15 Best Martial Arts Actors in 2017
Find out who has shaken up the martial arts action genre
There never seems to be a shortage of action movies with well-known fighters in its cast. No matter how good of an actor one may be, this is a skill that cannot be faked. These are the best martial artists to come chopping down the big screen in 2017. You may find your favorite, or be introduced to an up and comer.
Born in 1972 in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), this Vietnamese-American fighter was raised in conflict. At the age of three his mother had immigrated to the United States, settling in San Jose, California. However, due to American attitudes at the time of the Vietnam War, he was bullied, and sought out martial arts as a positive outlet. He began training in Taekwondo at age 10, and entered competitive wrestling at 14. His passion for martial arts expanded into Judo, Kuntao, Vovinam, Sambo, and Sanshou. Cung’s highly decorated fighting career led directly into the Mixed Martial Arts arena, when in 2006 he began participating in the Strikeforce MMA competition. He went undefeated before relinquishing the title of Middleweight Champion, due to having been signed to a movie deal. His first major role would be in 2009’s “Bodyguards and Assassins”, alongside martial arts film legend Donnie Yen. In between other minor movie roles, he would find himself in the Ultimate Fighter Championship, where he continued his MMA career successfully. His next remarkable appearance in film was in 2013’s “The Grandmaster”. He has now been retired from MMA competitions, but is still active in the kickboxing circuit.
Scott is a jack of all trades when it comes to martial arts. Hailing from Sutton Coldfield, United Kingdom, he initiated his training at age 14 with Taekwondo, moved on to Kickboxing, and earned his black belt when he was 22. Since then he has studied multiple martial arts and forms, including Ninjutsu, Karate, Wushu, Krav Maga, Capoeira, and Jeet Kune Do. His martial arts resume attracted the attention of a Hong Kong stuntman organization, and his acting career began to take off. His breakout role in western films was 2006’s “Undisputed II: Last Man Standing”, playing antagonist Yuri Boyka. He continued to appear in several well-known movies, even starring in a few himself, albeit some of them did not appear in theaters. Scott continued his role as Yuri Boyka in the successful “Undisputed III: Redemption”, this time as the protagonist, and will be reprising his role in the sequel “Boyka: Undisputed”, the fourth installment in the series.
The Wu family has a history in martial arts, as Jing’s father and grandfather were martial artists. Jing was born 1974 in Beijing, China. He followed in his father’s footsteps and at 6 was sent to the Beijing Sports Institute. His skill was noteworthy as a young man and he was soon drafted into the prestigious Beijing Wushu Team. Many of the great martial arts actors from China had beginnings there, and it is no surprise that he caught the attention of a martial arts choreographer. This led to his first movie role in 1996, “Tai Chi Boxer”. Wu Jing became a household name in the Wuxia Chinese television scene, and caught his big movie role in 2005’s “SPL: Sha Po Lang”, or “Kill Zone” in the States. He made his first American film debut with 2008’s “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”. During the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Jing volunteered to bring supplies, food, and help with relief efforts. Jing continued to act in several Chinese films. He had returned for the Sha Po Lang sequel, in 2015’s “SPL II: A Time for Consequences”.
While not entering Hollywood as a martial artist, Keanu Reeves has picked up a multitude of real skills during his decades long career. Born in 1962 Beirut, Lebanon to multi-cultural parents, Keanu moved around the map for many years in his childhood. He officially is a naturalized citizen to Canada, but by birth holds citizenship to the UK. He has acted in a massive range of films, but his induction into martial arts began with “The Matrix” in 1999. He had to train with choreographers and martial artists both, which led him to begin studying other arts as well. He developed a friendship with martial artist and stunt man Tiger Chen, bringing us us 2013’s “Man of Tai Chi”, starring both actors. His latest action films, 2014’s “John Wick” and 2017’s “John Wick: Chapter 2,” had him training in Judo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, to help with the authenticity of both films. Keanu is often described as a hardworking martial artist, not particularly concerned with belts and titles, but instead with the philosophy and teachings of the art.
Michelle was born in Ipoh, Malaysia in 1962. She aspired to perform ballet, but a spinal injury in her teens prevented it. Instead, she turned to choreography and drama. Michelle won the Miss Malaysia beauty contest and the Queen of the Pacific beauty pageant in 1983, which attracted a lot of commercial attention. A relatively unknown Hong Kong film production studio, D&B Films would bring her to the world of acting. The role that caught the attention of the world was her portrayal of Wai Lin in the James Bond 1997 film “Tomorrow Never Dies”. Described as the “female James Bond”, her acting and martial arts knowledge complemented the character, and she is often hailed as the “Best Bond Girl” in the series. Michelle would return to amaze audiences in 2000’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, where she co-starred next to Chow Yun-Fat. The cinematic display of martial arts was turned upside down, and the movie would rise to the top of the box offices in the United States, critically acclaimed for its martial arts sequences, cinematography, and deep story.
Many will; claim that professional wrestling does not constitute as a martial art, but what they forget is that what they see promoted by WWE is the art in its entertainment form. Dwayne Johnson emerged from the WWE as a superstar, a physical specimen, revered as one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. He was born in California, USA in1972, and played football until he was cut from the Canadian Football League in 1995. From there he turned to his family’s legacy: professional Wrestling. He would be known as “The Rock” from 1996 to 2004 in the WWE world. He began to venture out into Hollywood, his first starring role in 2002’s “The Scorpion King”. He remained prominent in the acting business, using his fame with the WWE to help reinvigorate many forgotten movie series. His major hit, 2011’s “Fast Five”, part of the Fast and Furious series, helped propel his career to an astonishing level, and he continued his roles in the sequels 2013’s “Fast & Furious 6” and 2015’s “Furious 7”. At the end of 2016 it was announced that he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood.
Iko has had a relatively humble beginning. He was born in 1983 in Jakarta, Indonesia, where he learned the local martial art of Silat in the school his grandfather established. At 24 he was working for a telecom company, and practicing at a local training hall, when he was approached by Gareth Evans, who happened to be shooting a documentary about Silat. He was immediately cast for the film 2009’s “Merantau”, and ended up becoming an instant hit. He starred in the highly successful film “The Raid” (US: “The Raid Redemption”) in 2011, and its 2014 sequel “The Raid 2” (Indonesia: “The Raid 2: Berandal”). Iko has had the honor of introducing western audiences to Silat, a martial art native to Indonesia, developed roughly around the 6th century in Sumatra. Despite his short movie career, Iko is destined to be remembered amongst the greatest martial artists to grace the silver screen.
Eddie Peng is a young Taiwanese-Canadian Actor, relatively unknown in the martial arts world. Born in 1982 in Penghu, Taiwan, his family relocated to Canada when he was 13. He dropped out of college to pursue his acting career, landing a few minor roles in foreign films beginning in 2002. His first martial arts role was in 2012’s “Tai Chi 0” and 2012’s “Tai Chi Hero”, where he played the role of the villain. These roles helped build his credibility as an actor, and moved him into more martial arts roles. He then starred in one of the biggest action roles, portraying the legendary Wong Fei-Hung in 2014’s “Rise of the Legend”. In addition to his acting, he is also a well-known singer in the Hong Kong industry.
Gina is widely known as the “Face of Women’s MMA”. Born in 1982 in Dallas, Texas, she grew up an athlete, competing in basketball, softball, and volleyball. She was introduced to Muay Thai, where she performed phenomenally and then fought in the first sanctioned female MMA fight. Gina began training with Greg Jackson, the inventor of Gaidojutsu, a martial art born from MMA. She retired from her MMA career with 7 wins and 1 loss. She then turned to acting, appearing in a few roles, such as 2009’s “Blood and Bone”. Her work in the industry allowed her to be cast for American Gladiator. She landed herself a hefty role in 2013’s “Fast and Furious 6”, and again in 2016’s “Deadpool”. She was set to star in an all female version of the Expendables, however the project is currently in limbo.
Tony’s portrayal of Muay Thai is incomparable in the cinematic perspective of martial arts. His movies are inspired by his personal experiences, and this is reflected by his involvement in the choreography. Born in 1976 in Surin, Thailand, he began training at age 10, and was encouraged attend college before embarking on a career in film. He worked as a stuntman for 14 years, all the while studying Muay Boran, the predecessor to Muay Thai. His intent was to develop a movie based on the martial art, and with the help of a senior stuntman, he was able to catch the attention of a director. This led to 2003’s “Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior”. Western audiences were enthralled with the insanely fast, and brutal sequences, and helped Tony achieve his goal of bringing Muay Thai to the mainstream. Tony followed up his success with 2005’s “Tom-Yum-Goong” (US: “The Protector”).
Jeeja is a Thailand native, born in 1984 in Bangkok. As a child she was frequently sick due to her frail nature, and her mother encouraged her to take up a martial art. She decided to study Tae Kwon Do at age 11, and has since earned the rank of 3rd Dan Black Belt. She is best known for her starring role in 2008’s “Chocolate”. In order to prepare for the role she studied medical cases of children with autism for 6 months. Jeeja’s dedication paid off, as “Chocolate” was well received, and it was noted that she was the first woman in 20 years to star in a Thai martial arts film. Wasting no time, she starred in 2009’s “Raging Phoenix”. Tony Jaa even cast her in a supporting role in 2013’s “Tom-Yum-Goong 2”, which was a great opportunity for her to work with one of her greatest inspirations. It was then revealed that she was pregnant and that the release of “Chocolate 2” would be delayed.
Not many martial artists, actors or not, can compare to Michael’s extensive martial arts history. Holding eight black belts in several different martial arts, he is the epitome of a master. He was born in 1967 in Brooklyn, New York, and began practicing at age 7. He started with Jujutsu and later acquired skills and belts in Shotokan, Tae Kwon Do, Goju Ryu, Kyokushin, Wushu, Tang Soo Do, and Kobudo. Naturally his acting roles reflected this talent, as his first starring role was for 1995’s “Tyson”, where he played Mike Tyson. He became the first African American to play a major Superhero with 1997’s “Spawn”. His movie roles were plentiful, but none would make quite an impact as 2011’s “Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown”. It was here where he not only showcased his skills as a martial artist, but also as a director. He followed the film up with the smashing sequel 2016’s “Never Back Down: No Surrender”.
There isn’t much more that you can say about Jackie Chan that hasn’t already been said. Born in 1954 in the British territory of Hong Kong, Jackie had an early introduction into martial arts. He attended drama school, where he excelled at martial arts and aerobatics. Jackie acted in small roles as a child, and eventually wound up working as a stuntman for none other than Bruce Lee. Despite his roles, he found very little success, and wound up moving to Australia with his parents where he worked construction for a while. It was there he started being called “Jackie”, a nickname that stuck with him for years. After reviewing Jackie’s stunt work, a Hong Kong film company decided to hire him to mold him into the image of Bruce Lee. This ultimately failed, as Jackie was not comfortable with the style of Bruce Lee. Undeterred, the company continued trying tocast him. His first commercial success, 1978’s “Drunken Master,” helped establish the kung-fu comedy genre, and showcased Jackie’s own style since he was allowed control over his own stunts. His first success in Hollywood is attributed to 1995’s “Rumble in the Bronx”, which gained him the fabled Hollywood status. He went on to star in the “Rush Hour” trilogy, and has begun to reboot one of his earlier series with 2013’s “Police Story 2013”.
Born in 1967 in Shirebrook, England, Jason is unique amongst martial artist due to his “average” appearance. He partakes in Wing Chun, Karate, and Kickboxing. He competed in England as a sports diver for over a decade until he was discovered by Guy Ritchie. Taking advantage of his everyman look, Guy cast him in roles that complemented his appearance. Jason is best known for his role as Frank Martin in 2002’s “The Transporter”, which through a mix of intense vehicle action and crisp fight scenes propelled him to the top of the charts. The Transporter went on to spawn three successful sequels. His latest blockbusting roles are 2011’s “The Mechanic” and 2015’s “Furious 7”.
Donnie Yen is revered by many as having transcended the fame as an actor, and is now the face of martial arts in cinema. Credited with the introduction of MMA to China, his movies, and martial arts talent have inspired many actors such as Tony Jaa, Mike Tyson, Eddie Peng, and Iko Uwais. Born in 1963 in Guangzhou China, his family immigrated to Boston, Massachusetts when he was 11. His mother was a Tai Chi Grandmaster, and was his earliest influence in martial arts. He started Karate, and later moved to Wushu. He dropped out of school at 14, so his parents sent him to a two year training program with the Beijing Wushu Team, afraid that he would absorb negative influences. It was from here he would be discovered as an aspiring martial arts genius, and he would star in his first role, 1984 “Drunken Tai Chi”. He would later take over the role created by Bruce Lee, in the Fist of Fury television series. His connection to the history of Bruce Lee did not end there. Having multiple martial arts films under his belt, he would take on the role of Bruce Lee’s mentor in 2008’s “Ip Man”. Ip Man was a huge success internationally, and Donnie would follow them up with two sequels, which continued to amaze audiences.
There is no doubt these martial arts legends and icons will help usher in more talent. We are eagerly awaiting their next big hit, and they are guaranteed to deliver some powerful stories. The evolution of martial arts in cinema will only continue with their memories and contributions.