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.
Drunken BoxingPhoto: Drunken Master / Seasonal Film Corporation
Where Does The Style Come From: Jackie Chan's 1978 martial arts film Drunken Master is a comedy about a martial artist who uses drunken boxing, which might make drunken boxing seem like it's made up. In fact, drunken boxing is a real martial art with ancient origins. One of the earliest references to drunken boxing appears in the novel Water Margin, a novel written during the Song dynasty in the 14th century.
What Makes It Special: Drunken boxing is different from most other martial arts because it's not a formal martial arts discipline, but rather a style of fighting that can be incorporated into many different martial arts. It relies on deception and unpredictability as much as it relies on techniques. Drunken boxers imitate, well, a drunk boxer. The goal is to lull the opponent into a false sense of security by appearing drunk, and then striking when their guard is down.
Where You've Seen It: Drunken Master
JudoPhoto: John Wick: Chapter 2 / Lionsgate
Where Does The Style Come From: Jigoro Kano developed Judo in Japan in 1882. It uses wrestling holds and grappling techniques to leverage enemies' weight against them. In judo, the goal is to achieve maximum force with minimal effort.
What Makes It Special: Many martial arts are more than just self-defense techniques; they also involve spiritual belief systems, ideals for personal conduct, tools for improving mental efficiency, or all of the above. Judo is derived from jiu-jitsu, but it combines that with techniques for sharpening one's thinking to become a mind-body martial art. It's also the first martial art to become an Olympic sport.
Where You've Seen It: John Wick, Flash Point, Throw Down
The Keysi Fighting MethodPhoto: The Dark Knight Rises / Warner Bros. Pictures
Where Does The Style Come From: Keysi is one of the most modern fighting styles. It was invented in Spain in the 1980s by movie stuntmen Justo Diéguez and Andy Norman, who developed it from a combination of street-fighting experience and studying martial arts styles.
What Makes It Special: Keysi claims not to be a martial art at all, but a self-defense system. It aims to be a practical fighting system that uses the more durable parts of the body for offense and defense, while protecting the parts of the body most likely to break (hands, torso, face). It also doesn't involve kicking, preferring not to sacrifice the legs as a base.
Where You've Seen It: The Dark Knight Rises, Mission Impossible III, Jack Reacher
Pencak SilatPhoto: The Raid: Redemption / Sony Pictures Classics
Where Does The Style Come From: Variations of this martial arts style were in use in Indonesia as early as the 14th century. In 1948, "Pencak Silat" was adopted as a catch-all term for several different Indonesian martial arts styles.
What Makes It Special: Like other martial arts, Pencak Silat is designed for close-quarters fighting, as detailed in Black Belt magazine. Silat fighters begin a fight by closing in on their opponent, to an area called the "battleground." But instead of fists, Silat fighters use fast and vicious blows from the knees, elbows, and head on their opponent's vulnerable spots. This is called "tranquilization."
Where You've Seen It: The Raid: Redemption, The Raid 2