Donnie Yen is a world-famous Hong Kong actor, martial artist, and action director. Yen is widely considered one of Hong Kong’s top action stars alongside the likes of action greats Jet Li and Jackie Chan. Some of his most famous roles include the “Ip Man” films that focus on the martial arts master who instructed Bruce Lee as well as the deadly assassin Caine in “John Wick: Chapter 4.” Our list of the top five best Donnie Yen movies includes some of the best martial arts sequences ever recorded on film.
Yen began to work in Hong Kong cinema in 1983 as a stuntman in “Shaolin Drunkard.” During this time, Yen was able to make an impression on producers and was selected to star in the 1984 action comedy “Drunken Tai Chi.” Yen’s first major leading role was a celebration of martial arts, skateboarding, breakdancing, and lewd humor. Although he would appear in ensemble films like 1988’s “Tiger Cage” there was no doubt that Yen was nothing less than a leading man.
In the 1990s Yen cemented his position with hits like “Once Upon a Time in China II” which is considered a transformative role that saw Yen’s recognition as a headlining talent. Donnie Yen would then start production company Bullet Films and make his directorial debut in 1997. Interestingly, his film efforts from this era were box-office failures, despite favorable reviews from film critics.
In the early 2000s Donnie Yen would begin to make headway in Hollywood for the first time thanks to invitations from his former co-star Jet Li. However, it wasn’t until 2008 with the release of world-wide hit film “Ip Man” that Yen would truly achieve the highest levels of stardom. The five main films of the “Ip Man” franchise were each financial successes, and a sixth film is in production as of 2023.
Now that we have skimmed the surface of Donnie Yen’s storied career, our list of the top five best Donnie Yen movies most recommended by experts could help readers discover Yen’s greatest hits. Let us know your favorites in the comments below!
The List: Best Donnie Yen Movies, According to Fans
Eponymous “Ip Man” is a semi-biographical account of the master of the Wing Chun fighting style. Wing Chun is characterized by hard-hitting strikes delivered at blinding speed in a flurry of blows. This 2008 movie would prove to be a major star vehicle for Yen. Action! Budomate provides additional detail: “Donnie wanted to do this film for years and had been training in Wing Chun, especially working on the wooden dummy, so he [could do] justice to this story and this character. Moreover, [filmmakers] had the full support of Ip Man’s family… Brilliantly directed by Wilson Yip, ‘Ip Man’ is a highly character-driven story that’s filled with some of the most amazing fighting sequences and clever choreography ever put on the film canvas. Sammo Hung’s magic touch made ‘Ip Man’ a martial arts classic.”
Tatler raves, “A marathon of Donnie Yen’s movies isn’t complete without watching the ‘Ip Man’ series which first began in 2008. The biographical martial arts film chronicles the life of Ip Man (Yen), a grandmaster of Wing Chun and Bruce Lee’s teacher. The first instalment focuses on Ip’s life in Foshan during the Sino-Japanese war. ‘Ip Man’ received widespread acclaim from critics and viewers alike, prompting a sequel and eventually an entire series that spans [six] movies.”
“‘Ip Man’ may well be considered the definitive Yen movie for international audiences. The very first movie in the series won the Hong Kong Film Awards for Best Film and Best Action Choreography. The movie is set during the Second Sino-Japanese War, where Yen’s titular Ip Man is pulled into a rivalry with General Miura, a Japanese military man and martial artist. The movie also features a brief look at Ip Man’s protégé Bruce Lee, played by Stephen Chow,” explains MovieWeb.
“Hero” pairs Donnie Yen with Jet Li to produce some of the most electrifying fight choreography ever recorded. This film was also significant for being a major Chinese language international hit film. ScreenRant gushes, “Zhang Yimou’s not only crafted a cunning and creative film in 2002’s ‘Hero’ but also choreographed Donnie Yen and Jet Li performing one of the most electric fight scenes in the history of martial arts movies. The idea of Jet Li’s nameless warrior challenging Donnie Yen to a fight excited fans everywhere, but especially in the Asian markets, where it broke many records upon its release. One of the best Donnie Yen movies ever, it became the first Chinese-language movie to top the American box office and picked up the Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.”
“The Oscar-nominated ‘Hero’ from 2002 is a strong contender for the title of the most recognized and highly acclaimed wuxia film amongst western audiences, besides ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.’ Following in the footsteps of that earlier breakthrough international hit, ‘Hero’ is a gorgeously presented martial arts period piece of epic proportions,” praises Looper.
“However, 10 years after ‘Once Upon A Time In China II,’ [‘Hero’] is the rematch of Yen versus Li, and under the keen direction of Zhang, they produce one of the most gorgeous fight scenes ever filmed. It took 21 days just to film the fight scene. Once again Li gave Yen six stitches, but this time over his other eyebrow. At the end of a long sequence involving some 50 moves, Li missed with his sword and cut Yen. They felt it was a lucky accident. The Chinese associate red with wealth and lucky envelopes, so Yen’s blood served to bless the production on its way to becoming a success,” writes Den of Geek.
In the 1990s Donnie Yen was firmly focused on Hong Kong film production. “Iron Monkey” is widely called out as one of his best outings from this decade. Collider lauds, “The film was well-received by both critics and audiences, who praised its impressive fight scenes and fast-paced action. Donnie Yen’s performance was also highly praised for his incredible martial arts skills and charismatic screen presence. The movie is considered a classic in the genre of martial arts films, and it continues to be a fan favorite today.”
“A martial arts classic that features Yen as the second lead, to Yu Rongguang’s costumed, titular hero. In this, Yu plays a doctor who moonlights as a masked martial artist in order to fight injustice. Yen plays Wong Kei-ying, another doctor with superb martial arts skills, and the father of legendary Chinese folk hero Wong Few Hung… He’s suspected of being ‘Iron Monkey,’ and attempts to prove his innocence, only to realize that [he] and the costume hero share the same sense of justice. It ends with them teaming up to the delight of martial arts movie fanatics everywhere,” expounds JoBlo.
Ranker summarizes, “In a desperate and unjust land, where government corruption rules the day, only one man has the courage to challenge the system and fight back. They call him ‘Iron Monkey.’ Under the shadow of night, in the silence before dawn, he fights to give hope to the poor and the oppressed. Although no one knows his name and no one knows where he comes from, his heroism has made him a living legend to the people and a wanted man to the powers that be.”
Flashpoint is a hard-boiled film noir that features Yen as an inspector at odds with a vicious criminal gang. Yen and co-star Collin Chou created dazzlingly brutal fight sequences. The Action Elite writes, “A hot-headed inspector takes on a small but powerful Vietnamese and Chinese gang, after a series of crimes and murder attempts committed and putting an undercover cop and his girlfriend in great danger… ‘Flashpoint’ is a masterpiece of the action genre with Yen and Collin Chou genuinely fighting each [other] to give it more realism. It works and is one of the all-time great action flicks.”
Action! Budomate expands on the fight choreography, “This movie… feels different from just the fighting choreography alone. Donnie has a huge respect for MMA fighters, and together with John Salvitti they [made] every effort to present real fighting cinematically, without compromising on the techniques and ‘reality’ of what they do. Here you can see recognizable UFC moves that range from defense takedowns, arm bars, hooks, and ground fighting.”
“Yen has played quite a few cop roles over the course of his 35-year career, and ‘Flash Point’ is one of his most memorable. He appears in the role of tough Detective Sergeant Ma Jun in pursuit of a dangerous gang led by three brothers. The movie was directed by Yen’s longtime collaborator Wilson Yip, while Yen himself was producer and fight director. He applied an elaborate form of mixed martial arts for the action choreography, resulting in some memorable action sequences,” adds MovieWeb.
“SPL” is a well-loved Hong Kong crime movie. In this flick, Yen stars as a retired super-cop that must hunt down yet another crime boss. Despite the bland setup, “SPL’s” thrilling action sequences are second-to-none. The Action Elite offers, “A near retired cop and his unit are willing to put down a crime boss at all costs while dealing with a replacement inspector who is getting in their way… [‘SPL’] is a little slow to get going but the second half more than makes up for it with some of the best fight scenes you’ll ever see and a fantastic villainous turn from Wu Jing. His final fight scene with Yen is as awesome as you’d expect. A slow start but a killer finish with a really surprising ending.”
Den of Geek posits, “Sha Po Lang is an astrological term that’s difficult to translate, so when it was marketed outside Chinese speaking nations, it was shortened to SPL, and finally Kill Zone. Despite hobbling the title, ‘SPL’ marked a turning point for Yen as an action director. His brutally hard-hitting fight choreography introduced MMA grappling in a sanguineous no-holds-barred dose of ultraviolence.”
JoBlo adds: “A film designed to showcase what Donnie Yen can do if ever there was one… This film has two incredible fights, with Donnie Yen going up against Chinese superstar Wu Jing and then, in the finale, the legendary Sammo Hung. This one has Yen looking better than ever… ‘Kill Zone’ was Yen’s first movie as star for director Wilson Yip before they teamed up again for the ‘Ip Man’ series mentioned above. Yen’s career was on the rocks when he signed on to do this, and its surprise success revitalized him as an action star. Indeed, despite a slow first half, it ranks as one of the very best Donnie Yen movies.”
You might also be interested in:
- Action! Budomate
- Den of Geek
- The Action Elite
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