Judge David Johnson has three fingers of death and four toes of gastric discomfort.
Talk to the Iron Palm.
A.k.a. The Five Fingers of Death, this highly influential Shaw Brothers release receives a top-drawer Dragon Dynasty treatment. Kung fu nuts: this is not one to miss. But then again, you probably already knew that.
Facts of the Case
Humble Chao Chih-Hao (Lieh Lo) had no idea he would be the central player in a critical power struggle between martial arts schools when he enrolled for kung fu classes. But when his master bestowed on him the greatest honor, the knowledge of the dreaded Iron Palm, his destiny was sealed: he would be the man to wage war against the evil Meng and finally bring his corrupt school to its knees.
To do so, Chih-Hao will have to vanquish an array of fearsome foes, including Japanese samurais, a guy with a lethal head-butt and Meng's eyeball-plucking son, all to gain access to the inter-school tournament that will decide the dominant brand of kung fu to be taught in the provinces. It sounds like a tall order—unless of course you've got hands that glow red and a killer musical cue, which our hero happens to have.
The Dragon Dynasty collection (underneath Genius Products, which is underneath The Weinstein Company) has been a God-send for martial arts buffs. The releases that carry the DD moniker are exceedingly well put-together, stocked with dandy supplements and dripping with the care and devotion evident from true fans of the genre. No other film is as ready-made for the VIP treatment as King Boxer, arguably the most influential kung fu film ever constructed and a righteous grindhouse experience in its own right.
What surprised me about this film was how complex it is. There's plenty of action and splatter—a lot of splatter actually—but beneath these 70s genre fixings is a layered piece of storytelling, relaying a deep, satisfying yarn about honor and revenge and stocked with a menagerie of memorable characters. Usually I find the storylines of these old-school kung-fu outings tedious that serve the purpose of merely gluing the fight scenes together, but throughout this one, I was into it. Lieh Lo is a solid actor and grounds his character in real-world tendencies like cowardice, loyalty and despair. Toward the end of the film he rises above his flaws to open up like five cartons of whoop-ass and transforms into the unstoppable killing machine that was promised by this training montages, and watching him decimate opponent after opponent is that much more satisfying because of his character's journey. You can't say that about a lot of kung fu front men. Even the villains are treated with class, boasting fairly deep arcs themselves. Meng, the worst of the worst, is a true snake who masks his viciousness with empty words about honor and respect, but when he ends up on the losing side, his genuine nature shows, and it's not pretty—tragic in fact. With so many characters and separate storylines, King Boxer may look dense on paper, but director Chang-Hwa Jeong knows how to pace his film, and trades lengthy, ponderous exposition for action and the briefest of dialogue exchanges. The result is a brisk film, packed with plot and characterization, neither cumbersome nor confusing.
Because, really, in the end, we want to see some dudes wailing on each other. The fisticuff mayhem is glorious and though Lieh Lo may not be the most ferocious martial artists I've ever seen, he can hold his own. Chang-Hwa Jeong is smart to keep the battles short; those repetitive, drawn-out exchanges that can be found in many other kung fu movies bore me and frequently seem more about the fight choreography than the actual fight. The encounters in King Boxer have meaning, making them more compelling, and their brevity will leave you wanting more. Add to that the shocking amount (at the time) of vivid violence—highlighted by eye socket rips, sucking chest wounds and spewing blood—and we're talking bodacious brouhahas. Finally, I've found another kung fu film to stand alongside Jet Li's Fist of Legend, as an example of the successful fusion of plot and punch.
The Dragon Dynasty label has given us another great treatment of a classic Asian actioner. The video quality, presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, is terrific. The picture is clean, free of blemishes and the detailing is pristine. Strong color work all around. This is one of the finest looking martial arts resuscitations I've seen. The original mono soundtrack is available in Mandarin and dubbed English.
A fine batch of extras accompanies, highlighted by a raucous, geek-a-riffic feature commentary by film historians David Chute and Elvis Mitchell and filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, who just dumbfounds me with his encyclopedic knowledge of martial arts flicks. Interviews with director Chang-Hwa Jeong, action director Lau Kar-Wing and Chute and Klein, commentator bios and a still gallery round out the set.
The action is great, but there's so much more to this film it is no surprise why it is lauded as the work that kicked off the American 1970s kung-fu craze. A classic, given a deservedly classic presentation.
Two thumbs of death up.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Commentary with Quentin Tarantino, David Chute and Elvis Mitchell
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