Call me crazy, but I find nothing more exhilarating than watching a character who is really quite unlikeable copping a highly stylized fly kick to the face. Yes, I am a martial arts fanatic and I believe that there is an inherent and palpable satisfaction associated with witnessing a hand to hand exchange and flying feet delivered with precise technique.
The Kung Fu Revolution began around the early 70s, long before I was born, and the genre has certainly developed and evolved greatly over the course of the last four decades. Following the release of the unparalleled Bruce Lee classic Enter The Dragon in 1973, a legion of kung fu flicks soon after flooded the market to keep up with the new craze that had swept over the movie going public. The likes of veteran superstars with incredible talent such as Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Cynthia Rothrock, Wesley Snipes, Dolph Lundgren and so many more have won success and acclaim due to their flabbergasting physical abilities.
Then there are the “newbies” who are rising in the ranks as talent to watch out for. Those such as Tony Jaa, who re-defined martial arts cinema with 2003’s Ong Bak and now finally getting his big Hollywood break with Fast & Furious 7, and Iko Uwais, who wowed everyone with his brutal physical performance in 2011’s sleeper hit The Raid: Redemption, are being entrusted with the prestigious honor of carrying the torch from the veterans.
To celebrate the recent release of Jackie Chan’s reportedly final big action spectacular CZ12 (aka Chinese Zodiac), let’s take a look at who believe are still the unsung heroes of the genre, those who have done amazing work but still just haven’t cracked that nutshell of worldwide recognition.Next
10. Wu Jing
If there’s anyone in the martial arts movie world that is truly enigmatic, it would have to be Wu Jing. He first kicked onto the scene in Yuen Wo Ping’s Tai Chi Boxer (aka Tai Chi 2) but didn’t really make an impression until he clashed with Donnie Yen in 2005’s SPL (aka Kill Zone).
His style very much resembles that of Jet Li (as they’re both Wu Shu champions) and his talent is unquestionable. So why is he enigmatic? Because he has been in some very decent films but still for some reason has not been able to rise very high on the Hollywood ladder. He is frequently cast in supporting roles and has headlined only a handful of films (including his co-directed effort Legendary Assassin), but these efforts thus far haven’t launched him as a bonafide star.
If anyone has seen him in action, his skill is nothing short of incredible. He is fast, agile, powerful, and his timing is impeccable, just watch his infamous alleyway fight against Donnie Yen in SPL and you’ll know exactly what I mean. He delivers strong and capable performances in each of his films and he should most definitely be more widely recognized than he is.Previous Next
9. Marko Zaror
This Chilean born martial artist/stuntman is still in the early stages of cutting his teeth in the action movie world. So why is he on this list? Because his villainous performance as Raul “Dolor” Quinones in Isaac Florentine’s seminal sequel and highly acclaimed DTV film Undisputed 3: Redemption should’ve launched him right there and then.
Undisputed 3 was released in 2010, so that’s 3 years that have now elapsed, and the Chilean Dragon (as he is dubbed) has been completely off the radar until now. He starred in and served as fight choreographer for a number of low budget Spanish films including Kiltro (2006), Mirageman (2007) and Mandrill (2009), which all allowed him to showcase his immaculate Kickboxing, Tae Kwon Do and acrobatic abilities. He can move his hands and feet as fast as lightning, and while he isn’t overly bulked up, he has an unmistakable presence and can match up to the best of them.
Zaror can now be seen in theaters now opposite Danny Trejo in the star-studded Machete Kills, so who knows what doors that will open up for him.
Come on Hollywood, give this guy the breakthrough movie that he so greatly deserves!Previous Next
8. Lateef Crowder Dos Santos
One of the pleasures of watching a martial arts movie is gawking in an awe-inspired manner at the intricate choreography and acrobatics that are transpiring before your very eyes. One martial arts style that is particularly beautiful to look at is the Brazilian style of Capoeira, a half dance/half self defense system that is incredibly graceful and complex, and no one has delivered this style on the screen so convincingly and effectively as Lateef Crowder Dos Santos, one of the few human beings out there who could actually win a fight while standing on one hand.
Lateef started out as a member of the ZeroGravity Stunt Team before breaking out with his first feature appearance opposite Tony Jaa in 2005’s Tom Yum Goong (aka The Protector). His fight scene against Jaa is considered to be one of the highlights of the film, and he has since appeared in many low budget martial arts centered flicks such as the MMA ensemble Never Surrender (2009), the film adaptation of Tekken (2010), and opposite Scott Adkins and Marko Zaror in Undisputed 3: Redemption.
When you watch him in action, it is very hard to believe he performs his moves without any wires or stunt doubles. Santos truly looks like he is obliterating the laws of physics and defying gravity.
He doesn’t appear all that much in front of the camera but he has performed stunts for major films like The Book Of Eli, The Expendables, Sucker Punch and the upcoming sequel 300: Rise Of An Empire. He seriously needs his own movie though, and a big one too, because a man of his talent is just too unique to allow to go to waste. Not that it is going to waste doing what he’s doing, I just think he deserves something far bigger that thrusts him onto center stage.Previous Next
7. Gary Daniels
This action export from the UK started out on the scene in the late 80s, so he could really be classed as a veteran, but he has yet to have his ‘big break.’ Gary had a professional fighting career both locally and internationally before he made the jump into acting and over the years, he’s had a long string of appearances in low budget DTV films and made enough of an impact to become a fan favourite.
With decent acting chops, an arsenal of awesome techniques, and facing off against other martial arts favourites such as Jackie Chan, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Darren Shahlavi, he was set to become martial arts cinema’s next big thing. Somehow, he never really catapulted far past the DTV market until most recently, when he landed a supporting role in Sylvester Stallone’s action ensemble The Expendables, where he had the opportunity to be double-teamed by Jet Li and Jason Statham. He also starred opposite Wesley Snipes that same year in Game Of Death (no relation to Bruce Lee’s unfinished classic), and although that was also a DTV film, he proved to be a very effective villain and had a surprisingly decent showdown with Snipes.
I’ve been watching Gary for years now, and while he has just turned 50, he evidently still has what it takes to bring it and doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon. All he needs is a decent-budgeted film to be able to show everyone what he’s really made of.Previous Next
6. Joey Ansah
One could argue that Joey Ansah got his big break with his role as the assassin Desh who is tasked with taking down Jason Bourne in 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum, and while this was a great performance, I still don’t count it as such because it wasn’t his movie.
This martial arts prodigy, who also hails from the UK, is a man of many talents. Not only has he landed some nifty roles in small but well received DTV films, he also flexes his skills in the fight choreography and directing fields. He is well versed in the styles of Tae Kwon Do, Capoeira and Ninjustu, and performs all of his own stunts. Jump on YouTube and seek out the Street Fighter: Legacy short film and you’ll see just how adept Joey Ansah is at his craft.
He can now be seen in a supporting role opposite Scott Adkins in Green Street Hooligans 3: Never Back Down, and also serves as fight choreographer for the film. Hopefully this will be the springboard needed to launch him into the limelight.Previous Next
5. Jon Foo
Our number five contender has worked with the best of the best of action cinema. He made his debut in the Jackie Chan-produced action comedy House Of Fury under the martial arts direction of the legendary Yuen Wo Ping, and also made a brief appearance in Universal Soldier: Regeneration. His martial arts talent has won over fans worldwide and while he headlined the adaptation of the popular video game Tekken, it wasn’t that well received critically or financially.
Tekken should’ve been Jon Foo’s big break, but bringing a successful interpretation of a video game into film (especially these days) is notoriously difficult to do. He did star as Ryu in Joey Ansah’s Street Fighter: Legacy short and the recent Bangkok Revenge, so he is certainly not short of work, nor is he aligning himself with substandard projects which will possibly hinder his advancement in the action world. We all have to start somewhere small to then get somewhere big, Jon Foo just should’ve made it there long ago.Previous Next
4. Cyril Raffaelli
Many of the contenders on this list are multitalented, and Cyril Raffaelli is no different as he serves as actor, stunt coordinator, fight choreographer and parkour specialist. He is probably best known to audiences internationally as the smaller-half of the deadly twins who face off against Jet Li in Kiss Of The Dragon and as the smooth moving parkour-utilizing police officer in the adrenaline pumping hit District B13 and its sequel.
Seriously, this guy is astounding. He is trained in Wu Shu and Shotokan Karate, and can do the craziest acrobatics this side of a circus troupe. His use of parkour brings a definitive quality to the projects he’s involved in and while he has had a big break of sorts with his District B13 films, and also appearing opposite Bruce Willis in Live Free Or Die Hard, he deserves to be in much bigger projects. He is incredibly charismatic, and if District B13 is anything to go by, he has a lot more to offer than what we’ve seen.Previous Next
3. Michael Jai White
When anyone mentions Michael Jai White to me, I always think to myself, “how is it that it took so long for this guy to be discovered?” Now, some may argue with me that MJW is certainly popular enough and is already widely recognized, I still think he deserves far greater praise and many more higher profile projects.
On this list, he holds up well in terms of experience as he is trained in various martial arts styles such as Shotokan Karate, Wu Shu, Tae Kwon Do, and Tang Soo Do, as well as a few others. He has performed stunt work for many films and finally made it on the map in 1997’s misdirected Spawn. He had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in the original Universal Soldier and would then go on to play the main antagonist in its sequel, Universal Soldier: The Return. Another appearance in the Joel Silver-produced ‘comeback’ film for Steven Seagal, Exit Wounds further elevated his action status, but he still just wasn’t where he deserved to be.
Only lately has he started to rise up as a bonafide action star, with impressive work against Scott Adkins in Isaac Florentine’s Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing and the surprisingly enjoyable good Blood And Bone, where he had the opportunity to flex his acting muscles as well as some crushing MMA moves.
With his directorial debut Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown, landing the role of Major Jackson ‘Jax’ Briggs on the highly successful mini web series Mortal Kombat: Legacy, and a great performance in the hilarious blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite, time will only tell where this amazingly charismatic and highly skilled actor/martial artist will go.Previous Next
2. Mark Dacascos
This guy needs no introduction as he is known as a legend throughout martial arts circles. He helped usher in the martial arts craze of the 90s and stood alongside the greats of this era with a body of work that is considered to be stellar. He twirled, flipped, somersaulted, kicked and lightning punched his way through many villains and attached a wonderful acting performance each and every time.
Hawaiian born Mark Dacascos always wowed me when I was younger, he has talent that many could only wish for. He headlined a string of genre favourites including the Capoeira centered Only The Strong, the manga-adapted Crying Freeman, and the high impact action packed/buddy film Drive, which is considered by many fans and critics alike to be his absolute best.
Unfortunately, very few of his films have been recognized on a large scale and he unfairly hasn’t enjoyed the level of status that many of his peers have attained. He plats both villains and heroes, which avoids him from being typecast, and he appears to really give 100% in everything he undertakes. He even took on the role that Brandon Lee immortalized in The Crow, as he played ill-fated rockstar Eric Draven in the short-lived TV series The Crow: Stairway To Heaven. While the series was canned after only one season, Mark Dacascos brought gravitas and did justice to a role that by all rights could’ve been criticized greatly just for simply not being left alone after Brandon Lee’s passing.
In the new millennium, Dacascos has appeared in some high profile projects, including the acclaimed French period piece/action horror film Brotherhood Of The Wolf, taking on Jet Li in Cradle 2 The Grave, and regularly appearing as The Chairman on Iron Chef America. He also has a villainous recurring role on the action series Hawaii Five-O and has resurged in the martial arts world with landing the role of Shaolin monk Kung Lao in the second season of the hugely successful web series Mortal Kombat: Legacy. While he is popular worldwide, I still think Mark Dacascos should’ve been catapulted into the greatest action star category long ago.Previous Next
1. Scott Adkins
Ask anyone who they think is worthy of carrying the torch of martial arts films from the old school guys who are starting to slow down, and the answer will be time and time again our number one contender, Scott Adkins. This man is a true marvel, he has very strong acting abilities along with the ability to perform any acrobatic and martial arts move in existence.
His first appearance in a full length feature was in the little known Chinese-produced Extreme Challenge, followed shortly after by an appearance in Jackie Chan’s The Accidental Spy. He had a substantially meatier role in Tsui Hark’s ill-received sequel Black Mask 2: City Of Masks and while the movie may have not been all it could be, his performance was certainly the one that stood out, and he got to mix it up with rising martial arts star Andy On under Yuen Wo-Ping’s masterful fight direction.
Showing off his incredible Tae Kwon Do and Kickboxing skills in each film, Scott then hooked up with fan-favourite action director Isaac Florentine for the low-budgeted Special Forces and he hasn’t looked back since. He would go on to collaborate again with Florentine many times over and leave his mark on the action world with his signature role as Russian prisoner and self-professed ‘most complete fighter in the world’ Yuri Boyka in the awesome sequels Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing and Undisputed 3: Redemption.
Now, he is well and truly hitting his stride, having appeared in The Expendables 2 alongside, well, everyone, and in the same year he pulled out all stops to take on both Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren in Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning. With Ninja: Shadow Of A Tear and Green Street Hooligans 3: Never Back Down due for release, Scott Adkins is here, and he is here to stay. Why oh why did it take Hollywood so darn long to take notice?
I can already think of another half a dozen contenders that didn’t make the list, so lay it on me, who did I miss that you think should’ve made it? Do you agree with the choices? Leave a comment below.Previous