When it comes to Martial Arts films we love the action, the cheesy lines and of course the fights. But this excitement that Martial Arts movie fans find is heavily attributed to the actor and his persona; the character he or she plays.
Memorable characters are a massive chunk of what make movies iconic and what build careers for actors.
Most of the world’s most well known martial arts actors are known for particular movies or characters that made them stand out above the rest and cement them into our minds, so let’s have a look at the top 50 that have cemented themselves as ‘iconic’ in the world of Martial Arts.
As usual, this is open to opinion, discussion, critique, and should not be treated as gospel. There’s a few fan suggestions in the comments section of this post 🙂
Live Action (Fictional)
We all love live action martial arts films. Seeing the abilities of performers doing awesome things in front of the camera are impossible to ignore.
These are the films’ characters that make us Martial Arts movie fanatics! As usual, in no particular order 🙂
Being the Bruce Lee fanatic I am, I had to mention this character first. Ni kuang created this character for Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury in 1972 – one of Bruce Lee’s most iconic performances.
Since then Chen Zhen as been revived and re cast into several movies and TV projects. But he has most notably been played by Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury, Jet Li in Fist of Legend and Donnie Yen in Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (as well as a short TV series in the 90’s).
Kill Bill is itself an Iconic Martial Arts film with endless references and appearances from top martial artists with ‘The Bride’, played by Uma Thurman, right at the forefront.
The Bride herself references Bruce Lee with her yellow and black tracksuit similar to Game of Death. As far as American made martial arts characters go, the Bride is very memorable and stands as example of martial arts movies involving strong female leads in mainstream cinema.
He’s a powerful swordsman who is completely blind!
Zatoichi is a name about as iconic as they get as he is the main character in the Japanese movie series of the same name.
In total, Zatoichi has appeared in 26 films and even did a cross over with the popular Chinese ‘One Armed Swordsman’ series called Zatoichi meets the One Armed Swordsman.
Ogami Ittō & Daigoro
Perhaps better known as Lone Wolf & Cub.
From a Manga to a movie series, Lone Wolf & Cub (or the characters Ogami and his son Daigoro) have become iconic within Martial Arts films as part of another popular long running, and highly successful series of 6 films (with the seventh, Shogun Assassin being a retelling).
A top story is told in this film but more so, the awesomely fake gore of Japanese martial arts film is what makes these movies stand out. If you’ve never seen a Lone Wolf & Cub movie, start off Shogun Assassin.
No doubt about it, he is the most complete fighter in the world!
Whilst the Undisputed films haven’t been massively successful financially, Boyka himself has a cult following and countless tribute videos all over YouTube thanks to Scott Adkins portrayal of such a memorable character.
With the crackdown on piracy, Boyka could see the financial success he deserves now that Scott Adkins & Isaac Florentine have released Boyka: Undisputed 4.
If you’ve never seen these movies I highly recommend starting with Undisputed 2.
The Raid. ‘Nuff said.
When you have a movie with as much impact as The Raid, the lead is going to become a memorable character. Iko Uwais is now a mainstream martial arts star thanks to his role in Gareth’s Evans Raid movies.
Obviously, if haven’t seen these films than you better give yourself a kick in the ass and watch them. They absolutely rock!
Still on the Raid? Yeah, we’re not done yet.
Mad Dog! The crazy bad guy form the first Raid movie is that memorable bad guy you love to watch. I honestly couldn’t wait to watch his every scene in these films and his persona, intensity and general ruthlessness contributed heavily to the tone and feel of the film.
Another top reason to watch these movies!
Probably the most bad ass man on the planet, Black Dynamite is played by Michael Jai White and is a comedy which pokes a little fun at the old skool 70’s kung fu films of both Hong Kong and the US.
You find intensity and hardcore action, but you will find the martial arts and performance of Michael Jai White pretty hilarious.
Black Dynamite is about as memorable and iconic a character as it gets!
You know that huge action star Jason Statham? Expendables? Crank?
Well it all started with his role as Frank Martin from the Transporter movies. Frank Martin is a guy who “transports” things for a predetermined fee.
But when things go wrong (they always do) he pulls out his martial arts skill and beats the shit out of everyone. Nice.
This role is an iconic one for one of action’s biggest names (Statham), so it’s in the list!
Michael Jai White again!
This time we’re dipping into the film Blood & Bone for MJW’s character simply named ‘Bone’. A lot of people came to know Michael Jai White through his role as Bone and it’s one of the more serious characters he plays.
You’ve seen the Matrix right?
I was tossing up between Neo and Agent Smith but I think we all know who takes the title – the bad ass self duplicating Agent Smith who constantly picks fights he can’t win with the ‘one’ himself.
In saying this, many characters in this franchise are iconic – Neo, Agent Smith, Morpheous and even Seraph are terrific Martial Arts characters.
Bruce Lee can’t help but create iconic characters as he himself is an icon of martial arts and pop culture.
Kato is a character who lives his life as the sidekick of The Green Hornet, only to overshadow the main hero in popularity and earn the title ‘The Kato show’ in Hong Kong.
He has since then been referenced in many films like Jet Li’s Black Mask and even inspired Donnie Yen’s costume for Chen Zhen in Legend of the Fist – paying homage to two Bruce Lee characters in one hit (see below)
The Green Hornet has since been remade and the character Kato returned with in it and many other refeernces in martial arts films.
They even repackaged old Green Hornet episodes into movies with Bruce Lee pasted all over the marketing material (to cash in on his new found fame when he died) , they’re called – The Green Hornet and Fury of the Dragon.
He’s probably the most newly developed character on this, but he’s earned a spot.
John Wick, played by Keanu Reeves is the Ultimate assassin in the criminal underworld. After the murder of his puppy he sets out for revenge to blend his Gun fu, Kung fu and other martial arts fighting styles against his foes.
Wick is definitely an iconic martial arts character with (at time of writing) two films under his belt. Apparently there’s more on the way!
This character known as ‘The Monkey King’ or ‘Sun Wukong’ started out as a book character from ‘Journey to the West’ in the 1800’s.
Since then the Monkey King has become a popular film and television character showing up most recently in Donnie Yen’s ‘The Monkey King‘ as well as other TV shows like Monkey way back when.
The Monkey King has been endlessly referenced in martial arts and Asian culture as films. He’s definitely iconic!
It’s hard not to chuckle a little when I think of the Streetfighter. Gore, Violence and the ripping off of rapists’ genitalia are all apart of this Iconic characters history.
Needless to say this film made Chiba’s career and they made several movies afterwards including The return of the Streetfighter and even a spin off called Sister Strteetfighter.
He may not be from a Martial Arts film, but Darth Maul’s martial arts abilities gave Stunt Man Ray Park a bright future in the movie industry.
Being such an iconic character in one of the most iconic movie franchises of all time. It’s hard to ignore this performance which, sadly, only lasted one film – The Phantom Menace. For some reason one of the coolest characters to grace a Star Wars film gets less attention than he deserves. But Ray Park has since landed some top roles, so it all played out well.
The half vampire / half human who kills vampires for a living was extremely well represented when they chose a guy as highly trained as Wesley Snipes to portray him.
As an iconic movie character he’s another hard to ignore entry. Just check out Blade 2 if you want to see some of the best Blade has to offer!
Lady Snowblood is a Japanese film/character that has every bit the gore and violence of your favorites like Streetfighter and Lone Wolf & Cub.
She’s a woman born for the purpose of revenge and she grows up to become a deadly fighter who exacts this vengeance in awesome fashion. Her cult classic status spawned a sequel also, which will be getting reviewed sometime in the near future 🙂
Pei Mei is the evil kung fu master from classic 70’s Kung Fu film Executioner from Shaolin, later portrayed by Gordon Liu in Kill Bill. He’s a crazy magical (almost wizard like) fighter who is extremely evil. God, I love Kung Fu movies!
The character is actually based off a legendary Chinese man, although there’s no proof he really existed. So I popped him up here under fictional.
Kung Fu douchebag Jimmy Wang Yu was made on this character!
The One Armed Swordsman is one of the greatest Kung Fu films of all time and has become an iconic character. He’s had a sequel, a match with Zatoichi (The blind swordsman) and he’s also been referenced in many movies including the remake Dao (or ‘The Blade’) and even Dragon with Donnie Yen – also starring Jimmy Wang Yu.
It’s funny, Wang Yu actually had other roles after this film in which he portrayed a one-armed Martial Arts master! Type cast much?
Wax on, Wax Off.
You’ve heard it before! I shouldn’t even need to explain this one! Mr Miyagi, the sensei from The Karate Kid! Done.
A Japanese master swords-woman / assassin who happens to look like a model is definitely going to attract some attention (well it got my attention!).
Azumi is a popular Japanese character from the film, surprisingly named, ‘Azumi‘. About a girl who grows up learning to become an Assassin and ends up heading out into the world to perform her duties.
Filled with blood and cool sword fights, Azumi is a film that turned heads and made the lead character herself iconic, spawning a sequel!
Speaking of blood and crazy gore….
…this film is sheer entertaining madness!
Riki is an iconic character played by Louis Fan as the seemingly indestructible prisoner who puts martial arts action on an insanely different level of craziness. If you haven’t heard of this guy, watch Story of Ricky. NOW!
He doesn’t remember who he is, but we do.
He’s the highly trained assassin who loses his memory in The Bourne Identity and turns against his handlers in an epic film series that’s still going. Although a little thin on the martial arts, what we do see isn’t too bad and Jason Bourne has become known as a character with elite fighting abilities.
Ever seen The Last Dragon? Young Martial Artist Taimak brings to life a memorable character named Bruce Leroy! A Bruce Lee fanatic who has unparalleled skill in the martial arts.
Bruce Leroy is a funny guy from a very amusing film which has a iconic classic status among martial arts movie fans.
Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master was a smash hit, and one of the reasons (we’ll get to Jackie’s character soon) is Beggar Su!
He was reused and referenced in a number of Kung Fu films afterward and is known for being a hardcore kung fu master. So he’s made the list too!
Animated / Video Games
If there’s a level you’d like to take a story or film that is just too radical or far fetched for live action – then animated martial arts film is the next step.
While relying less on physical performance and more on charisma and top notch animation, there’s a difference quality to be found in an animated Martial Arts film and it’s characters. With video games being made into movies, I decided to explore that side of things too.
What I find really cool is when a solid animated feature finds it’s way into live action, like many of the characters below have.
The video game franchise turned movie franchise called Street Fighter is as iconic as any. Although there are so many in this franchise – Ken, Guile, Akuma, etc. Ryu is without a doubt the most recognizable.
Streetfighter has had the bad – the US film and cartoon series while the they’ve also had the good – The Japanese anime films like the first and ‘Alpha‘ and the TV series ‘V’. (notice something there?)
Ryu is the guy in the forefront. The headband, the gi with the sleeves town off, how bad ass! But he also shares the lead with Ken, overshadowing him with his ‘Dark Hadou’ struggle. He’ll always be a symbol of fantasy and martial arts.
Po, or Kung Fu Panda was a huge success at the cinemas!
The movie itself was colorful and really created a lot of symbolic characters that most Kung Fu fans can related to. It’s success even had filmmakers in China turning their heads, wondering why they didn’t think of it!
Po is iconic among younger Kung Fu fans and helped to bring more awareness of it to the younger crowds.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started as a comic, then turned into a cartoon and a movie and of course it’s exploded from there.
The character that’s most popular? Raphael.
He’s the angry, rebellious and most bad ass Ninja Turtle around and the fans love him!
Snake Eyes is GI Joe ninja everyone loves.
This is another role scored by Darth Maul himself, Ray park in their live action adaption GI Joe and the second film ‘Retaliation’.
GI Joe is one of the most iconic toy franchises and cartoons of all time, so naturally this ninja gets a spot!
OK, I already mentioned someone from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles but Splinter is one of the all time best sensei’s out there! He definitely deserves a mention.
He was probably the one character I liked most in Bay’s TMNT movie!
He’s the Hokuto Shinken successor from post apocalyptic Earth, otherwise known as the Fist of the North Star.
This character is based off a taller, bodybuilding, Japanese Bruce Lee that doesn’t exist and travels the world using his fists to get some good old fashioned vigilante justice.
The king of Anime? Dragon Ball Z? Goku!
Enough has been said by Goku himself during his fights (Frieza? Man that took forever), so I don’t think I need to elaborate on this one 🙂
Deadpool is another iconic Ninja character but with a heap of mutant powers to boot.
What’s really cool for Martial Arts fans was watching Scott Adkins double for the martial arts scenes at the end of Wolverine Origins. Although fans of the comic were disgusted at this effort, so luckily he was done justice the self titled Deadpool movie finally made it’s way to the big screen 🙂
A master swordsman who is very strong!
Jubei Kibagami is the main character from the iconic ‘Ninja Scroll‘ film and TV series (don’t bother with the series though) who fights the 8 Devils of Kimon and faces his old enemy Gama.
Such a terrific fantasy based ninja film has become iconic, bringing with it the main charatcer of Jubei to this ‘Iconic Character’ status.
“Get over here!”
I grew up watching Scorpion harpoon my friends whilst having Mortal Kombat tournaments on the weekends. I loved every minute of this video game violence
The fact that they released comics, movies, a TV series, a cartoon series and countless more games reaffirms my judgement that it is truly and awesome franchise.
Scorpion is without a doubt the most iconic character from the franchise, although just about every single character is worthy of a spot. Unfortunately, there can be only one in this case!
He looks like a girl and he won’t kill you, but man is he skilled and becoming one of the most popular characters in Japanese martial arts cinema.
I know, that photo is of an actual person! But Rurouni Kenshin started out as a Japanese Manga series and animated TV show. With the movies being so god damn good, I had to mention him here!
Tekken’s original bad ass!
Heihachi was the main man with the first Tekken video game almost 20 years ago and has since aged and become the old master with his son and grandson Kazuya and Jinn sorting out their domestic squabbles rather violently.
Baki the Grappler!
This show is another addictive anime series featuring martial arts heavy / fantasy based fighting as young fighter named Baki is determined to become the best fighter in the world – a title currently held by his asshole father who shows occasionally to beat the shit out of him!
Since the original airing a few OVA’s have been released and it has remained quite popular! But the series will always be gold to me!
This Cowboy Bebop character is known for his awesome portrayal of Martial Arts in anime. After all, he knows Jeet Kune Do and uses it on his enemies.
Man that’s cool! This series is immensely popular and worth checking out!
One of the most popular animes out there, Naruto is another iconic part of animated Martial Arts movies. With TV series spanning a total of over 700 episodes and 10 or so movies, Naruto has become really iconic.
Based off real people
Actors and Martial Artists can become so iconic that reach a point where they are no longer simply represented as themselves but take on a ‘character’ of their own.
There’s no shortage of films about real people who tell outrageous stories that do far more than merely ‘bend’ the truth, they blatantly add fictional events and story lines to movies and create a somewhat duplicate persona – becoming a ‘character’ of a film.
Endlessly referencef and used in film, I don’t think you’ll be too surprised by these entries.
I think you’ve heard of this guy before.
Since Donnie Yen took the story of Ip Man to a whole new level of fiction and popularity, Ip Man movies have been getting pumped out like crazy!
Each one adds a heavy element of fiction to the main story and takes the legend of Ip Man (or Yip Man as he used to be called) to extraordinary. The reality? He was just a highly skilled kung fu practitioner who kept his art alive and taught, quite famously, the next person turned fiction character…
Bruce Lee has been endlessly referenced and his legend continues to grow day by day.
But it seems that with every autobiographic release such as ‘Dragon: The Bruce Lee‘ Story or HK’s ‘The Legend of Bruce Lee‘ (not to mention countless movies about him made after his death over there) you literally have to do research to tell them apart from the factual history. I won’t even mention Birth of the Dragon!
The only one that seems to be almost entirely truthful (almost, according to written history) is Bruce Lee, My Brother.
Either way, fiction or not they are entertaining as hell and still hold a ‘Bruce Lee quality’ about them.
Wong Fei Hung
How many different people have played Wong Fei Hung over the years?
Straight off the bat you’ve got Jackie Chan in Drunken Master and Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China. But the Wong Fei Hung ‘character’ has appeared in 88 films!
You know the Van Damme movie Bloodsport? Yeah well that movie was based on the life of a guy named ‘Frank Dux’.
The reason I put him down as a character is because a lot of it appears to be lies formulated by Dux himself and he has since been called out publicly over many of the events he spoke of (down to ordering his own trophies at a trophy shop down town).
One of the biggest and most famous American Martial Arts movies of all time, based on one guys fantasy character of himself!
Mas Oyama’s tale has been told many times in various different ways. But the true story of this founder of Kyokushin Karate is amazing in itself.
As usual there are some that are relatively accurate and some pure fantasy. For one of the better ones, check out Fighter in the Wind – it’s a classic.
Everyone whose studied the traditional arts has heard of Musashi. If you haven’t then…. what the hell?
He’s considered to be the greatest swordsman of all time and is referenced throughout the martial arts (including the movies). His book ‘The Book of 5 Rings‘ is required reading for anyone studying martial arts.
But if you want to see him portrayed in film, check out Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island.
Oh yeah, Wing Chun was a person! Not just the name of a Martial Art but who the martial art was named after!
Wing Chun is a hot topic and naturally there have been a handful of movies made about her. Once again, they depict her classic tale of being challenge by a man with the gamble of her loss resulting in marriage (she won, so no marriage!) but there’s always more to add to make it extreme.
But these movies are pretty entertaining and she makes for a good movie character, she has been portrayed by a few famous names including the legendary Michelle Yeoh!
I’ve always got to add a bonus! Here’s a few characters I think are worth mentioning 🙂
He’s not in movies, but he is in a YouTube series which is absolutely hilarious.
Master Ken teach Ameri-do-te – a deadly martial art which parodies all other martial arts! You really need to check out Enter the Dojo for yourself here!
Not exactly reoccurring ‘characters’, but the movie The 5 Deadly Venoms was such a hit that it made the 6 actors in the film iconic, with them being referred to from that date onwards as ‘the Venoms’. They are:
- Kuo Chui
- Lu Feng
- Chiang Sheng
- Sun Chien
- Lo Mang
- Wei Pei
The 5 actors then all appeared in films together after this film, not reprising their roles but being advertised as The Venoms. Characters don’t get more iconic than that!
Anyone you think I should add?
If so, then leave a comment below, I do like to go back and update a lot of these lists so let your voice be heard!
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