Kicking Off A Trend: FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (Warner Brothers 1972)

When FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH first hit the local multiplex back in the day, everybody in the neighborhood was kung-fu fighting, throwing chops and roundhouse kicks at each other, trying to be like star Lo Lieh. Bruce Lee’s movies hadn’t yet made it our way, but David Carradine’s KUNG FU was must-see TV for every adolescent boy (and some of the cooler girls). Pretty soon  chop-sockey action spread all over the city’s theaters, but it was FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH that reached New Bedford, MA first, and has always held a special place in my heart.

Hong Kong action star Lo Lieh plays Chao Chih-Hao, who’s sent to Shen Chin-Pei’s school by his mentor to train further and defeat Ming Dun-Shun’s “gangsters” in a martial arts tournament. Chih-Hao rescues damsel in distress Yen Chu Hung from some bad guys along the way, and though she comes on to him, his heart belongs to his mentor’s daughter Sung Ying Ying. Arriving at the school, Chih-Hao is mercilessly ridden by his teachers and fellow students, especially jealous Han Lung, but he keeps his head down and persists in his studies.

Dun-Shun’s toughest dude Chin Lang comes to the school and threatens Chin-Pei, beating the crap out of all the students and giving Chin-Pei a “dishonorable blow” for good measure. When Chih-Hao hears of this, he goes to the local bar and, after pouring wine over Lang’s head, engages in a fast and furious fight, emerging victorious. Chin-Pei is so impressed by his bravery he decides to teach Chih-Hao the lethal secret technique known as “The Iron Fist”!! Chih-Hao’s hands turn red whenever he gears up to use it, and the siren from the theme from IRONSIDE plays!

The bad guys get wind of this and import some brutal Japanese mercenaries to shake things up.  Han Lung, still jealous of Chih-Hao and Chu Hung’s feelings toward him, sets our hero up, as the mercs waylay him and ruthlessly break both his hands! Nursed back to health by Chu Hung, he trains harder than ever to master the way of “The Iron Fist” and represent the school in the tournament.

The almost non-stop violence and action has a poetic quality to it. Bodies fly through the air with the greatest of ease, and every fight is a well choreographed ballet. There’s also lots of gore, as when Chih-Hao’s old teacher is killed by the mercs in a bloody good scene, or when Han Lung, having failed to stop Chih-Hao, has his eyes ripped out by Dun-Shun’s rotten son. He gets his “eye for an eye” revenge later in a scene shot in a darkened room, reminiscent of American film noir. The final tournament battle’s a dilly, and so’s the ending, an action packed dance of violence sure to please any kung-fu fan.

Producer Sir Run Run Shaw had been involved with movies since 1927, and his Shaw Brothers studio was the largest in Southeast Asia. This was their first stateside hit, and opened the floodgates for the kung-fu genre here in America. Bruce Lee would soon take over as the world’s #1 Martial Arts star, and stars like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung would follow in his footsteps. But FIVE FINGER OF DEATH (also known as KING BOXER) is the film that started it all, and it still holds up well today, despite the really bad dubbing. Then again, that’s just part of what makes these chop-sockey movies so much fun!


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