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Can’t wait for Mortal Kombat? The 10 best fighting tournament movies you must see

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 4 days ago
Ludi Lin standing in front of a building: Ludi Lin (left) and Max Huang in a still from Mortal Kombat (2021). We take a look at 10 of the best fight tournament movies that have made an impact over the years. Ludi Lin (left) and Max Huang in a still from Mortal Kombat (2021). We take a look at 10 of the best fight tournament movies that have made an impact over the years.

Mortal Kombat, a long-awaited reboot of the film franchise based on the hugely successful video game series, finally opens this week in several territories around the world.

Produced by James Wan and boasting an international cast that includes Tadanobu Asano, Hiroyuki Sanada and Joe Taslim, it sees fighters of different disciplines square off to determine the fate of the world.

The fight tournament movie genre has an enduring legacy, separate from traditional sports dramas like Rocky or Raging Bull. The action often throws down behind closed doors, and can even mean a fight to the death.

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Below are 10 of our favourites.

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10. Man of Tai Chi (2013)

Too many people are unaware that Keanu Reeves directed a kung fu movie in China, in which he plays the villainous orchestrator of a deadly martial arts tournament.

Eager to create a starring vehicle for long-time collaborator Tiger Chen, Reeves cast him in the lead of his long-gestating directorial debut that sees Karen Mok Man-wai and Simon Yam Tat-wah play Hong Kong cops looking to shut down his underground octagon, while Chen's mild-mannered tai chi practitioner is corrupted by the temptations of money and bloodlust. Iko Uwais also stars in this affectionately old-fashioned romp.

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9. Bloodsport (1988)

Jean Claude Van Damme has starred in dozens of tournament movies, but none can stand its ground opposite this ludicrous high-camp classic. Purportedly based on the real-life exploits of martial artist Frank Dux, JCVD plays a US Army captain trained in ninjutsu, who goes A.W.O.L. to compete in the Kumite, an illegal martial arts tournament in Hong Kong's Walled City in Kowloon.

The plot, characters and dialogue are often more painful to watch than the action, but the fight sequences are hugely entertaining, Bolo Yeung is a formidable bad guy, and the Hong Kong locations are affectionately preserved.

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8. The Karate Kid (1984)

The teenage troubles of new kid Danny LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) are so ingrained into the psyches of anyone who lived through the 1980s that it's easy to forget how little actual karate there is in The Karate Kid.

Hong Kong martial arts cinema: everything you need to know

The pivotal tournament, in which Danny finally squares off against high school bully Johnny Lawrence and the rest of the Cobra Kai, accounts for barely 15 minutes of screen time, which is otherwise monopolised by Mr Miyagi (an Oscar-nominated Pat Morita) and his endless recitations of "wax on, wax off". Nevertheless, Danny's climactic crane move remains iconic in the pantheon of martial arts stand-offs.

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7. The Running Man (1987)

Stephen King's science fiction novel about a televised nationwide manhunt is transformed into a dystopian game show spectacular for this mid-'80s Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner.

In a futuristic society, manipulated by the media, Arnie's renegade cop is condemned to appear in a gladiatorial contest that pits him against deadly warriors like Buzz-Saw, Sub-Zero and Captain Freedom in a variety of deadly showdowns. Tongue-in-cheek yet uncannily prescient, The Running Man sees Schwarzenegger at his wisecracking best, fighting for his life and inciting a nationwide revolution to topple an Orwellian regime, all while sporting a skintight gold jumpsuit.

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6. Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976)

In this sequel to 1971's The One-Armed Boxer, Kang Chin's blind assassin sets out to avenge the deaths of his two students, killed in the previous film. Wielding the ludicrous decapitation weapon of the title, he heads to a martial arts tournament, vowing to murder every one-armed man he finds.

Written and directed by returning star Jimmy Wang Yu, the film showcases an incredible diversity of martial arts styles, as well as some truly impossible notions - at one point, Wang walks on the ceiling - but its influence on fighting video games is still evident today.

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5. Undisputed III: Redemption (2010)

British action star Scott Adkins and Israeli director Isaac Florentine transform Walter Hill's so-so 2002 prison boxing movie, Undisputed, into a mixed martial arts franchise following the changing fortunes of Yuri Boyka (Adkins), a Russian convict and self-proclaimed "most complete fighter in the world".

Coerced into an underground tournament that promises clemency for the winner, Boyka squares off against adversaries Mykel Shannon Jenkins and Chilean Marko Zaror. That these actors can also fight enables Florentine to film in exhilarating long takes, and stage some of the most impressive unbroken beatdowns ever committed to film.

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4. Crying Fist (2005)

Nobody does bruised masculinity better than the Koreans, and Ryoo Seung-wan's 2005 drama is a brilliant portrait of fractured machismo and hard-earned redemption. Choi Min-sik plays a former silver-medal-winning boxer, now busking as a human punching bag on the streets of Seoul. Ryoo Seung-bum, meanwhile, is the hot-headed hoodlum whose frustrations have landed him in jail.

In a desperate last-ditch effort to find salvation, both are steered towards an upcoming amateur boxing tournament, and an inevitable final showdown against each other that will have audiences battling with themselves to choose a side.

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3. Battle Royale (2000)

Hardly your traditional tournament film, but the stakes could not be higher than in Kinji Fukasaku's dystopian cult classic, and forerunner of The Hunger Games. Featuring a roster of future Japanese stars fronted by Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda and Chiaki Kuriyama, the story sees a class of middle-schoolers dumped on a remote island and given three days to kill each other, until only one survives.

Under the watchful eye of Takeshi Kitano's teacher, rivalries are realised and romances must be reckoned with as a generation of lackadaisical adolescents are confronted by the harsh realities of the adult world.

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2. Enter the Dragon (1973)

The impact of Robert Clouse's 1973 classic cannot be overstated. Premiering just weeks after the death of its star, Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon transformed the 32-year-old into a cultural icon and high-kicked the world into a kung fu frenzy.

The film itself is a delightfully camp spy caper in the James Bond mould (and a direct influence on The Man with the Golden Gun), as Lee is sent by British intelligence to infiltrate an illegal martial arts tournament. On screen, Lee's speed, agility and invention were unprecedented, while the tournament format has since become a staple of the action genre.

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1. Warrior (2011)

When it comes to realism and emotional investment, nothing can lay a finger on Gavin O'Connor's exhilarating mixed martial arts drama. Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton are both heartbreaking as the estranged brothers - one a tortured war veteran, the other a struggling family man - who are forcefully reunited in opposite corners of the UFC octagon.

a group of men standing next to a man: (From left) Tom Hardy, Josh Rosenthal and Joel Edgerton in a scene from Warrior (2011). © Provided by South China Morning Post (From left) Tom Hardy, Josh Rosenthal and Joel Edgerton in a scene from Warrior (2011).

Nick Nolte earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as the alcoholic father responsible for destroying their childhoods, but O'Connor deserves most credit for crafting a film that succeeds as a nail-biting tournament film, while delivering a sucker-punch of suppressed catharsis.

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