grounds for some of the most influential and game-changing martial arts flicks to ever grace the silver screen. From the streets of Hong Kong to the ancient battlefields of Japan, these decades saw a seismic shift in the way action was portrayed on film.

Hong Kong and Japan were the undisputed hubs for this cinematic revolution, where legendary filmmakers and performers pushed the boundaries of what was possible with fight choreography, stunts, and sheer badassery. These films didn't just entertain; they revolutionised the action genre and left a roundhouse kick of a mark on filmmaking worldwide.

Now, on to the list!

Enter the Dragon (1973)

Film Details

Director: Robert Clouse
Cast: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly
Genre: Martial Arts Action
Setting: Hong Kong, Han's Island

Kicking off the list is the film that took martial arts cinema global - Enter the Dragon. Bruce Lee shines as a Shaolin martial artist recruited to participate in a vicious underworld martial arts tournament. The iconic fight sequences, Lee's immense screen presence, and the thrilling narrative make this a genre-defining classic.

Police Story (1985)

Film Details

Director: Jackie Chan
Cast: Jackie Chan, Brigitte Lin, Danny Aiello
Genre: Action Comedy, Martial Arts
Setting: Hong Kong

Leave it to the masterful Jackie Chan to redefine the boundaries of stunt work and action choreography with Police Story. Chan plays a Hong Kong police officer who gets caught up in a violently funny caper. The groundbreaking stunt sequences and Chan's unparalleled physical comedy blend seamlessly.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)

Film Details

Director: Lau Kar-leung
Cast: Gordon Liu, Wong Yu, Lau Kar-wing
Genre: Kung Fu, Martial Arts
Setting: Qing Dynasty China

An all-time great Shaw Brothers kung fu film, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin follows a young man's journey to learn the revered Shaolin martial arts. Director Lau Kar-leung's intricate choreography and Gordon Liu's mesmerizing performance celebrate the art of kung fu brilliantly.

4. Drunken Master (1978)

Film Details

Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Cast: Jackie Chan, Siu Tin Yuen, Jang Lee Hwang
Genre: Kung Fu Comedy, Action
Setting: 19th Century China

The film that launched Jackie Chan into superstardom, Drunken Master is a riotous blend of kung fu, slapstick humour, and Chan's unmatched physicality. As a young brawler learning the "Drunken Fist," Chan delivers one show-stopping action sequence after another.

Fist of Fury (1972)

Film Details

Director: Lo Wei
Cast: Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, James Tien
Genre: Martial Arts Action
Setting: 1930s Shanghai

Bruce Lee's mesmerizing performance as a student avenging his martial arts master's death is the beating heart of this kung fu classic. Fist of Fury features some of Lee's most electrifying fight choreography as he unleashes furious attacks on waves of opponents.

The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984)

Film Details

Director: Lau Kar-Leung
Cast: Gordon Liu, Alexander Fu Sheng, Lily Li
Genre: Kung Fu, Martial Arts
Setting: 19th Century China

One of the most acclaimed kung fu films from director Lau Kar-Leung, The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter is a dazzling showcase of the virtually forgotten art of pole fighting. Gordon Liu delivers an incredible physical performance as a Shaolin student mastering the unique staff-based martial art to battle a devious clan. The breathtaking action choreography and Liu's dedication to authenticity make this a seminal martial arts classic. The intricate training sequences and epic final battle highlight the beauty and skill of pole fighting.

Five Deadly Venoms (1978)

Film Details

Director: Chang Cheh
Cast: Chiang Sheng, Sun Chien, Philip Kwok
Genre: Kung Fu Action, Martial Arts
Setting: Qing Dynasty China

An extremely influential Shaw Brothers cult classic, Five Deadly Venoms follows a dying kung fu master's last students who each embody a different "venom" fighting style. The stylish action set pieces and creative martial arts make this a deliriously entertaining must-see.

Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973)

Film Details

Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Cast: Bunta Sugawara, Hiroki Matsukata, Jitsuko Yoshimura
Genre: Crime Action, Yakuza
Setting: Post-WWII Hiroshima

One of the grittiest, most realistic portrayals of Japanese organized crime ever filmed. Director Fukasaku pulls no punches, depicting the brutal yakuza underworld of post-war Hiroshima. The gritty action and lack of glamorization make this a landmark crime thriller.

9. Ran (1985)

Film Details

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu
Genre: Samurai Epic, Historical Drama
Setting: 16th Century Feudal Japan

Akira Kurosawa's final masterpiece is a breathtaking cinematic experience. His stunning adaptation of King Lear set in feudal Japan features gorgeous, meticulously choreographed battle scenes. An enthralling blend of Shakespeare and samurai action.

The Killer (1989)

Film Details

Director: John Woo
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh
Genre: Action Crime Thriller, Heroic Bloodshed
Setting: Hong Kong

The highly stylized action of director John Woo reached new heights with The Killer. Chow Yun-Fat plays an assassin who accidentally blinds a singer, igniting hyper-kinetic gunfights and dramatic tension. The trendsetting "heroic bloodshed" violence was enormously influential.

Lady Snowblood (1973)

Film Details

Director: Toshiya Fujita
Cast: Meiko Kaji, Toshio Kurosawa, Masaki Jutaro
Genre: Action, Revenge Drama
Setting: Early 20th Century Japan

Meiko Kaji is unforgettable as the ruthless assassin seeking vengeance in this cult classic from director Toshiya Fujita. With its innovative action choreography and stylized violence, Lady Snowblood was a major influence on Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972)

Film Details

Director: Kenji Misumi
Cast: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Akihiro Tomikawa, Kayo Matsuo
Genre: Samurai Action, Period Drama
Setting: Feudal Japan

The first installment in the legendary Lone Wolf and Cub series follows a disgraced executioner and his young son as they become assassins for hire. Director Kenji Misumi's bloody action and the iconic imagery made this a landmark samurai film.

Crippled Avengers (1978)

Film Details

Director: Chang Cheh
Cast: Chen Kuan-tai, Feng Lu, Chiang Sheng
Genre: Kung Fu Action
Setting: Qing Dynasty China

From the great Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh, Crippled Avengers is a gritty martial arts tale about a group of disabled fighters seeking brutal revenge on the warlord who crippled them. The gory yet empowering story complements the intense action.

Five Fingers of Death (1972)

Film Details

Director: Chang-hwa Jeong
Cast: Lo Lieh, James Nam, Mien Fang
Genre: Kung Fu Action
Setting: China

One of the first major Hong Kong martial arts hits in the West, Five Fingers of Death follows a young man seeking to learn the deadly "Buddha's Palm" technique to defeat his rival school. The over-the-top action and revenge plot made it a drive-in cult favorite.


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The Big Boss (1971)

Film Details

Director: Lo Wei
Cast: Bruce Lee, Maria Yi, James Tien
Genre: Martial Arts Action
Setting: 1920s Thailand

Bruce Lee's breakout starring role, The Big Boss features some of his most intense fight scenes as he plays a Chinese worker taking on ruthless mobsters and drug lords. It kicked off Lee's meteoric rise and the early kung fu film craze.

These top 10 films from the 1970s and 80s exemplify why Asian action movies revolutionized the genre through their dazzling action, innovative choreography, and unique storytelling perspectives that inspired filmmakers worldwide. They're essential viewing for any cinephile.

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