Cinema has featured martial arts as early as the 1920s. Movies like the Ong-Bak series and 2021's Mortal Kombat prove that modern martial arts movies are still massively popular.
But martial arts show up in many movie genres beyond traditional martial arts films. American films often hire martial artists to serve as trainers and fight choreographers. As a result, martial arts are used in all sorts of American movies, from superhero films like Black Panther and The Dark Knight Rises to action thrillers like The Matrix and John Wick to children’s movies like The Karate Kid and Kung Fu Panda.
Krav MagaPhoto: Salt / Columbia Pictures
Where Does The Style Come From: Krav maga is most often associated with the nation of Israel, and its name literally means "close-quarters combat" in Hebrew. Although some of its techniques have existed for millennia, credit for the modern version goes to Emerich "Imi" Lichtenfeld, a Hungarian-Jewish martial artist. Lichtenfeld taught krav maga to Jewish people as a form of self-defense from nationalist packs during the Holocaust. He further developed it during Israel's War of Independence.
What Makes It Special: Krav maga is specifically designed to allow the user to defend themselves against multiple attackers coming from all directions. Also, contrasted with many other martial arts, krav maga doesn't have a spiritual component.
Where You've Seen It: Salt, Collateral, The Debt
Brazilian Jiu-JitsuPhoto: Oblivion / Universal Pictures
Where Does The Style Come From: Jiu-jitsu itself probably dates back a few millennia, but the earliest known version of jiu-jitsu date back to feudal Japan in the 16th century. Then, judo became a separate discipline from jiu-jitsu in 1882. In 1914, grandmaster Mitsuyo Maeda introduced judo to Brazil. One of the first Brazilian students was Carlos Gracie, who went on to create the Brazilian version.
What Makes It Special: While traditional jiu-jitsu is focused on self-defense, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a combat sport that's not meant for real-world use. Like jiu-jitsu and judo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a grappling sport that teaches fighters to leverage their opponent's weight against them. But Brazilian jiu-jitsu mainly focuses on ground grappling - literally grappling in a prone position.
Where You've Seen It: Oblivion, John Wick: Chapter 2, Pacific Rim, Olympus Has Fallen
Muay ThaiPhoto: Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior / Magnolia Pictures
Where Does The Style Come From: Muay Thai, or "Thai kickboxing," is a true martial art. Its exact origins are unknown, but its history dates to at least as early as the 14th century. Today, it's practiced for sport, where top fighters utilize it regularly.
What Makes It Special: Muay Thai emphasizes accurate and powerful close-quarters kicks, along with knee strikes, punches, and elbow strikes. Muay Thai also promotes a spiritual lifestyle dedicated to the ideals of "respect, humility, self-control, and compassion," and is closely associated with Buddhism.
Where You've Seen It: Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, Ong-Bak 2, Ong-Bak 3
AikidoPhoto: The Man in the High Castle / Amazon Prime
Where Does The Style Come From: Like judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, aikido is another martial art that's derived from jiu-jitsu. According to Black Belt magazine, he origins of aikido go back centuries, from the days of Morihei Ueshiba. Ueshiba first organized his techniques in 1922 and further developed them in the 1920s and 1930s.
What Makes It Special: Aikido is similar to both jiu-jitsu and judo, but the main difference is that aikido is primarily meant to be a form of self-defense (although some variations of aikido do include offense). That meant traditional aikido had no offensive moves and didn't involve competition. Like judo, aikido also teaches practitioners to achieve complete mental clarity and body control. This quote from Ueshiba sums up aikido's philosophy: "To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace."
Where You've Seen It: The Man in the High Castle, Above the Law, Hard to Kill