The Ultimate Showdown: Top Martial Arts TV Shows That Pack a Punch
Step into the thrilling world of martial arts with our curated list of top TV shows that pack a powerful punch. From classic favorites like "Kung Fu" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to modern gems such as "Cobra Kai" and "Warrior," these shows deliver action, adrenaline, and a showcase of formidable fighting skills. So, buckle up and prepare for a high-energy journey through the best martial arts TV shows that have graced our screens, leaving us in awe of their fierce combat and captivating storylines.
Years Run: 1961-1969
Premise: The Avengers is a spy-fi British series that follows the adventures of John Steed, who initially serves as the assistant to British agent Dr. David Keel. Later on, Steed becomes the head spy and is joined by various skilled assistants including Cathy Gale, Emma Peel, and Tara King.
Analysis:The Avengers is notable for being the first English-language TV show to feature powerful female characters defeating their opponents. Honor Blackman, a real-life judo black-belt, portrayed Cathy Gale and showcased impressive judo techniques such as flips, throws, and armbars. Dianna Rigg, who played Emma Peel, captivated audiences with her stylish appearance and unique fighting style, which focused more on unconventional body postures. Linda Thorson, as Tara King, delivered the most athletic and energetic action, featuring dynamic movements, dramatic stunts like crashing through windows and doors, and defeating enemies with neck chops and finger thrusts.
Trivia: The Avengers did not have a dedicated fight choreographer and only employed a stunt coordinator for a brief period of time.
The Wild Wild West
Years Run: 1965-1969
Premise: Set in the American Old West, The Wild Wild West follows the adventures of Secret Service agents James T. West and Artemus Gordon. Together, they combat dangerous criminals who threaten the United States and sometimes even the world.
Analysis: Each episode of The Wild Wild West featured Robert Conrad, who portrayed James T. West, showcasing different martial arts styles. One moment he would demonstrate stylized kung fu combat, while in the next scene he would employ karate, savate, judo, or boxing. He would also wield various weapons from different cultures, such as Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, and medieval European. The adversaries West faced ranged from a 400-pound gorilla and a giant pneumatic puppet to a killer with prosthetic appendages and even an invisible man. The show broke the convention of one-on-one fights commonly seen in movies and television, as West would often take on multiple opponents simultaneously.
The Wild Wild West was a groundbreaking series that pushed the boundaries of action and stunts on television. Despite many stars relying on doubles to perform fight scenes, Robert Conrad, who was not a trained stuntman, insisted on doing all of his own stunts. He was supported by his talented fight crew, including Whitey Hughes as the stunt coordinator, and stunt performers Jimmy George, Jerry Laveroni, and Dick Cangey.
Trivia: The series captured fight scenes in unedited wide-angle shots, allowing viewers to see everything and understand that Conrad was performing the stunts.
The Green Hornet
Years Run: 1966-1967
Premise: Six years before Bruce Lee's rise to martial arts stardom, he captivated audiences as Kato, a skilled kung fu expert who fights crime alongside the Green Hornet (Van Williams), also known as Britt Reid.
Analysis: The Green Hornet is significant for introducing Bruce Lee to Western audiences. The Green Hornet featured Lee's lightning-fast strikes and kicks, showcasing his incredible speed and precision. These fight sequences were achieved without the need for fancy editing, stunt doubles, or special effects. Lee's skillful moves were often adlibbed, adding an element of excitement to each fight. Notably, he frequently concluded combinations with a signature strike, notably a leaping elbow drop.
Trivia: Bruce Lee's portrayal of Kato made him the first Asian-American actor to co-lead an American TV show and the first Asian-American to appear on the cover of TV Guide, featured in the October 29 to November 4, 1966 issue.
Years Run: 1972-1975
Premise: Kung Fu tells the story of Kwai Chang Caine, a half-Chinese and half-American Shaolin priest, who roams the American West in the 1870s. Fleeing from agents of the Chinese emperor who wrongly accuse him of murder, Caine searches for his half brother while facing racists, bounty hunters, and assassins.
Analysis: Kung Fu revolutionized fight choreography by utilizing creative camera angles, unique audio effects, and the strategic use of slow motion. The series incorporated flashback sequences to Caine's childhood, where he learned kung fu at the Shaolin Temple, which provided a captivating storytelling device.
On a philosophical level, Caine embodied Shaolin philosophy through his restraint in using his fighting skills. He would only resort to violence as a last resort, and even then, his focus was on defending the oppressed rather than causing harm. Kung Fu conveyed the message that martial arts training was about discipline, healing, and self-improvement, rather than seeking violence.
Trivia:Kung Fu featured guest appearances by numerous actors who would go on to become famous, including Harrison Ford, William Shatner, Jodie Foster, Don Johnson, Sondra Locke, Leslie Nielsen, and John, Keith, and Robert Carradine.
Years Run: 1984
Premise: The Master combines the martial arts genre with ninjas. After becoming the first Occidental ninja master, Korean War veteran John McAllister breaks ninja law by returning to the United States to find his lost daughter. This act leads a fellow ninja to vow to kill McAllister for betraying their sect.
Analysis: Capitalizing on the 1980s ninja trend, The Master featured Sho Kosugi, a prominent name in ninja films. The series prominently showcased various ninja weapons and action sequences. While some sword fights may have appeared exaggerated with excessive movements, the use of sound effects and rapid technique exchanges created an illusion of speed and power.
Trivia:The Master holds the distinction of being the first ninja-based TV series in America.
Highlander: The Series
Years Run: 1992-1998
Premise: Highlander: The Series follows the story of Duncan MacLeod, a 400-year-old immortal from the Clan MacLeod. Living in modern society, MacLeod wields his ancient katana to defeat other immortals who seek to become the ultimate immortal known as "the one."
Analysis: Highlander: The Series, which ran for 119 episodes, is renowned for its sword fights. Sword master Bob Anderson skillfully choreographed the action sequences, taking into account the challenges of working with real swords, tight production schedules, and limited resources for talent. The series showcased a variety of sword fighting techniques, with smooth and continuous movements, the clanging of weapons, and the dramatic spray of sparks when blades clashed, all captivating audiences.
Trivia: Christopher Lambert, the star of the 1986 feature film, appeared in the pilot episode of the Highlander series.
Walker, Texas Ranger
Chuck Norris In 'Walker, Texas Ranger'media4.s-nbcnews.com
Years Run: 1993-2001
Premise: Walker, Texas Ranger follows the story of Cordell Walker, a skilled Texas Ranger who fights crime in the Southern United States using his formidable martial arts skills.
Analysis: Inspired by the film Lone Wolf McQuade (1983), Walker became the longest-running martial arts-based TV series with 196 episodes. The show received mixed reviews from critics, who often criticized Chuck Norris's acting abilities. However, audiences were captivated by the fights, showcasing Norris's signature moves such as spinning backfists, elbow strikes, hooks, crescent kicks, and back kicks. Rather than focusing on variety, the series aimed to establish Walker as a tough and uncompromising lawman who delivered powerful kicks.
Trivia: The fight scenes were shot by capturing individual techniques and editing them together in quick succession, accompanied by sound effects, creating the illusion of speed.
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers
Years Run: 1993-1996
Premise: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers follows the story of six teenagers recruited by the alien Zordon to defend Earth from monsters. The teens are transformed into powerful space-suited warriors called Power Rangers, who can summon alter-ego animal/dinosaurs known as zords. When necessary, the Rangers can combine their zords to form a giant humanoid robot called Megazord.
Analysis: While the scenes featuring English-speaking actors were incorporated, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers adapted its source material, rubber-costumed monsters, props, and most martial arts footage from three Japanese TV series. The fight scenes in the Japanese footage had their roots in Hong Kong's high-flying "fant-Asia" action and Jackie Chan's choreography from Police Story. The series achieved instant success in America, running for 155 episodes.
Trivia: Jason David Frank, who played one of the Power Rangers, launched his career through the series and later became a successful MMA fighter.
Xena: Warrior Princess
Years Run: 1995-2001
Premise: Set in mythological Greece, Xena: Warrior Princess follows the adventures of Xena as she embarks on a quest to find her father. Equipped with her steel-slashing skills and haunted by her dark past, Xena fights against injustice and tyranny to protect the innocent.
Analysis: Xena: Warrior Princess, a spinoff of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, aired for 134 episodes. The series blended elements from the fant-Asia genre and Hong Kong horror films and incorporated them into mesmerizing martial arts fights. Xena's stunt double, Sophia Crawford, added thrilling action to the show, enhancing Sara Michelle Geller's character in both solo and group fights.
Trivia: The combative nature of Xena's character drew inspiration from top female film fighters in Hong Kong, including Michelle Khan, Cynthia Khan, Moon Lee, and Oshima Yukari.
Years Run: 1997
Premise: Spy Game follows the story of Lorne Cash, a secret agent trying to thwart evildoers in a post-Cold War setting.
Analysis: Spy Game incorporated the fight choreography style from Xena and Hercules, while also drawing inspiration from classic spy TV shows such as The Avengers, I-Spy, and Mission: Impossible. The pilot episode even featured cameos from stars of those series. The combat in Spy Game was heavily influenced by Jackie Chan's distinctive choreography, which involved utilizing seemingly ordinary objects as weapons. The fight scenes were stylized and action-packed, setting a new standard for martial arts choreography in contemporary television.
Trivia:Spy Game served as a launching pad for talented individuals in the industry, including Mike Gunther, a stunt coordinator, writer, and producer, and Chad Stahelski, who initially taught jeet kune do at the Inosanto Academy before becoming a prominent stuntman, actor, and director.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Years Run: 1997-2003
Premise: Buffy the Vampire Slayer follows the adventures of Buffy Summers, a young woman chosen to battle supernatural forces. Set in a high-school setting, Buffy employs her combat skills to take on a range of supernatural opponents.
Analysis: Based on the 1992 horror film, Buffy the Vampire Slayer incorporated comedic elements and drew inspiration from the rising popularity of Hong Kong's "fant-Asia" films and Jackie Chan's innovative fighting style as seen in Rumble in the Bronx. The series seamlessly blended horror, fantasy, and martial arts, achieving a delicate balance. The show's 144 episodes were enhanced by the skills of Sophia Crawford, the stunt double for the lead actress, Sara Michelle Geller. Crawford's daring and skillful execution added excitement to the fight scenes, making Buffy a crowd favorite even in multi-opponent fights.
Trivia: The character of Buffy was developed with influences from Michelle Khan, Cynthia Khan, Moon Lee, and Oshima Yukari, prominent female fighters in Hong Kong's film industry.
Years Run: 1998-2000
Premise: Martial Law revolves around Sammo Law, a highly skilled cop from Shanghai who relocates to Los Angeles in search of a missing undercover officer. He teams up with a partner played by Arsenio Hall, adding comedic relief to their crime-fighting endeavors.
Analysis: Created by Stanley Tong, the producer of Jackie Chan films, Martial Law featured thrilling action directed by renowned fight choreographers Andy Cheng, Yuen Tak, Yuen Bun, and Dion Lam. The series embraced over-the-top Hong Kong action and attracted top martial arts actors and stunt performers in Hollywood. Sammo Hung's performance propelled the show to be the highest-rated in its time slot during its first season.
Trivia:Martial Law lasted for 44 episodes, with the series ending due to creative differences between the star and the second-season producers. It is widely regarded as the last American TV show to capture the essence of martial arts choreography.
7 Mortal Kombat: Legacy
MachinimaWarner Home Video
Although not on par with cinematic quality, Mortal Kombat: Legacy faithfully adapts the beloved franchise and satisfies fans of the game. This web series serves as a prequel to the original video games and boasts an impressive roster of fan-favorite fighters. It captivates viewers with its well-executed fight scenes and noteworthy casting choices. Remaining true to the game franchise, this series could rival the 2021 film. At the very least, it perfectly complements the source material.
6 Gangs of London (2020 - Present)
From the director of The Raid films, Gareth Evans, comes Gangs of London. This show has won four Welsh BAFTAs for its outstanding Photography and Lighting, Production Design, Sound, and Editing. Set in London, it follows the powerful gangs as the city falls into chaos. The series impresses with its exceptional writing, compelling performances, and brutal action sequences that leave audiences in awe. Fans of Warrior will undoubtedly enjoy this show.
5 Enter the Dragon (1973)
For fans of Warrior, there's no better film to watch than Bruce Lee's legendary martial arts epic, Enter the Dragon. It is widely regarded as one of the most influential and important martial arts movies of all time. The film's tournament-style premise and thrilling action have had a significant impact on countless movies, shows, and video games.
The story follows Lee, a skilled martial artist recruited by a British Intelligence agent to infiltrate an island fortress and defeat a tyrannical crime lord. Enter the Dragon showcases some of Bruce Lee's finest moments, with incredible action and a simple yet intriguing storyline.
4 The Night Comes for Us (2018)
Without a doubt, The Night Comes for Us is one of the most violent action movies ever made. Starring Iko Uwais and Joe Taslim, this martial arts masterpiece follows Ito (Joe Taslim) as he protects a young girl from a powerful triad. The film delivers the best action available on the streaming service and is considered one of the finest Netflix Original Action movies. The performances of Iko Uwais and Joe Taslim, as the respective antagonist and protagonist, culminate in a brutally intense fight to the death in the final act.
2 Peaky Blinders (2013-2022)
For fans of Warrior seeking a fantastic crime TV series with sensational performances, compelling characters, and a captivating style, Peaky Blinders is the perfect choice. This show expertly utilizes slow motion and exceptional music to enhance the viewing experience. It revolves around Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy), the leader of the Peaky Blinders gang, as he navigates the criminal underworld to protect his family and maintain his gang's dominance. While it may not have the martial arts action that made fans fall in love with Warrior, Peaky Blinders shares similar themes and is worth exploring.
Kung Fu, The CW (2021 - present)
Our first entry is an adaptation of the classic 1970s series, Kung Fu. The modern version, The CW's Kung Fu, follows the journey of Nicky Shen, a young Harvard Law School dropout. In search of freedom, she joins an all-female Shaolin monastery in China. After mastering combat and Shaolin techniques, she returns to San Francisco when her mentor is killed by a dangerous warrior. Nicky discovers her neighborhood is terrorized by a criminal organization, prompting her to reunite with her estranged siblings to protect her family and avenge her mentor's death.
Warrior, Cinemax/HBO Max (2019 - present)
Traveling back in time, we encounter the Cinemax original series, Warrior. Developed from a concept by martial arts legend Bruce Lee, the show gained critical acclaim during its two-season run on Cinemax and will continue on HBO Max for its upcoming third season. Warrior offers a unique glimpse into Chinese-American culture during the late 19th century. Set in San Francisco amidst Tong Wars, the series follows Ah Sahm, a martial artist from Foshan, China, who searches for his younger sister and finds himself entangled in the violent disputes between various Chinese immigrant organizations.
Cobra Kai, YouTube Red/Premium and Netflix (2018 - present)
Continuing on our martial arts journey, Cobra Kai serves as a sequel to the iconic Karate Kid film franchise. Renewed for a fourth season and now streaming on Netflix, the series brings back original stars Ralph Macchio and William Zabka as they reprise their roles as Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence. Set 34 years after the original movie, Cobra Kai explores the lives of the two former rivals. Johnny reopens his karate dojo, reigniting their decades-long rivalry while dealing with the challenges of adulthood.
Iron Fist, Netflix (2017 - 2018)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe expands beyond the big screen, providing insights into the lesser-known superheroes. One of them is Iron Fist, who received his standalone series. The show centers around Danny Rand, a billionaire with impressive martial arts skills. Presumed dead after disappearing for 15 years, Danny returns to New York City with supernatural abilities fueled by his chi. As Iron Fist, he defends his city from external threats while reclaiming his family's company and legacy.
Wu Assassins, Netflix (2019 - present)
Combining martial arts with supernatural elements, Wu Assassins offers an exciting series for fans seeking an intriguing blend. The show follows Kai Jin, a young Chinese-Indonesian chef based in San Francisco's Chinatown. Kai becomes the last Wu Assassin, bestowed with enhanced physical abilities, martial arts prowess, and the power to change his appearance. He must fulfill his destiny by stopping the Wu Lords, who seek to use deadly interconnected elemental powers known as Wu Xing to unleash chaos upon the world.
Mortal Kombat: Conquest, syndication (1998 - 1999)
Fans of the Mortal Kombat video game series will appreciate Mortal Kombat: Conquest, a live-action adaptation. This series, set during the height of Mortal Kombat's popularity, features beloved characters like Kung Lao, Shao Kahn, Raiden, Sub-Zero, and Reptile. Led by Kung Lao, the show focuses on training martial arts combat warriors to fulfill their duty of protecting Earth in the Mortal Kombat tournaments. Meanwhile, Shao Kahn and his sorcerer, Shang Tsung, seek revenge against Kung Lao for their past defeat.
The Legend of Bruce Lee, CCTV-1 (2008)
Celebrating the iconic Bruce Lee, The Legend of Bruce Lee is a biographical series that offers an in-depth exploration of the martial arts legend's life. Spanning 50 episodes, the show delves into Lee's journey from high school in Hong Kong to his international success and untimely death. The series is an opportunity to appreciate the profound impact Bruce Lee had on martial arts and the entertainment industry. The Legend of Bruce Lee even includes appearances by real-life figures who influenced Lee's philosophy and life.
While Arrow may be known as a superhero series featuring a bow-wielding vigilante from DC Comics, it exceeds expectations by showcasing impressive martial arts combat alongside archery. Oliver Queen, the show's protagonist, engages in thrilling one-on-one battles against formidable villains, emphasizing his skill in hand-to-hand combat. Arrow consistently delivers top-notch martial arts choreography that has become a staple of the series.
In conclusion, the world of television has provided us with an abundance of thrilling and captivating martial arts shows, each offering its own unique blend of action, drama, and awe-inspiring fight sequences. From the classic favorites like "Enter the Dragon" and "The Avengers" to the more recent hits like "Warrior" and "Cobra Kai," there is no shortage of options for martial arts enthusiasts. Whether you're in the mood for intense battles, compelling storylines, or powerful characters, these top martial arts TV shows are sure to keep you entertained and on the edge of your seat. So, grab some popcorn, get ready to unleash your inner warrior, and dive into these adrenaline-pumping series that will leave you craving for more action-packed episodes.
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