It will kung the fu out of you!
Matt Carver has just returned to the land of the Rising Sun after an 18-year absence, and his welcome couldn't be friendlier. First, he is mugged while giving a child a flower. Then he is required to register his hand as a lethal weapon with the police because, well, because the Japanese are just plain weird about things like that. Then Ivan Mayberry, a faux British buffoon with what appears to be an elongated forehead, accosts him in his hotel room. Fortunately, the dandy is about as effectual as a shakedown artist as he is with his wonderful UK accent (freshin' ya drink guvna' indeed!). Seems Carver has a coin that Mr. Piccadilly Circus wants for his very own. They become reluctant partners in numismatics and create the perfect front for their near-silent partnership. They will pretend to be attached at the hip in a very homoerotic fashion. Just as things seem to be going gay, Carver goes and gets framed for murder because of the walnut-size calluses on his knuckles. The duo visits an old childhood friend of Carver's, Akira, who now owns a dojo/karate school. After a demonstration on how to lay and smash roofing tiles, Mayberry drags the dupe to see his bald-headed fence. After Carver thwarts the crime boss with a bale of hay (don't ask), he tracks down the reason that everyone is after this rare bit of currency. It contains the clues to where a million dollars in platinum is hidden (and we ain't talking about the crib of Puffy Ami Yumi). Once Carver discovers who set him up, it's time to whip out the deadly digits for a little fist-to-fist refresher course in why they consider this beefy butthead an expert in Karate: The Hand of Death.
In the history of the body part movie, we have had many various appendages of doom. There have been wicked legs, evil ears, a couple of rampaging thyroid glands, and a large dyspeptic toenail, just to name a few. But when it comes to the hand hierarchy, the thumb threat has been rather minimal. Sure, there were the ones belonging to Manos that had something to do with destiny. There is the one that rocks the cradle. Luke's cool one and the single one clapping are often considered. You can find a band of one, people who want to hold one, and individuals providing a big one for the little lady. But no five-finger figurehead has been more important than the fatal one in Karate: The Hand of Death. Known as the first martial arts movie ever released in America, this tame creation by star Joe Holt (director of The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield) was chop socky before Jackie Chan had a death wish. Made with the cooperation of the Japanese Karate Foundation (who certified the flick as full of authentic ass-kicking goodness) and attempting to mesh martial arts with Madame Butterfly, James Bond (or in this case, James Bloat), and a cross-culture crime thriller, the results are a little routine. If you are hoping that this forgotten film showcased some of the first wire-fu or presented the well-balanced and skillful choreography of the majority of Hong Kong cinema…hell, if you want it to make a whole lot of sense, you've definitely stepped off at the wrong ginza.
If, on the other hand, you are looking for a decent little thriller with atrocious acting, intermittent weirdness, the worst English accent in the history of the cinema (yes, worse than Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins), credits that are karate chopped, and a finale filled with an Iron Chef-sized battle for honor, then this movie is your ticket to Far East fun. Holt has a habit of constantly interrupting the action (what very little there is) with sequences in which our lame Londoner asks a series of stupid expositional questions and someone responds with a laundry list of details. Indeed, Mayberry is like a big fat babe in the woods here, touting himself as an international man of mystery (more like gluttony, the toad), but he has no basic knowledge of Japanese society, culture, or customs. A guy breaks a brick with his head and Mayberry will bleat "Why on aaath does he dooo that?" Ten minutes of martial arts history ensues. And when it comes to carrying the plot, this British blimp is the screenwriter's best friend. He will tell you every fact, every detail—even what he had for tea—just to make sure you are following the so-called plot. Frankly, Karate needs him. Otherwise, you'd have Holt wandering around looking like a cross between Ed Sullivan and Steve Lawrence, some karate class commotion, and a great deal of non-translated exchanges in Japanese (the subtitlers must have been on strike.) With its World War flashbacks, acid fights, and extreme Asian acting style (either they are saying their lines phonetically, or every Tokyo thespian delivers his or her dialogue in a halting, deliberate slow motion voice), Karate: The Hand of Death is nearly entertaining and almost enigmatic. It also underscores why it took another decade for the kung fu movie to really become a popular item.
To add to the Tae Kwan Doughiness of this DVD release, Something Weird has created what they call The Incredible Martial-Arts-Mayhem Kung-Fu Trailer Show, a collection of 50 (that's right—5…0…) ads for all manner of hand-to-hand happiness. Viewed one at a time or through the magic of the "Play All" option, you are magically whisked back to the mid-70s and early 80s, when martial arts movies were just penetrating the mainstream market. About every manner of bone-crushing, fist-flying action romp is represented here, from the very beginnings of Jackie Chan's career (the odd looking Snake Fist Fighter) to the slam bam bad boy wonderfulness of Mr. Sonny Chiba (both ads for The Street Fighter films are drool-producing amazement, filled with classic moments like when Chiba tells a gang boss to "stick it up his ass"!). Forgotten figures like James Ryan (who was Steven Segal before the puffy one ever broke a piece of balsa wood with his paunch) make one yearn for the salad days of cable TV (his Kill or Be Killed was a pay staple), and outright oddities like The Sacred Knives of Vengeance and Flying Claw Fights 14 Demons have titles that, unfortunately, make one wary that they could ever live up to them. While the over two-hour offering (each trailer is two to four minutes) can grow irritating (almost all are introduced by a red title screen and a horrible faux fanfare that can grate on the nerves after 30+ hearings) and the images tend to fluctuate from good to horrible to faded, this is far better than the recently released Art of Action and recalls that long forgotten Cinemax classic The Deadliest Art: The Best of the Martial Arts Movies. Offered in place of another feature (what could they have paired with Holt's half-baked Hand?), this is great stuff.
Something Weird offers Karate: The Hand of Death in its 2.35:1 original aspect ratio. It is not anamorphic, which is perhaps a good thing, since this image blown up to widescreen proportions would be grainier than Creole mustard. As it stands, Karate is a decent monochromatic transfer that is faded and fuzzy. Lifted from a print and not a direct negative, it still looks a lot better than other black and white features from the era. The trailers are a multiple choice of aspect ratios, colors, matting, and quality. Some look brand new while others seem unearthed with a batch of hundred-year-old eggs. Nothing is unwatchable, and, in a few cases, the bad prints and awkward dubbing make for an unintentionally hilarious viewing experience. Sonically, Karate is mastered rather lowly, so it will require some volume gymnastics to get the Dolby Digital Mono sounding right. The music does tend to distort and overpower the film, but when it suddenly shifts to a very Asian theremin, the proper mood is struck.
In a world filled with the Shaw Brothers and Yuen Woo-Ping, where action heroes boast martial arts skills that are more the result of fancy editing than of actual skill, a minor movie like Karate: The Hand of Death may seem like a unimportant footnote in the genre. But if you give it a chance to work its wild, wacky wonders on you (and remember there are two hours of preview pleasure to be had here), the rewards will be substantial. Joe Holt may not know a flying drop kick from a toehold, but he created the opening salvo in a soon to be exploitation standard. His dachi may be bad, but he gives good uke. What more could you want?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Something Weird Video
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