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Donnie Yen in a still from Ip Man. It wasn’t until 2005’s SPL that Yen found critical and commercial success – as well as hard-fought global recognition. Photo: Mandarin Films

10 best Asian action movie stars working today, from John Wick 4’s Donnie Yen to Ong-Bak’s Tony Jaa and Attack on Titan’s Rina Takeda

  • Ip Man and Rogue One star Donnie Yen spent most of the ’90s fronting lacklustre martial arts vehicles before he found success with 2005’s SPL, aka Kill Zone
  • Charismatic Korean heartthrob Lee Byung-hun flits effortlessly between romantic and action roles, and has appeared in Hollywood films such as G.I. Joe and Red 2
Asian cinema
Simu Liu is poised to become the next big Asian martial arts star with the imminent release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, in which the China-born actor stars as Marvel’s first Asian superhero alongside Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Michelle Yeoh.
Meanwhile, Henry Golding, the British-Malaysian heartthrob from Crazy Rich Asians, also pivots to action hero in July’s Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins.
Both of these films arrive hot on the heels of the James Wan-produced reboot of video game favourite Mortal Kombat, starring a few of Asia’s hottest martial arts talents.

As news breaks that action veterans Donnie Yen Ji-dan and Hiroyuki Sanada have both been cast in John Wick 4 – arguably the high water mark of ongoing action franchises – we have come up with a list of our top 10 favourite Asian action stars working today.

Donnie Yen in Ip Man 3 (2015), directed by Wilson Yip. Photo: Pegasus Motion Pictures

Donnie Yen

Undeniably Asia’s most successful action star right now, the Ip Man and Rogue One star has scored a string of recent home-grown hits and Hollywood blockbuster appearances.

But it was an agonising road to the top for Yen, who turns 58 in July. After finding early recognition opposite Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China II, he spent most of the ’90s fronting lacklustre martial arts vehicles or choreographing fights for other, less capable stars.

Donnie Yen feared Ip Man 3 co-star Mike Tyson would kill him

It wasn’t until 2005’s SPL (also known as Kill Zone), and his partnership with director Wilson Yip Wai-shun, that Yen found critical and commercial success – as well as hard-fought global recognition.

Wu Jing

The 47-year-old Beijing native cut his teeth in Hong Kong, but it wasn’t until he returned to mainland China that Wu struck gold. His white-clad assassin from SPL almost eclipsed his adversary – and the film’s star – Donnie Yen in their iconic alleyway fight, and it paved the way for Wu’s own directorial debut, Legendary Assassin, a criminally under-seen kung fu Key Largo riff.

Wu Jing in a still from Wolf Warrior 2. Photo: China Film Group
Wu then made history with his bombastic military epic Wolf Warrior 2, which he wrote, produced, directed and starred in. Its 5.68 billion yuan (US$877 million) haul at the Chinese box office remains undefeated.

Max Zhang

Max Zhang Jin got his break as Zhang Ziyi’s stunt double in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but has since risen through the ranks to become one of the most exciting Chinese martial artists working today.

How Dave Bautista scared Max Zhang in Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy

Ironically, his first major acting role was also opposite Zhang Ziyi, in Wong Kar-wai’s 2013 hit The Grandmaster. He followed that as the villainous prison warden in Soi Cheang’s SPL2: A Time for Consequences, before facing Donnie Yen as “Master Z” in the climactic showdown of Ip Man 3, which spawned its own spin-off series under the direction of Yuen Woo-ping.

Tony Jaa

No one has made a bigger impact on martial arts cinema this century than Jaa, who emerged on the world stage fully formed as the next great action hero, in 2003’s Ong-Bak. Prachya Pinkaew’s bone-crunching Muay Thai spectacle caused an international sensation, with Jaa performing all his own stunts unassisted.

Max Zhang (left) and Tony Jaa in a still from SPL2: A Time for Consequences.

Despite struggling to direct a follow-up prequel, Jaa’s star has continued to rise, with the performer landing roles opposite many other names from this list in everything from SPL2 and Furious 7 to xXx: The Return of Xander Cage and mainland Chinese holiday hit Detective Chinatown 3.

Iko Uwais

Indonesian action flick The Raid, from Welsh director Gareth Evans, unleashed a raft of explosive new talent onto an unsuspecting global public. Chief among them was Iko Uwais, whose fresh-faced appearance concealed a deadly prowess in the traditional fighting style of silat.

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Having already fronted Evans’ previous film, Merantau, Uwais went on to headline The Raid’s even more ambitious sequel, which subsequently earned the 38-year-old fighting roles opposite the likes of Keanu Reeves and Mark Wahlberg, and an appearance in J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens alongside fellow Raid alumni Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman.

Joe Taslim

The other major breakout from Indonesian hit The Raid is this former international judo champion, who has parlayed his memorable supporting turn in Evans’ action classic into a shining international career.

Taslim has appeared as deadly henchmen in Hollywood blockbusters Fast & Furious 6 and Star Trek Beyond, as well as a regular spot on television series Warrior, adapted from an original idea by Bruce Lee.
Joe Taslim (left) and Hiroyuki Sanada in a still from Mortal Kombat.

In 2018 he reunited with countryman Iko Uwais for Timo Tjahjanto’s bone-crunching Netflix thriller The Night Comes for Us, and this summer assumed the iconic mantle of Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat.

Lee Byung-hun

One of Asian cinema’s most beloved leading men, the charismatic Korean heartthrob flits effortlessly between heartbreaking romantic leads and bone-breaking action roles.

In a deliberate effort to diversify his image, Lee played an ice cold gangster looking for payback in Kim Jee-woon’s achingly cool A Bittersweet Life. Kim next cast him as the flamboyant villain in his quasi-western The Good, the Bad, the Weird.

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Hollywood opportunities inevitably followed, in G.I. Joe, Red 2 and Terminator Genisys, as well as further collaborations with Kim, in the nightmarish I Saw the Devil and wartime thriller The Age of Shadows.

Ma Dong-seok

A success story as huge as his hefty frame, man-mountain Ma Dong-seok exploded onto the scene as the gentle giant trapped aboard a speeding locomotive with a horde of ravenous zombies in the runaway smash Train to Busan.

Ma Dong-seok in a still from sport drama Champion (2018). Photo: Warner Bros
Ma’s overnight fame capped a decade of hard graft as a jobbing bit player in Korea’s film industry, and led to a slew of lead roles in punchy genre fare like The Outlaws and Unstoppable, and major parts in effects-heavy blockbusters Along with the Gods and Ashfall. He will next be seen in Oscar winner Chloe Zhao’s upcoming Marvel extravaganza Eternals.

Rina Takeda

Of all the emerging female talent in Asia’s action sphere, few can claim the raw talent and youthful exuberance of this Japanese starlet. The diminutive performer first turned heads when, aged just 17, she landed the lead in Fuyuhiko Nishi’s low budget High Kick Girl!.

A black belt in ryukyu shorin-ryu karate, Takeda went on to headline a number of schlocky martial arts cheapies including Karate Girl and Danger Dolls, Noboru Iguchi’s horror comedy Dead Sushi, and a supporting role in blockbuster series Attack on Titan.

Having just turned 30 earlier in June, Takeda’s future looks very bright indeed.

Hiroyuki Sanada

The oldest entrant on this list, the 60-year-old Sanada is showing no signs of slowing down – in fact his career has been blossoming thanks to roles in recent hits Avengers: Endgame, Army of the Dead and Mortal Kombat.

Hiroyuki Sanada on teaching Japanese culture to Hollywood

A protégé of Japanese action legend Sonny Chiba, Sanada studied karate and shorinji kempo – similar to Shaolin kung fu – and was already an established star when he appeared in the Michelle Yeoh vehicle Royal Warriors.

Sanada’s first Hollywood role was as a hot-headed warrior in the Tom Cruise epic The Last Samurai, and he has since cemented his position as one of Hollywood’s most versatile Asian character actors.

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