5 Greatest Martial Arts Stars for a Casual Movie Fan

An upcoming ESPN documentary highlights one of the stars on that list

This Sunday, ESPN will air "Be Water," a 30 for 30 documentary on how Bruce Lee overcame rejection in the early 1970s by Hollywood to make four of the most influential martial arts movies ever made: "Fist of Fury," "Way of the Dragon" (known as "Return of the Dragon" in the United States), "The Big Boss," and, of course, "Enter the Dragon." The documentary, which goes to ESPN+ immediately after premiering on ESPN, also explores how Lee achieved iconic status in such a short period of time.

 

Martial arts movies have been historically more popular in Asia than in North America. Some, like "Enter the Dragon," have achieved worldwide success, but you need to have Quentin Tarantino-esque love for movies to explore the ones that haven’t. If you are just a casual fan, here are the five greatest stars for you to check out.

 

5. Chuck Norris

Norris owned karate schools in California, and his students included Steve McQueen and Bob Barker. After he made his film debut as Bruce Lee’s main nemesis in "Return of the Dragon" (not a sequel to "Enter the Dragon") that culminated in an epic fight scene, McQueen encouraged him to continue acting. While critics never praised his thespian skills, Norris made a number of fun '80s action movies, including "Code of Silence" and "The Delta Force." He cut back on making movies in the '90s because of the success of "Walker: Texas Ranger," which ran for eight seasons on CBS.

 

 

4. Jet Li

American movie fans first got to know the acrobatic Li as the main baddie in "Lethal Weapon 4" and completely understood that Riggs (Mel Gibson) needed Murtaugh's (Danny Glover) help to take him out at the end. However, Li was already a martial arts sensation thanks to the "Once Upon a Time in China" trilogy and "Fist of Legend." He has made a number of movies in the U.S. since then, including "Romeo Must Die," "Kiss of the Dragon," and "The Expendables" series, where he provided some of its funniest lines.

 

3. Jean-Claude Van Damme

The Belgian actor started out playing Russian villains in movies like "No Retreat, No Surrender," and "Black Eagle" but emerged as a star with "Bloodsport" in 1988. He has been making action movies ever since, most notably "Kickboxer," "Hard Target" (John Woo’s U.S. directorial debut), and "Timecop." In 2008, Van Damme played himself in "JCVD," and after an awesome intro, gave the best performance of his career.

 

 

2. Jackie Chan

With his ability to do his own stunts and comedic timing, Chan is the most popular martial arts movie star in the world. He worked as a stuntman on "Fist of Fury" and "Enter the Dragon" before becoming a Hong Kong sensation with the "Crime Story" and "Armour of God" series. He broke through in the U.S. with "Rumble in the Bronx" and has made a number of box office hits, including "Rush Hour" and "Shanghai Noon."

 

1. Bruce Lee

Lee, like James Dean and Heath Ledger, was a star that left us wondering what greatness he would have continued to produce if he had lived. He made a name for himself in the early '70s with movies like "Fist of Fury" and "The Big Boss" and had just completed "Enter the Dragon" when he died of an allergic reaction to the tranquilizer meprobamate at 32. "Enter the Dragon" was released a month later in August 1973 and became a box office smash and one of the most influential action movies ever made.

 

— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports' Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.

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