Life can sure seem like a contest sometimes! That’s why, occasionally, nothing beats the feel of a good tournament movie (or a humorously bad one). That’s why we’ve devised a list of 10 different entertaining tournament films. Some are serious, some are zany, but they are all fun to watch. To make it even more fun, we’ll also ask you — yes, YOU — which film here “wins” as the best tournament movie. Also, if we overlooked any true gems, we can always do a followup! Here are the entries, arranged from earliest to latest release year.
1. Enter the Dragon (1973)
Robert Clouse’s “Enter the Dragon” is a rather straightforward tournament movie wherein Bruce Lee’s character (conveniently named “Lee”) infiltrates a martial arts tournament held by crime lord Han (Shih Kien). Says Han: “The business of corruption is like any other.” Well, Lee isn’t fond of Han for his drug trafficking and prostitution, feeling it disgraces the Shaolin Temple. It doesn’t help that one of Han’s bodyguards, Oharra (Robert Wall), had killed Lee’s sister (Angela Mao).
Accompanying Lee to the island are Roper (John Saxon ) and Williams (Jim Kelly). While Lee does plenty of the fighting here, Saxon does rather impressively as well, reminding us that he wasn’t one to be messed with, either. Of course, the villainous fighter named Bolo (Bolo Yeung) is nothing to sneeze at, and neither is Han himself! This film is known for some iconic images, a classic ’70s music score and occasional bits of humor. One might see “Enter the Dragon” as a silly martial arts action film, but it’s in the United States National Film Registry!
2. The Karate Kid (1984)
Remember when Ralph Macchio was everywhere? Well, he still does act, but John Avildsen’s “The Karate Kid” was the closest we got to Macchio-mania. In many ways, this was an instant classic tournament movie, as the chemistry between him and Noriyuki “Pat” Morita was simply undeniable! In fact, this would have been an interesting film even without the actual tournament between Macchio’s character, Daniel, and the abusive bully, Johnny (William Zabka). Morita’s Miyagi character is the obvious star of the picture, having vast wisdom and borderline superhuman abilities. If you had the chance to train with someone like him, how could you turn it down? “Wax on, wax off.”
A film that helped popularize karate in the United States, “The Karate Kid” also stars Elisabeth Shue. Interesting fact: “The Karate Kid” is semi-autobiographical, as screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen learned karate after being beaten up by bullies. His original instructor was too concentrated on the violence of self-defense, so Kamen later trained with a more Miyagi-like man who barely knew English. It’s doubtful he learned everything that Daniel did, but you have to allow some suspension of disbelief, right? Also, the “Karate Kid” has many sequels and an ongoing series called “Cobra Kai” on YouTube Premium.
3. Bloodsport (1988)
Less critically acclaimed than “Enter the Dragon” or “The Karate Kid,” Newt Arnold’s “Bloodsport” is nevertheless entertaining, and a worthy entry into any tournament movie list. Jean-Claude Van Damme stars as Frank Dux, who learned ninjitsu from sensei Senzo Tanaka. Oddly enough, this film is supposedly autobiographical, though many have disputed the authenticity of the real Frank Dux story. In fact, Dux’s claims of a perfect fighting record and that he worked for the CIA (and all sorts of other things) were bound to be controversial. His story honestly sounds like a macho braggart who doesn’t quite know when to ease up. On that note, “Bloodsport’s” over-the-top acting only heightens this humorous debate over the Dux legacy.
The key point:”Bloodsport” is an entertaining film, finding a rightful place among other iconic 1980s martial arts/action stories. As portrayed here, Dux is one tough SOB, even if no one’s ever heard of the Tanaka clan actually existing. “Bloodsport” also stars “Enter the Dragon’s” Bolo Yeung as Chong Li, Donald Gibb as Ray Jackson, Leah Ayres as journalist Janice Kent and Forest Whitaker as Rawlins, one of the Army’s investigators sent to arrest Dux. In other words, Dux not only has to win the martial arts tournament but dodge these pesky Army officers. All in a day’s work, right, Mr. Dux?
4. Happy Gilmore (1996)
Love him or hate him, Adam Sandler movies pop up every once in a while. Back in 1996, Dennis Dugan’s “Happy Gilmore” was unleashed, highlighting Sandler’s titular character as the ultimate rambunctious golfer. If that sounds weird, it’s because it is. Golf is normally known for being quiet, if not boring to viewers. With a boisterous, obnoxious and potentially violent golfer on the course, “Happy Gilmore” makes us wonder what golf would be like if it were infiltrated by hotheads and weirdos. While this has precedent in films like “Caddyshack,” “Happy Gilmore” manages to pile on the absurdity even beyond that (minus the cute gopher).
The movie has a memorable villain named Shooter McGavin (Christopher McDonald), a dutiful golf trainer named Chubbs (Carl Weathers) and lovable grandmother (Frances Bay) whose home Happy must save. Can Happy Gilmore win the tournament and get the girl (Julie Bowen)? There are a lot of memorable moments in this film, and you’ve probably heard scenes quoted many times. There are funny appearances by Richard Kiel and Bob Barker. However, the funniest (and darkest) moments in “Happy Gilmore” involve Ben Stiller as the twisted nursing home manager, who threatens to make Grandma Gilmore’s life hell.
5. Kingpin (1996)
Ever heard of the dark side of bowling? Well, the Farrelly brothers’ “Kingpin” threatens to expose that underworld, and is perhaps the only bowling tournament movie you’ll ever need to see. Through random chance, a fallen bowling legend named Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson) discovers a phenomenal bowler named Ishmael Boorg (Randy Quaid). The problem is, Ishmael is Amish!
As Munson’s desperate to pay his landlord (Lin Shaye), he takes Ishmael along to hopefully win enough money to pay his debts — or at least set out for a new life. Along the way they meet and rescue Claudia (Vanessa Angel) from her abusive boyfriend, Stanley (Rob Moran), and ultimately take on Munson’s nemesis, Ernie “Big Ern” McCracken (Bill Murray). Can they trust Claudia? Can they win the tournament without corrupting Ishmael through a sinful world full of temptations? While this movie has mixed reviews, it’s definitely worth checking out, and it’s the first of two Woody Harrelson movies on this list!
6. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)
As we’ve seen with “Happy Gilmore” and “Kingpin,” not every tournament movie is a hard-boiled action blockbuster. In fact, none of the remaining movies on this list qualify in that regard (at least not entirely). Rawson Marshall Thurber’s “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” is about a ragtag group who enter a Las Vegas dodgeball tournament to prevent their gym (Average Joe’s Gymnasium) from getting swallowed up by a corporate competitor. As the title suggests, they are true blue underdogs here, as their gym has few members and therefore must prove itself in other ways.
Globo Gym, run by White Goodman (Ben Stiller) wishes to be the big gym in the street — no, the town, the state and the world. Reminiscent of Weird Al’s great comedy, “UHF,” Goodman threatens to turn the gym into a place to park one’s cars! Victory is of great symbolic value for Goodman, who refuses to let the gym exist alongside his. The film also stars Vince Vaughn, Christine Taylor, Rip Torn, Justin Long, and Stephen Root. Oh, and the movie is about dodgeball, in case you missed that.
7. Akeelah and the Bee (2006)
Doug Atchison’s “Akeelah and the Bee” looks at a rather underappreciated competition: The Scripps National Spelling Bee. Like any sport worth celebrating at all, spelling requires some hard work, dedication, and intelligence. This film looks at Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer), a middle school student from Los Angeles, who gets talked into joining the spelling bee competition by her Principal (Curtis Armstrong). After personal issues threaten to derail her, she gets coached by Dr. Joshua Larabee (Laurence Fishburne). In that regard, “Akeelah and the Bee” also examines the pressures faced by spellers, and even whether one should ever intentionally lose out of some sense of fairness. The film also stars Angela Bassett, Curtis Armstrong, J.R. Villarreal, and Sean Michael Afable.
8. Balls of Fury (2007)
Predictably panned by critics, Robert Ben Garant’s “Balls of Fury” is a bit like “Kingpin” as it invents a dark underworld of ping-pong/table tennis competitions. Dan Fogler stars as Randy Daytona, a former great in the sport who is a shadow of his former self. However, FBI agent Ernie Rodriguez (George Lopez) offers him a mission to infiltrate a ping-pong tournament held by the nefarious Feng (Christopher Walken). Of course, Feng also happened to Randy’s father, Sgt. Pete Daytona (Robert Patrick), making it personal.
While Walken’s performance is quite funny, Fogler has many funny moments, too, and this film might help some people become Def Lepard fans along the way. There are many moments that parody the aforementioned “Enter the Dragon” and martial arts/sports films in general. “Balls of Fury” also features Maggie Q, James Hong, Aisha Tyler, Thomas Lennon, Diedrich Bader, Jason Scott Lee, and Terry Crews.
9. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
Seth Gordon’s “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” is a masterful documentary about the rivalry between Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell. What’s all the fuss about? The highest score record for the 1981 Donkey Kong arcade game! While this may not sound exciting to everyone, it’s way more interesting than you probably think. This movie was also instrumental in eventually disgracing the brash competitor Billy Mitchell, who lost his standing after (apparently) being exposed as using emulation software. “King of Kong” is a great film, whether you doubt Mitchell’s integrity or not.
10. The Grand (2008)
An ensemble/improv comedy from Zak Penn, “The Grand” features many stars such as Ray Romano, Woody Harrelson, Barry Corbin, Chris Parnell, Werner Herzog, Jason Alexander, Dennis Farina, David Cross, Gabe Kaplan, Michael Karnow and Cheryl Hines and Richard Kind. Although it’s a poker tournament movie, one needn’t know much about the game to laugh. Harrelson plays Jack Faro, a down-on-his-luck drug addict who wished to win the tournament to save his grandfather’s casino, The Rabbit’s Foot. Along the way we meet a bunch of ridiculous characters, get to possibly learn about poker, and possibly root for a victor.
There is a little drama scattered throughout, but the over-the-top humor definitely keeps things light. Possibly the funniest character Werner Herzog’s character, “The German,” who lives up to the stereotype of the ruthless, brutal German. Also, to help avoid the film being accused of ripping off Christopher Guest’s style, “The Grand” also features none other than Michael McKean. Ultimately, “The Grand” has plenty of funny concepts and quotes throughout, making it an underrated film.
Which is your favorite tournament movie on this list? Did we miss any great ones? Let us know in the comments!