Every film genre – action, science fiction, horror, comedy and even animated – has had a series of memorable villains that have stuck with us for most of our lives. Whether it be a sadistic teenager portrayed by James Spader; an emotionless cyborg represented by Arnold Schwarzenegger; a suave, humorous terrorist leader played by Alan Rickman; or even a scarred lion voiced by Jeremy Irons – it’s the bad guys who make the classics so great!
So what about villains in martial arts film?
Villains in martial arts film definitely don’t get enough attention, so we’re aiming to fix this right now. Remember: It’s not so much how they look or how many foes they’ve taken down, it’s more about their impact on modern pop culture.
In no particular order, we introduce The Most Memorable Villains in Martial Arts Film. This is only Part I, so if you don’t see your favorite villain listed here, chances are, he, she or it, will be featured in Part II. Enjoy!
Played by: Bolo Yeung (aka Yang Sze)
Trademark: Huge pectoral muscles
Weapon: His own super strength
Whether he’s playing Chong Li in Bloodsport (1988) or Moon in Double Impact (1991), most will refer to the Hulk-built actor as simply “Bolo,” the name of his most popular character in Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973). The name “Bolo” would eventually became his stage name from that point forward. I mean, come on, you know you’re a badass when you’re legally referred to as a character you portrayed in a flick! Imagine if Sylvester Stallone changed his real name to Rambo?
Played by: Lo Lieh
Trademark: Long white eyebrows and beard
Weapon: Eagle Claw-style kung fu
There have been many renditions of this evil Shaolin priest character, but for the sake of this article, our obvious choice is Pai Mei from Executioners from Shaolin (1977) and Clan of the White Lotus (1980). He’s a villain that you can only defeat by use of extreme trial and error (if you’re lucky to even survive the trial period). If by chance you’re able to strike him, he’s protected by his “Iron Shirt” defensive form, which is an exercise that directs energy to reinforce parts of the body, so blows against them are useless! Even Quentin Tarantino dug Pai Mei so much that he resurrected the character in Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004), where he was played by Gordon Liu.
BASEBALL BAT MAN
Played by: Very Tri Yulisman
Trademark: Black hoodie and a baseball bat
Weapon: Take a guess!
If you’ve seen The Raid 2, there’s a good chance “Baseball Bat Man” is embedded in your memory. “Baseball Bat Man” would have flopped as a pro baseball player, but as a cold-blooded assassin, he’s an all-star MVP. Any chance of seeing the character appear in another film would upset any oddsmakers. But then again, Bolo is still alive and breaking necks, despite his character’s demise in countless films. Maybe there’s room for a possible resurrection? Whatever the case, someone out there has a tattoo of this guy.
Played by: Hwang Jang Lee
Visual Trademark: Sideburns and a pornstache
Weapon: His deadly legs
Unlike most villains in old school kung fu movies, the character portrayed by Korean martial artist Hwang Jang Lee said very little and let his legs do the talking. It’s no wonder why the Taekwondo Grandmaster is dubbed “King of the Leg-fighters,” a term given to him because he annihilates his opponents using nothing but a series of deadly kicks. Although his most prominent roles are similar, Hwang is widely known for playing “Thunderfoot” in Drunken Master (1978), opposite Jackie Chan. Don’t let the pornstache fool you, this guy will mess you up!
Played by: Shih Kien
Trademark: Prosthetic hand and receding hairline
Weapon: Interchangeable prosthetic hand weapons
Not even the invincible Jim Kelly had a chance against Mr. Han, the James Bond-esque villain in Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973). The fact that he had only one hand made him deadlier: in place of his missing hand was an interchangeable slot – on Monday, his left hand can be a cast iron fist; on Tuesday, it can be a series of sharp blades; on Wednesday, well, you get the idea. We’re pretty sure the inspiration for Wolverine’s claws came from Mr. Han’s detachable Ginsu knives. And yes, this guy really does come right out of a comic book.
THE THREE STORMS
Played by: Peter Kwong, James Pax, Carter Wong
Trademark: Handwoven straw hats
Weapon: Powers consist of flying, electricity currents and self-explosions
What would John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1985) be without “The Three Storms”? Well, it would be like The Terminator 2 (1991) without the presence of the T-1000. When these mystical kung fu fellas – Thunder, Lightning and Rain – appear on the screen for the first time, this Kurt Russell cult-classic goes from great to epic in a matter of seconds. Several years later, the immensely popular Mortal Kombat video game/film franchise would introduce Raiden, a character that’s not only a spitting image of “Lightning” of The Three Storms, but also hovers and shoots out electricity as well. No coincidence.
Played by: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Trademark: 7 feet 2 inches
Weapon: Power kick (while sitting down, nonetheless)
If the duel between Bruce Lee and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game of Death (1972/1978) isn’t iconic, then I don’t know what is. Lee would only prove victorious to the basketball giant by using his own philosphical approach: “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically yours” (i.e. stomp on his bare feet, go for his balls and expose sunlight to his sensitive eyes). The cartoony charm of this match can only be compared to something like James Bond vs. Jaws (Richard Kiel), Godzilla vs. Mothra or Rocky Balboa vs. Ivan Drago.
Played by: Julie Estelle
Trademark: Sunglasses and a pair of hammers
Weapon: Two steel hammers
The line “Hammer Time” once belonged to M.C. Hammer, but now it officially belongs to a certain deaf-mute woman named “Hammer Girl,” who was introduced to the world when she displayed her act of barbaric violence in The Raid 2. Let’s put it this way: she uses the claw side of a hammer more frequently than the flat-head side. She’s cunning, adorable and menacing at the same time. If she doesn’t have her victim’s blood sprayed all over her own face, it was probably her day off (or she might have just wiped it off). There’s a teenager out there that has a poster of “Hammer Girl” on their bedroom wall, and she probably wasn’t old enough to see The Raid 2.
Stay tuned for The Most Memorable Villains in Martial Arts Film: Part II.