Funimation // 1978 // 89 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // April 9th, 2010
"A kung fu technique so lethal they named the movie after it!"
From the Shaw Brothers studios comes a late-'70s chopsocky cheesefest complete with secret attacks, elbow knives, and enough melodrama to power a community theater production of Hamlet.
Facts of the Case The legendary kung fu master Li Pai (Dick Wei) has spent years perfecting the super-deadly finishing move, "The Shaolin Hand Lock." He was teaching the technique to his two children; that is, until he's assassinated by a mysterious man with knifes hidden in the elbows of his overcoat! His son, Li Cheng-ying (David Chiang), vows to get revenge on the man behind his father's death: evil philanthropist and kung-fu master Ling Hao (Lieh Lo)!
Shaolin Hand Lock is a nice primer for just about every stereotype of low-budget kung fu films. Your familiarity with, and tolerance of, the genre will likely determine how you view this entry. As someone who hasn't seen too many of these Shaw Brothers films, I found this over-the-top revenge tale to be pretty darn enjoyable.
First, let's speak of the film's titular finishing move: the Shaolin Hand Lock. It's basically a professional wrestling sleeper hold that can only be administered by jumping over a bad guy, and can only be countered by two sharp jabs to the gut (unless the administer of the hand lock is wearing a metal-plated vest, then you're out of luck). It's a subtle finishing move, and probably not one worth naming a film after, but the seriousness with which the movie treats the hand lock makes it seem as cool as Scorpion's grappling hook. Far better are the villain's secret knives, which slide out of his jacket's elbows just in time to cut you something fierce.
Shaolin Hand Lock employs these vicious techniques and finishing moves to their fullest extent. A fight breaks out every couple of scenes, and while each brawl feels achingly similar to the previous they're always good for some mindless kicks and thwaps. You could probably go in the other room and make yourself a sandwich, and just wait until you hear the patented, and loud, punching sounds start. There are only about three kinds of punching sounds in the movie, which causes each fight to trigger a Pavlovian sense of interest. They're pretty fun to watch.
You won't really need to watch this thing for the plot. The first act is a genuinely engaging story about Cheng-ying's quest to avenge his father's death by becoming his enemy's bodyguard. But around the time the flashbacks start, and we see "young" Ling Hao and Li Pai (which means the same actors sans baby powder in their hair), the plot takes a needlessly melodramatic twist. Without giving anything away, let's just say the movie becomes more like Days of Our Lives with kicking. It circles itself a couple of times, finding more reasons for action, before finally arriving at the final standoff.
The film's climactic battle, set up in a warehouse tailored for a sweet fight, is enjoyable enough but offers little in the way of a conclusion. The bad guy dies (is that even a spoiler?) and the film ends. I guess they figured you wouldn't be interested if there weren't any other fights.
I did enjoy Shaolin Hand Lock for what it was: a cheesy kung fu flick from the '70s. It's got some entertaining fight scenes, and some nice dramatic flourishes by director Meng Hua Ho (The Mighty Peking Man). Plus, it's hard to beat elbow-knives. Just don't go into this expecting anything unique or interesting story-wise.
This release, part of the Hong Kong Connection series, is barren in terms of special features, but offers up a solid film transfer. The colors are vibrant and the picture is fairly sharp. Any problems lie in the audio: a muffled English stereo dub and Mandarin mono. The music and sound effects are often way louder than the dialogue, and the poor quality of the English dub means that subtitles are a necessity.
Unlike the move that is so dangerous they named the film after it, Shaolin Hand Lock won't be putting you to sleep any time soon. It's an action-packed, if somewhat generic, chopsocky film with plenty of sweet fight scenes and goofy sound effects. For fans of the genre, it's worth renting.
Nothing can counter my Guilty Verdict!
Review content copyright © 2010 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Mandarin)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Unrated