Arrow Video: Hand of Death (1976) - Reviewed

Images Courtesy of Arrow Films
Before Hong Kong action-movie master John Woo became synonymous with bullets flying, guns that never reload, endless explosions and doves flying throughout the “bullet ballet”, the director first got his start in martial arts movies in the early 1970s under the name Wu Yu-seng.  Early in his career while working for Golden Harvest, the writer-director in the midst of finding his niche crossed paths with young actor Chen Yuen-lung and fight choreographer/actor Hung Chin-pao.  

While not much was made of these three at the time, the young stuntman in his first speaking role onscreen was none other than Jackie Chan with Sammo Hung as the choreographer, making this an earlier union of three of the most important Chinese action movie makers who ever lived.  The film in question, the 1976 martial arts kung-fu fighter Hand of Death, wasn’t anything spectacular but it was undoubtedly a harbinger of things to come in the action movie hemisphere.

Amid the Qing Dynasty, a rogue warrior named Shih Shao-Feng is storming the Shaolin temples and training camps on a genocidal reign of terror to rid China of Shaolin.  Their top student Yun Fei (Doran Tan) is tasked with hunting down and eliminating Shih’s murder spree where he befriends blacksmith Tan Feng (Jackie Chan) who has his own axe to grind with Shih.  Along the way they also amass fellow warriors under their wing including a skillful swordsman who vowed to never draw his sword again after killing a prostitute he loved and the group forms a coalition which begins training and fashioning new weaponry to fight Shih and his Lieutenant Tu Ching (Sammo Hung).  Will it be enough to overthrow the ruthless and murderous Shih clan?
While ostensibly a martial arts flick produced by Golden Harvest founder Raymond Chow replete with widescreen fight sequences in large courtyards, lots of kicking and punching, Hand of Death does show (for those who are really looking) early traces of what was yet to come from the Hong Kong action maestro.  Predating the brotherly bonds displayed in Hard Boiled and The Killer by decades while utilizing the then-unrealized martial arts gifts of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, the film is at once a bit of a wuxia with sword fighting and fine arts of the clawed punch while also being a worthy competitor to the surge in Shaw Brothers movies.  In addition to being the only time working with Chan and Hung, this was the first time John Woo worked with Philip Kwok who legendarily left his mark on Woo’s Hard Boiled years later as master gunfighter Mad Dog.

One of two films shot by short-lived cinematographer Yung-Chi Liang, the panoramic widescreen film while not quite displaying the visual motifs fans of John Woo have grown accustomed to nevertheless is a scenic, epic martial arts actioner with breathtaking wide-angled vistas interspersed with the trademark Shaw Brothers fast zooms in and out of action choreography.  The period wuxia score by eventual Woo A Better Tomorrow (and tragically late) composer Joseph Koo is what you would sonically expect from a film of this era with an emphasis on both orchestral renderings and guitar riffs spicing up the action.  

Doran Tan and the ensemble cast is generally solid though most eyes will be on Jackie Chan as the lowly but noble (and very young) blacksmith and Sammo Hung’s bucktoothed Lieutenant with a shit-eating grin.  Having seen Hung in other films, the caricature being played comes as a shock as he juts his top rows of teeth forward, making one wonder if he wore false teeth for the gag.  Chan was unknown at the time of filming outside of being a skillful stuntman and though he took some punches that knocked him out and nearly cost him his eyesight, he’s fantastic in Woo’s film.

Though the film cemented Woo’s reputation as a demanding director who preferred his actors do their own stunts over doubles, Hand of Death or Countdown in Kung Fu as it was renamed in other territories was a moderate success for the then-fledgling Golden Harvest production company.  While not as strong as some of the other more renowned wuxia out there and certainly nowhere near what John Woo and his creative collaborators Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung would go off and do on their separate ways, it is nevertheless exciting to see the three having worked together at all.  
Three of the most important action movie figures in Hong Kong let alone global cinema Eastern and Western working in unison to create not the greatest kick-and-punch action fighter out there but certainly a serviceably solid one at best littered with traces of what would or would not come from these guys in the near future. 

--Andrew Kotwicki