Hand of Death [Shao Lin men] (1976) Review

The 1976 Kung-Fu movie Hand of Death is important for a number of reasons. Not only does it contain early performances from action movie legends Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung but it was written and directed by Wu Yu Sheng better known to Western audiences as John Woo.

Woo revolutionised action movies in the late 80’s and early 90’s with his films A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Bullet in the Head and Hard Boiled bringing a very distinct look and feel to the genre that still remains to this day. Two fisted pistol wielding, slow-mo balletic gun battles and a ton of doves filled Woo’s insane and innovative films and changed how Hollywood made high octane action films ever since.

Sadly his pictures made in the Hollywood system, aside from Face/Off, have never really achieved the cinematic brilliance of his earlier Eastern work however his legacy is still felt and it is interesting to go back to see how he perfected his craft in Hand of Death the fourth feature film of his long career.

For Kung-Fu fans the story will feel wonderfully familiar as we open on the brutal betrayal of the Shaolin by the evil Shih Shao-Feng (James Tien also seen in Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss) who massacres a ton of monks and steals their style for his own nefarious ends.

Many years later the last remaining Shaolin have decided to step out of the shadows and send their top student Yun Fei (Tao-Liang Tan) to extract revenge but his journey is set to be a perilous one. Hated and hunted Yun Fei must find allies if he wants to succeed against Shih Shao-Feng and his team of bodyguards who each employ a different deadly weapon and technique.

Luckily Yun Fei befriends not only a gifted swordsman who hates Shih Shao-Feng as much as the Shaolin master does but also Little Brother Tan Feng played by Jackie Chan who is also out for payback for the time his older sibling was slain by the nasty gang.

Packed with all the elements needed in any Kung-Fun film from the training sequences to extended flashbacks to full on fantastic fights, Hand of Death delivers exactly what you want from the genre all scored with a funky ass soundtrack by Joseph Koo the man behind the soundtracks for The Way of the Dragon and Woo’s A Better Tomorrow.

The fights are brilliant as are the stunts which were handled by Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, along with third “brother” Yuen Biao. For true fans it is fascinating seeing Chan and Hung in such early roles with both stars performances and martial arts shining brilliantly out of the screen.

As Tan Feng, Jackie Chan employs his now trademark slapstick and extreme facial contortions at the start appearing as a comedy aside however his character is far deeper and becomes much more serious as the film progresses transforming into a tragic hero by the end.

As the villainous Shih’s lieutenant Tu Ching, Sammo Hung is a likable low level villain making much more of a role that a lesser actor would have been able too. Both martial arts legends prove why they became so popular and have continued to make movies even up till today.

Released by Eureka Entertainment Hand of Death comes in a Blu-ray box set with another early John Woo movie Last Hurrah for Chivalry both being obscure and largely unseen for many years. Both films are presented in brand new beautiful restorations and packed with extras including audio commentaries on by martial-arts cinema authority Mike Leeder and archival interviews with John Woo.

Watching these films it is easy to see why Woo became such an important and influential director and all the elements of his signature style and flair are on show in a rudimentary form for all to see as well as his continuing obsession with themes of brotherhood, honour and redemption.

Movie Rating: ★

★ ★ ☆ ☆ 



Alex Humphrey

Alex studied film at the University of Kent and went on to work for Universal Pictures in their Post Room gaining an inside look at the movie industry from the very bottom. Constantly writing reviews in everything from local magazines to Hip Hop sites Alex honed his critical skills even spending a brief period as a restaurant critic. Read more

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