The Greatest Martial Arts Movie Ever Made

I believe the greatest martial arts movie ever made is Groundhog Day (1993), starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell.

In it, full-of-himself Pittsburgh TV weatherman Phil Connors (Murray) is sent with a producer Rita (MacDowell) and cameraman Larry to Punxsutawney, Penn., to cover its Groundhog Day festivities, on February 2.

Phil talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk in his training.

It’s Phil’s fourth time to record whether or not the rodent sees its shadow, dooming us to another six weeks of winter, and he is sick of it. He knows he is destined for bigger things and this assignment is an embarrassment, as he likes to remind his two work associates, whom he treats with disdain. In fact, he condescends to everyone he meets in Punxsutawney.

With the shoot done, Phil is anxious to escape the small town and return to civilization. But a snowstorm forces the WPBH-TV9 crew to spend one more night in Punxsutawney. The next morning, Phil wakes up in his bed and breakfast to find that it is not “tomorrow.” He has to relive Groundhog Day again.

Phil soon discovers that he has to keep on reliving Groundhog Day until he gets it right, waking each morning at 6 a.m. to the clock-radio music of Sonny & Cher’s “I’ve Got You, Babe” (truly hell).

When it comes to fighting action, Groundhog Day isn’t up there with The Big Brawl or Enter the Dragon. Phil does take a weak, playful punch from an obnoxious insurance salesman, Ned Ryerson, that he doesn’t try to block. He later decks Ned with an unprovoked haymaker – something that would get him expelled from most dojo. He fails to block a bunch of slaps in the face he gets from Rita for being a cad. He does hold his own in a snowball fight, but his opponents are just kids.The closest we get to real violence are Phil’s repeated attempts at suicide. But more on that later.

The Premise

Phil could solve his blocking difficulty with a little extra work at the dojo. But what makes Groundhog Day the greatest martial arts movie of all time is its premise: the idea that you must do something again and again and again and again. . . ceaselessly, until you get it right.

Phil is unable to block any punch or slap thrown at him. Still this is a small hiccup in his quest for mastery.

In karate, mastery comes not from learning fresh material but perfecting what you already know. Of course, it’s exciting to be taught something new. But this is a junior pleasure, something to keep the kids’ class going. If you stay in karate long enough, you know most of the curriculum.  Progress is then dictated by how you polish your technique and understanding, and discover new insights.

Phil is the hotshot tournament star, who is full of his own accomplishments. He is a massive ego with little understanding of self or empathy for others.

To advance to his next rank, Phil has been apparently told by his teacher (never seen in the movie) that he has to really learn a kata inside and out. Let’s call that kata Groundhog Day. A perfunctory and even a technically skilled performance will not be enough for him to progress. He will have to keep repeating his kata until he masters its every nuance.

Seduced by the Dark Side

As Phil is forced to repeat his Groundhog Day kata again and again, he sees his prowess grow, despite his reluctance. He gets to know his day the people around him so well, he can see new possibilities.

Freed of the consequences of his actions, Phil uses his powers for self-absorbed diversions, such as amoured car robbery.

But rather than using his powers for the common good, he decides that he is “not going to live by [the] rules anymore.” So guided by selfish desire, and freed from the consequences of his actions, he goes on a spree. Using knowledge gleaned through repeated interactions and observations of the same day, he is able to seduce women, rob armoured cars and generally make a nuisance of himself.

As Rita notes, Phil’s egocentricity is his “defining characteristic.” By getting to know his kata so well, he can dominate people and events in almost any way he wishes. He finally decides that he is like a god.Sometimes, when a student’s training takes an enormous leap, overweening pride can become an issue. Then it is up to the teacher to hammer down the nail of egocentricity.

Just a Technician

Phil’s hammer falls in the form of lovely Rita.

After enough repetitions of Groundhog Day, his eyes begin to open to her beauty and character. While she is a much more worthy object than his other selfish pursuits, his wooing of her is flawed.

Seeing that Phil is a technician, without deeper understanding of his art, Rita slaps him. Of course, Phil misses the block.

Learning as much as he can about her through repeated interactions – her background, her ideals, what she looks for in a man, etc. – Phil tries to shape himself into her ideal companion. He learns French, so he can recite her beloved 19th-century poetry in its original tongue. For her sake, he learns to play the piano and demonstrates his creativity by becoming an expert ice sculptor.

But mastery of the martial arts requires more than technical expertise. If the transformation wrought through training does not go to the core, then the practitioner is hollow and bound to be defeated by a skilled opponent.

Phil’s knowledge of Rita and the unlimited amount of time he has to hone his approach almost succeed. He lures her back to his room but before he can seduce her she realizes that she is being manipulated by Phil and rejects him, with the first of many slaps.

She can tell that his training lacks sincerity.

Even though things return to status quo when the day is next repeated, Phil cannot get any further with Rita. In fact, he can’t get as far as he did this first attempt at seduction. He gets slapped again and again.

This is a common pitfall for a martial artist. After making a breakthrough in their training, they fail when they try to recreate the experience. They know what they are supposed to do and how it should feel, but they just can’t repeat it.Their mistake is to try to hold onto something that is done and finished. The experience is part of the past and can’t be relived. A martial artist must always look to create fresh, spontaneous experiences and not become mired in nostalgia.


In the wake of Rita’s rejections, Phil sinks into depression and tries to kill himself – many times. But whenever he crashes the car, drops a toaster into his bath or jumps off a building, he merely cuts his day short and wakes up again, as always, on Groundhog Day.

Phil’s training isn’t going well, so he decides to kill himself.

Despite the comic twist given to his decision to self-destruct, Phil is clearly in his bleakest moment. This the time in anyone’s training that they hit the wall. Their progress stops and they begin to backslide. They feel trapped by their discipline with no hope of breaking through the barrier.

Many give up their training. The practice that once sustained them, now seems to smother them and stand as a testament to their personal failure.

While Phil has made great leaps in his technique because of his Groundhog Day practice, he is prevented from reaching the next level by his twin desires: His desire to break the cycle of rebirth and his desire to win the affections of Rita. The craving in turn makes him unhappy and unable to immerse himself completely in his art.

Phil’s big break comes when he approaches Rita, in despair but without guile, and confesses the truth about his Groundhog Day hell. She responds wonderingly, “Sometimes I wish had a thousand lifetimes. I don’t know, Phil, maybe it’s not a curse.”So, training is not a trap – it is an opportunity.  What a flash!

The Artless Art

Phil seizes this opportunity. He throws himself into living Groundhog Day flawlessly, without apparent goal. He learns to play piano because he loves music. He sculpts ice because he delights in turning his creative inspiration into concrete form.

When Phil realizes that his training is not a trap, but a device to set him free, he embraces it, and Rita, for a lifetime.

Freed from his selfish desires, he can devote himself to making a difference in the lives of as many people as possible, whether it is saving someone choking in a restaurant, catching a boy falling from tree or counselling a young couple so they can successfully marry.

At this point, his kata stops being something he practises and expands to fill his whole life. He realizes that his training does not confine him at all but is the device that sets him free. His art becomes artless and his eyes open.

At the end of a perfect day, he says to Rita, “No matter what happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now.”

Phil finally grasps the essence of the martial arts, learning to live completely in the moment, without longing for the past or desire for future gain.

As a happy byproduct of his enlightenment, he finally breaks the chains of rebirth and lands his love interest.

When Phil and Rita leave the bed and breakfast the next day, on the morning of February 3, they vow to move and live their married life in Punxsutawney.

One only hopes that they open a dojo.

—Peter Giffen
Barrie Ryusei Karate