HAND OF DEATH (1976) ★★★★
Hand of Death [IMDB] [HKMDB]
Hong Kong, 1976
Directed by John Woo
Starring Dorian Tan, James Tien, Jackie Chan
The third of four martial arts films John Woo directed during the 1970s, Hand of Death represents a unique gathering of Hong Kong action cinema icons. As well as being made by the man who would become the most acclaimed action director in the world, it also features “brothers” Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao in supporting roles. Even James Tien, known for his appearances in the Bruce Lee films The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972), shows up as the villain of the piece.
Little-seen due to its fairly poor availability in the west, Hand of Death is an intriguing early film for Woo. Significantly, it represents a meeting of the styles associated with two of Hong Kong's most notable studios. Woo made the film for Golden Harvest, and benefited from their opportunities for casting and outdoor shooting. However, in many ways Hand of Death retains the approach the director had learned while working under Chang Cheh for Shaw Brothers during the early 1970s.
While Woo's two previous martial arts projects had been relatively contemporary, the story here concerns one of the most familiar and commonly retold episodes of Chinese martial arts lore: the betrayal of the Shaolin temple. In this case the betrayer is the malevolent Shih Shao Feng, who spends the following ten years acting as a well-protected warlord for the Manchus. A scattered fragment of Shaolin, selects their most promising disciple to assassinate Shih before he can upend their plans to sow rebellion against the Manchu overlords.
That disciple, Yun Fei, is played not by any of the big names in the cast but by “Dorian” Tan Tao-liang. Tan has faded into obscurity now but appeared in a few dozen martial arts films in the late '70s.While not the most charismatic screen presence, Tan displays the superb kicking skills which earned him the nickname “Flash Legs.” In true Woo style, Yun Fei must ally himself with others to succeed: first a vengeful woodcutter who once trained at Shaolin (Jackie Chan) and later a dejected master swordsman (Paul Chang). Jackie looks very young indeed but his flair for combat and physical comedy is already well-developed. Also in 1976, he would win his first major starring role in Lo Wei's New Fist of Fury. For his part, Sammo Hung plays the comically bucktoothed Manchu enforcer Lord Du, while Yuen Biao is relegated mostly to stunts.
In many ways Hand of Death feels like a standard 1970s martial arts film. While produced by Golden Harvest, it maintains much of the style and aesthetic of the Shaw Brothers films Woo had worked on, minus the indoor locations. However, the director's familiarity with Western cinema is clear, as is his deep interest in the ideal of brotherhood as the one authentic shield against corruption. Woo would develop this style firstly in his only other martial arts film of the decade – 1979's Last Hurrah for Chivalry - and later in his heroic bloodshed films during the mid- to late-1980s. In between, he would endure years of working on numerous bawdy comedies for Golden Harvest.
While for many viewers the chief appeal of Hand of Death is to see Woo, Chan, and Hung before any of them reached their prime the film stands up very well on its own terms. The story may be familiar but it provides for plenty of invigorating action which improves as the film goes on; the climactic mass battles and the final showdown between Yun Fei and the evil Shih are excellent. It may not be a true classic, but Hand of Death is easily interesting enough to be worth tracking down.
Compared with some of Woo's early films, Hand of Death is relatively easy to obtain in the UK. Like Last Hurrah for Chivalry and Heroes Shed No Tears, it was released on Region 2 DVD by Hong Kong Legends during the last year or two of the company's life and can be found on eBay. A Hong Kong VCD version also exists for import, but the Region 3 Hong Kong DVD release seems scarce.
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I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.