When it comes to combat, and more specifically martial arts there is a certain exotic appeal to one specific element – kicks. Despite the visibility of grappling thanks in no small part to the prevalence of MMA these days, there is something spectacular about seeing kick techniques demonstrated with real expertise. Though the practicality of high kicks in real combat is always debated, those that can utilize their feet and legs as weapons is no doubt an impressive feat (no pun intended)
Yet, this piece does not aim to highlight those kicks already within the mainstream consciousness: ofcourse, Bruce Lee had his famous burst sidekick; Chuck Norris had his signature roundhouse kick; Jean Claude Van Damme had his graceful 360 spin kick; Phillip Rhee had his devastating spinning back kick; Dolph Lungren had his Kyokushin leaping thrust sidekick; whilst daring stars like Scott Adkins, Joey Ansah, Mark Strange, Mark Dacascos and Donnie Yen combine all kicks into a barrage of the most ingenious combinations.
Instead, the essence of this piece is to bring visibility to elusive stars that boast true proficiency in the kicking arts – demonstrating these in film, and yet many of these will still be relatively unknown when compared to the aforementioned names above.
In addition, I have added two additional kick talents that well and truly complete my definitive list.
For the purpose of this list, I will be excluding more competitive fighters such as Bill ‘The Superfoot’ Wallace, Cung Le, Conor McGregor, Mirko Crocop, Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson and Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez – as these super kickers truly deserve a list of their own.
Casanova Wong (aka Ka Sat-fat)
Despite a tragic bowl haircut and cheesy screen name, Wong was touted as ‘The Human Tornado’ given his penchant for spinning kicks. Casanova Wong is definitely one of the best kickers to ever grace the silver screen of Hong Kong (HK) cinema. There is something poetic about how Wong was able to deliver stunning spinning kicks in rapid succession, literally transforming into a whirlwind of destruction. As an expert in Taekwondo, Wong carved a niche for himself early on with his spectacularly agile kicks affording him roles primarily as the hero and in some limited cases, a villain.
Recommended films: ‘WARRIORS TWO’ (1978), ‘GAME OF DEATH 2’ (1981)
Delon Tan (aka Tan Tao Liang)
Like the aforementioned Casanova, this HK action star had a background in the Korean fighting arts which are synonymous with advanced kicking styles. The best way to describe Tan’s style, is that he kicks with the same speed and rapid succession of those exponents of boxing – essentially he boxes with his feet! Significantly, this super kicker might have been the very first martial arts star to specialize in the ‘hopping kick’ technique ie. kicking a target multiple times with one leg raised – something that Van Damme made famous in the early 90s. Tan not only predated JCVD by more than a decade, but also would also use a single leg to kick targets at multiple angles and heights – something the great Belgian would rarely do.
Recommended films: ‘HAND OF DEATH’ (1976), ‘SHAOLIN DEADLY KICKS’ (1977)
Hwang Jang Lee
Nicknamed ‘The Silver Fox’ and ‘Thunderfoot’ this is yet another Korean super kicker who unlike Tan or Wong, most always featured as the most sinister villainous characters in many HK movies in the 70s and 80s – with specialty in Taekwondo and Tang Soo Do. Watching Lee’s kicking repertoire never fails to ‘WOW’ people, and it’s one of those rare instances where audiences would cheer for this ‘heel’ because his kicks were so cool. Combining hand techniques from Southern Chinese martial arts, these would always be overshadowed by his very deliberate, dramatic and powerful kicks. It was this power that likely caused a real fatality; reportedly Lee was challenged by a vicious Vietnamese knife fighter in a bar, and he responded by killing this challenger with a single one kick to the head. Urban legends say this unfortunate challenger was dead before he hit the ground.
Recommended films: ‘DRUNKEN MASTER’, ‘SNAKE IN THE EAGLE SHADOW’ (both 1978), ‘STREET SOLDIERS’ (1991)
As sacrilegious as it may be to some, when it comes to cinematic kicks, I proudly rate this British martial artist far above Jean Claude Van Damme, citing Gary Daniels as the superior kicker. There is a certain sharpness to Daniels kicks, which is possibly attributed to the multitude of martial art styles that he has mastered but also the willingness to experiment with his kicking arsenal. When Gary Daniels was featured on Scott Adkins’ ‘ART OF ACTION’, it was apparent that he had taken inspiration from what he called ‘The Golden Era of HK action cinema’ denoting kickers such as the aforementioned Delon Tan and Hwang Jang Lee. Daniels appreciation of these super kickers perhaps influenced his own kicking style, which is always as inventive as it devastating. It’s a real shame that Daniels was not given more of an ample opportunity to show off his kicking repertoire in Stallone’s ensemble film ‘THE EXPENDABLES’ (2010); though his back catalogue of 90s action films do enough to illustrate the extent of this Brit’s kicking brilliance.
Recommended films: ‘FIST OF THE NORTH STAR’ (1995), ‘RAGE’ (1995), ‘BLOODMOON’ (1996)
These days it still confounds me that I never see anyone referring to this great American martial artist who starred as ‘BILLY JACK’ (1971) in several notable anti-authority movies. Putting aside the pacifist message (which hilariously seems mooted by Laughlin’s combat skills), this was arguably the first time American audiences would see refined high kicking of this manner. In fact, the release of ‘BILLY JACK’ did predate Bruce Lee’s breakout film ‘THE BIG BOSS’ (1971) by five months. Laughlin himself was a notable practitioner of Hapkido, under the legendary Bong Soo Han, himself a skilled kicker. It became a signature trope in these movies where Billy Jack would remove his boots, revealing feet adorned in clean white socks that would soon unleash kicks onto his surprised opponents. Perhaps it has avoided meme status, due to Laughlin’s legitimate kicking skills.
Recommended films: ‘BORN LOSERS’ (1967), ‘BILLY JACK’ (1971), ‘THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK’ (1974)
Specialising in various aerial kicks, Cooke would freely bust out multiple kick combinations but launch himself into the air with gusto. True to form, in the 80s we got to witness Cooke’s impressing flying kick combos in ‘CHINA O’BRIEN’ (1988) then later being privy to cameos in the awful ‘KING OF THE KICKBOXERS’ (1992) and the guilty pleasure ‘BEVERLY HILLS NINJA’ (1997) There was something about Cooke’s kicking style that seemed so avante-garde and innovative for the era, impossible to categorise with attributes from various kicking methods that are a cross between Korean Tang Soo Do and Chinese Wushu. Special thanks to VIKING SAMURAI for reminding me of this great kicker.
Recommended Films: ‘CHINA O’BRIEN’ (1988), ‘KING OF THE KICKBOXERS (1992), ‘BEVERLY HILLS NINJA’ (1997)
Andy Le and Brian Le
Undoubtedly the newest and youngest exponents on this list. The Le brothers are traditional combatants in the truest sense, focusing on Chinese martial arts. Yet despite their very old school focus, their acrobatic kicking style is very modern in its application and is truly a joy to behold. As founders of the now famous ‘Martial Club’ (along with Daniel Mah), the Le Brothers boast a sophisticated intricacy in their kicking style with their high-octane choreography bringing back the stylings only ever seen in the HK movies of the 80s and 90s. Both Le brothers had cameos in Bao Tran’s breakout hit action comedy ‘THE PAPER TIGERS’ (2020) whilst Andy recently made his Hollywood debut featuring as Death-Dealer, in Marvel Studios’ blockbuster ‘SHANG CHI & THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS’ – unsurprisingly Andy’s rapid fire kicking style certainly did not disappoint.
Recommended Films: ‘THE PAPER TIGERS’ (2020), ‘SHANG CHI & THE LEGEND OF THEN TEN RINGS’ (2021)
This Frenchman may have had a very subdued and somewhat unremarkable action movie career compared to his 90s contemporaries, but it made him no less noteworthy. Though he didn’t have the striking looks or presence of Jean Claude Van Damme, Gruner was more the brooding antihero who stood out for his idiosyncratic kicks – taking cues from the French art of Savate. His surprise hit movie ‘ANGEL TOWN’ (1989) may not have given him much scope to show off his style, but it was his legionnaire themed movie ‘SAVATE’ (1995) that did afford him this golden opportunity. Outside of say Bruce Lee’s use of the Savate oblique kick against Chuck Norris in ‘WAY OF THE DRAGON’ (1972), Gruner’s picture is possibly the most notable film to completely promote this obscure French fighting style in all its graceful glory. Unsurprisingly ‘SAVATE’ is a guilty pleasure for me, as my own kicking style is heavily influenced by Boxe Cest Francais (picture included)
Recommended Films: ‘ANGEL TOWN’ (1989), ‘SAVATE’ (1995)
PERSONAL HONOURABLE MENTIONS
Viking Samurai (VS) aka David K.
It may be showing clear bias since I am not only a huge fan of this talented content creator, but will have the honour of collaborating with him in the near future. With a background in Taekwondo, Karate and Kempo, VS delivers his kicks with as much accuracy as power; with his sidekick sharing the same devastating delivery as Cung Le and his jump lead Hook kick (picture included) is a variant reminiscent of Van Damme himself – but with even more height in his leap! Given that David is also a bodybuilder and fitness fanatic, it is no surprise his kicks not only look incredible but also possess such power. Like any true modern day warrior, VS’s calm and chilled exterior masks true lethality – specifically his kicks.
This Australian bodybuilding champion not only boasts an impressive physique and very marketable good looks, but he is one of the best kickers I have ever seen in this sport – and a man I am proud to call a friend. What is notable is that he is a bodybuilder in the truest sense, dense and muscular and yet still kicks with the gracefulness of someone a quarter of his size. His trademark combo is a triple threat: single leg front kick, roundhouse to spinning kick which is unbelievably slick and deadly; but also boasting an impressively high side kick (picture included). Given Culleton’s background as a karateka, the most apt comparison is that of Dolph Lungren – with both behemoths able to deliver impressive kicks. One of the nicest guys in Aussie bodybuilding, many have cited his potential to make it into film – and I am one those that support that prediction. IG: @wff_pro_brentculleton