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A collage of images from Michelle Yeoh’s early action star career. Graphic: Pete Volk/Polygon

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5 movies that made Michelle Yeoh one of the great action stars

Looking back at some iconic action roles from the star of Everything Everywhere All At Once

Michelle Yeoh is having a moment, and we’re all better for it. Yeoh is the star of the new “multiverse masterpieceEverything Everywhere All At Once, and recently brought her movie star charisma and considerable action movie bona fides into new roles in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Crazy Rich Asians, and Star Trek: Discovery. Up next: James Cameron’s Avatar sequels and Blood Origin, Netflix’s Witcher prequel series. It’s a great time to be a fan of one of the world’s most captivating movie stars.

Before Everything Everywhere, before her other recent successes, before even Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Tomorrow Never Dies, Yeoh was one of the best action stars in the world. She starred in some classic action movies from arguably the best era in the genre’s storied history: 1980s-’90s Hong Kong.

After representing Malaysia at the 1983 Miss World pageant, Yeoh first caught the attention of the Hong Kong movie industry when she was in a Guy Laroche commercial with Jackie Chan. She went on to perform in about a dozen Hong Kong action movies as Michelle Khan, performing many of her own stunts and generally kicking all sorts of ass, using her skills as a former ballet dancer to seamlessly transition to being one of the world’s best screen fighters.

With Everything Everywhere All At Once hitting a wider theatrical release this weekend, what better time to revisit some of the early classics from one of our great screen presences?

Yes, Madam

What it is: Yeoh’s first opportunity as a movie lead is also one of the standout action movies of the 1980s. Yeoh teams up with world champion martial artist Cynthia Rothrock as her co-star in this movie that is often cited as kicking off the “girls with guns” subgenre in Hong Kong action cinema. Yeoh plays a Hong Kong inspector who teams up with Rothrock, a Scotland Yard detective, to get to the bottom of a murder and recover a stolen microfilm.

Why you should watch: Yeoh and Rothrock are two of the best martial arts stars we’ve ever had, and while it’s a shame they didn’t get to make, like, a dozen more movies together, it’s a gift that we have this one. The movie is also directed by Corey Yuen, who as a child was one of the “Seven Little Fortunes” at the Peking Opera School with Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, and later gained fame for his many collaborations with Jet Li and his work as an action director on X-Men.

Where you can watch: Yes, Madam is available for rent or purchase digitally on Amazon

Magnificent Warriors

What it is: An Indiana Jones-styled adventure by way of the Hong Kong martial arts movie boom of the 1980s, Yeoh plays an ace pilot who works with a con man (Richard Ng) to thwart the Japanese occupation of China during the 1930s.

Why you should watch: Did you read the description? It’s Michelle Yeoh as Indiana Jones in 1930s China. She astounds with multiple difficult weapons in the movie, including the rope dart in the above scene, and carries this action-adventure with her screen presence alone.

Where you can watch: Magnificent Warriors is available to watch for free with ads on Crackle and Asian Crush (both are English dubs), and is available for rent or purchase digitally on Amazon

Supercop

What it is: The third movie in Jackie Chan’s Police Story series introduces Yeoh’s Inspector Yang, who ended up taking over the franchise in Supercop 2. When Chan’s egotistical “supercop” is assigned to a difficult undercover case, he is teamed up with the no-nonsense Yang to save the day.

Why you should watch: Once it gets past a complicated setup, Supercop really clicks, leaning on the chemistry of its stars and the audacity of its set pieces. Yeoh is excellent as the stern inspector juxtaposed with Chan’s foolhardy officer, giving the lead pairing a dynamic similar to that of many screwball comedies. There are also the stellar fight scenes and jaw-dropping stunts that epitomize a Chan movie of this era, including the above scene near the end where Yeoh jumps a motorcycle off a small hill and lands on top of a moving train (there’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse at this and other stunts in the end credits). In fight scenes, her kicks stand out, specifically her overhead scorpion kicks in multiple fight sequences. She talked about this movie and others in a recent GQ interview, saying “I will never be crazy enough to do those stunts again.”

Where you can watch: Supercop is available to rent or purchase digitally on Apple, Amazon, and other VOD platforms. Unfortunately, Supercop 2 is not available to stream, rent, or purchase digitally at this time, but there are many clips on YouTube.

The Heroic Trio

Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, and Maggie Cheung in The Heroic Trio. Image: China Entertainment Films/Paka Hill Productions

What it is: Legendary director Johnnie To’s absolutely bonkers 1993 superhero movie stars Yeoh, Maggie Cheung and Cantopop superstar Anita Mui. A supervillain named Evil Master is stealing babies, in a sinister plot to hand-pick the next emperor and use the rest to create an army of mindless super soldiers. His plot is being enacted by The Invisible Woman (Yeoh), a brainwashed woman with an invisibility cloak who grew up as a part of the Evil Master’s cult. But when two women, including the “martial sister” from the Invisible Woman’s childhood, attempt to stop the plot, the Invisible Woman must decide where her loyalties lie.

Why you should watch: The Heroic Trio excels on the unparalleled star power of its three leads, as well as the fun it’s willing to have with the superhero genre. The movie is filled with life and color, and is deliriously over-the-top, with terrific genre-appropriate costuming and set design. An illustrative example: Maggie Cheung is The Thief Catcher, a super mercenary for hire who whistles “London Bridge is Falling Down” while dispensing justice. In one scene, A shotgun-toting, leather clad Cheung rides a dynamite-propelled barrel into a hostage situation, easily dispatching the thugs before departing on her motorcycle. And another example, for flavor: Anthony Wong plays Kau, the Evil Master’s super soldier henchman who uses a flying guillotine – basically a bird cage attached to a steel rope with blades at the bottom – to decapitate people. One word of warning before you dive in: this movie is absolutely filled with babies in peril.

Where you can watch: The Heroic Trio is available to rent or purchase digitally on Alamo on Demand, but a promised Janus Films restoration hopefully means more availability in the future. The sequel, Executioners, is also available on Alamo on Demand.

Wing Chun

What it is: A perfect marriage of martial arts and rom com, Wing Chun is a story about three women who use their bodies in very different ways to survive and thrive in a male-dominated world. (One with her fighting skills, one with her sex appeal, and one with her stench. Yes, really). When a young widow arrives, the town’s stalwart defender Yim Wing Chun (Michelle Yeoh, playing the legendary figure for whom the martial art is named) and her aunt (Kingdom Yuen) take her in as the newest employee of their tofu stand. When Wing-Chun’s childhood sweetheart Leung Pok To (Donnie Yen) shows up, he mistakes the young widow for his old flame, and Wing Chun (who wears men’s clothes) for her suitor. When the young widow is kidnapped, the two band together to rescue her.

Why you should watch: Yeoh gets to play the “defender of the small town” archetype, and does so to perfection. It’s one of her best roles, and a showcase for all the things she excels at on-screen, combining her natural charm and charisma with her screen fighting prowess. This movie features more of the latter than most, and its all choreographed and shot by one of the greatest to ever do it (iconic martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, who directed the movie). For those reasons and many others, Wing Chun rules. An FYI, though: There’s a brief uncomfortable sex scene towards the middle of the movie (not involving Yeoh or Yen), and a later scene where a group of men menace a woman with threats of sexual violence.

Where you can watch: Wing Chun is available to rent or purchase on Amazon (English dub).

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