Tuesday, May 31, 2016

One-Armed Boxer (1972) review


Directed by Jimmy Wang Yu

Jimmy Wang Yu (Tien Lung), Lung Fei (Erh Ku Da Leung), Ma Kei (Master Han Tui), Cindy Tang Hsin (Hsiao Yu), Tin Yau (Master Chao Lau Lu), Shan Mao (TKD expert Tien Chi Yung), Tsai Hung (Chang Ku Chuan), Wong Wing Sang (Pan Tien), Ng Tung-Kiu (Judo expert Kao Chao), Cheung I-Kuei (Tibetan Lama Cho Lo), Su Chen-Ping (Tibetan Lama Cho Fu), Pan Chun-Lin (Yoga Master Mura Singh), Kuan Hung (Thai Boxer Nai Chai), Blacky Ko (Thai Boxer Mi Sao)

"The man's a crippled one-armed.... so what the hell's to worry about?! This time, I'm gonna make sure the little bastard dies!"--grammatically challenged Tough Guy talk from Kung Fu Dracula.

The Short Version: Wang Yu once more directs himself and once again he's minus an appendage in his second non-Shaw Crippled Combat film (right behind 1971s ZATOICHI MEETS THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN) after bolting from the company over "creative differences". Whereas THE CHINESE BOXER was focused with an assured hand (haha), THE ONE ARMED BOXER is Wang Yu unrestrained and unleashed. Wang combines two of his biggest hits, THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967) and THE CHINESE BOXER (1970) to create what is essentially a near shot-for-shot remake of the latter film--his directorial debut. A 90 minute Funhouse ride with Kung Fu fighting, genre and Drive-in lovers will get their fill of double bacon corndogs and all the funnel cake you can eat. One of the greasiest fist and kick flicks ever made.

The stoic Chen Lung intervenes when members of the Hook Gang bully a kindly bird salesman. Riling the evil Master Chao, the teacher of the Hook Gang, they go to Master Han's school for some payback. Resoundingly defeated, Master Chao isn't taking the loss lightly, hiring a motley clutch of martial artists from around the globe to help him wipe out Master Han, destroy his businesses, and kill all his students and workers. After Japanese fighters beat Han's brick factory and dyeing mill workers to a pulp, they move on to the school and kill everyone in sight. Chen Lung has his arm chopped off by a brutish Okinawan fighter with vampire fangs, but manages to survive and trains till he becomes a one-man, one-armed killing machine. 

Where both THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967) and THE CHINESE BOXER (1970) were played straight, ONE ARMED BOXER (1972) dares you to take it seriously. Director Wang Yu goes out of his way to make the most outrageous movie imaginable. Once again he writes the screenplay in what amounts to a complete do-over of THE CHINESE BOXER with some minor narrative tweaking. This production (a co-pro between the Cheng Ming and Golden Harvest Companies) plays out almost as a scene for scene replication; but whereas the Shaw Brothers hit was reasonably grounded in reality, Wang goes for sheer excess--pure Kung Fu exploitation in his Taiwanese venture.

As insane as some Shaw Brothers movies could be (predominantly in the imaginative ways people die), Wang Yu reduces the very fist-and-kick template he created to near parody. Fantasy elements indigenous to the Wuxia genre were now married off to the Kung Fu film.... a strange relationship that birthed many memorable movies that were both celebrated and condemned in what is arguably the most stigmatized film genre. ONE ARMED BOXER is truly an off-kilter experience. It's a film that hasn't the budget nor polish of the Shaw's at that time, instead relying on raw, creative excess to leave its mark.

For instance, in THE CHINESE BOXER, Wang Yu's Lei Ming toughens his hands by repeatedly plunging them into a huge wok full of heated iron pellets. For ONE ARMED BOXER, Wang's Tien Lung doesn't even bother with the pellets and simply thrusts his single digit into a pot of burning coals and doesn't let things like third degree burns dissuade him. With this picture, Wang Yu has taken the tortured, macho Chang Cheh archetype and turned it into a geekshow attraction.

Elsewhere, the variety of martial killers is as diverse as any of your finer Chinese buffets; you have everything from Japanese bone-breakers, to Thai kicking specialists, to a Yoga master who can stab himself with a dagger and no wound or blood to show for it. The prime Japanese antagonist is basically the Lo Lieh character from THE CHINESE BOXER but with long hair and vampire fangs..... yes, VAMPIRE FANGS. The aforementioned Yoga killer has this inexplicably deadly attack where he walks on his hands. To show he's the baddest man in turn of the century China, Wang Yu walks not on his one hand, but on a single fingertip! If that weren't ridiculous enough, you have a Tibetan Lama who make himself blow up like a balloon in an exaggerated Qi Gong display. 

In contrast, THE CHINESE BOXER featured standard Japanese villains that had little nuances to distinguish one from the other but nothing near the level of absurdity on display in this madness. Wang's insanity meter would be off the charts in 1976 when he resurrected the character in ONE ARMED BOXER 2, aka ONE ARMED BOXER VS. THE FLYING GUILLOTINE, aka MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1976), one of the most popular old school Kung Fu features ever devised. 

ONE ARMED BOXER was a hit, but did about half of what THE CHINESE BOXER did. The more famous sequel made a bit more money; although his other one-armed sword-slingers (like THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMEN in 1976 and ONE ARMED CHIVALRY FIGHTS AGAINST ONE ARMED CHIVALRY in 1977) produced throughout the 1970s were obscured by more slickly made productions and changing trends.

As for the martial arts sequences, there's not a lot of variance despite the array of colorful martial malefactors. Tang Chia's CHINESE BOXER choreo was a lot more powerful in execution than Chen Shih Wei's interchangeable action motif. It's enhanced with gimmicks as opposed to adherence to the style on display. For many, these outlandish contrivances will be the attraction.... and this movie is filled with those of the sideshow variety. This wasn't lost on the film's US distributors, National General Pictures, who marketed it with the type of carnivalesque zeal the likes of which you can't find anymore.

The fighting is nearly non-stop (taking up 90% of the running time if not more!). Characterization is pulverized like any of the dozens of extras in the film. For instance, when Wang Yu loses his arm (severed by a Karate chop!), there's no period of brooding as he's nursed back to health; or moments of doubt like, "How can I beat Japanese Dracula?" Instead we get a series of freeze-frames and it's right on to the torture training sessions--Wang Yu burning his arm to a cinder followed by pounding it with a large stone to make sure those nerve endings are sufficiently dead. From there, the climax entails Wang Yu single-handedly (haha) clobbering his eight opponents in and around volcanic pits. Naturally, some folks get thrown into them.

One of the most famous films in the Golden Harvest catalog, when the company was formed in 1970, they offered a tempting alternative to Shaw's old Hollywood style operation. Promising more freedom right off the bat, GH lured away some of Shaw's other talent including actors like Chang Yi; who, like Wang Yu, broke his contract with the company. Other big names the Shaw's would lose to their competition around this time was Bruce Lee and Michael Hui. 

Throughout the 1970s, Wang Yu would continue to make movies modeled on his popular Shaw Brothers films. Known for his short fuse, he liked doing things his way. Despite a big success with his first outing as a director, Wang felt the need to bolt from the studio and abruptly exited Shaw's gates in March of 1970--roughly three years before his contract expired in January of 1973. Unsuccessful lawsuits followed although the one that did succeed prevented him from making movies in Hong Kong till his contract expiration date. Wang Yu didn't sit idly by, though; he made some two dozen movies outside of HK in the interim. 

Not to be outdone, in October of 1970, Shaw announced a new installment in the ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN series--THE NEW ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN--this one to star Movie King David Chiang as the tortured knight who loses his arm. Wang Yu's first post-Shaw picture was another Karate-styled movie with THE BRAVE AND THE EVIL (1971); a superlative, independent effort in which he was again the director. Intensifying this years long feud, Wang Yu cloned various SB movies till near the close of the decade, returning to the one-armed well a few more times till 1977. He was reunited with the man who made him famous in 1984, starring alongside many other Chang Cheh alums in the Chang charity movie SHANGHAI 13

Taiwanese martial artist Lung Fei had played background parts in previous movies, but landed the lead bad guy for the first time as what is ostensibly "Kung Fu Dracula". He would work with Wang Yu on many movies afterward, eventually becoming one of the busiest actors in Kung Fu cinema. Having a great look for villains he played good guys on rare occasions like the Joseph Kuo favorite, BORN INVINCIBLE (1977). He got a second life of sorts in America, appearing in chunks of the horrendous Steve Odekerk crap-fest KUNG POW! ENTER THE FIST (2002). Odekerk took the Wang Yu directed TIGER AND CRANE FISTS (1976), gutted it, shot new scenes that were supposed to be funny, and re-dubbed the old footage a la WHAT'S UP, TIGER LILY? (1966). Some of Lung's best work is seen in Wang Yu's FOUR REAL FRIENDS (1974), Chang Cheh's THE SHAOLIN AVENGERS (1976), Wang's sequel RETURN OF THE CHINESE BOXER (1977), THE 7 GRANDMASTERS (1978), and SEVEN STEPS OF KUNG FU (1979).

Another prolific martial arts movie actor was Shan Mao. Often paired with Lung Fei, he appeared in many of Wang Yu's movies, and always as a villain. Frequently playing Japanese bad guys, in ONE ARMED BOXER he plays a Taekwondo specialist in Kung Fu Dracula's Legion of Doom. Much like Lung Fei, Shan Mao played a good guy at least once in Chang Cheh's exceptionally poignant THE NEW SHAOLIN BOXERS (1976). He worked on a handful of other Shaw Brothers pictures like the co-pro with Taiwanese Jih Mao Film Company, NA CHA AND THE SEVEN DEVILS (1973), completed in 1970; and another Shaw co-pro in THE CHAMPION (1973). Chang Cheh paired him once more with Lung Fei as two of the main villains in the underrated, aforementioned epic THE SHAOLIN AVENGERS (1976). One of his best, and biggest roles was as the traitorous monk in Chang Cheh's two hour chronicle SHAOLIN TEMPLE (1976). His last major roles came in Cheh's unfunny comedy Kung Flop THE MAGNIFICENT WANDERERS (1977) and the ill-conceived war picture, NAVAL COMMANDOS (1977). Sadly, both Shan Mao's career, and his life, would be cut short on the night of March 14th, 1977 when an inebriated Shan assaulted a taxi driver who then fatally stabbed him with a screwdriver.

On a lighter note, one of the Tibetan Lamas is played by Cheung I-Kuei (above at right). He was a martial arts choreographer for two films Wang Yu didn't direct--THE DESPERATE CHASE (1971) and THE GALLANT (1972); as well as an actor in dozens of other movies. ONE ARMED BOXERs action designer, Chen Shih Wei (see insert), likewise appears in front of the camera as a student who challenges one of the villains and gets killed for his trouble.

If you're looking for something of genuine substance, Wang Yu's directorial debut, THE CHINESE BOXER, is a great place to start; or even other works he helmed such as THE BRAVE AND THE EVIL (1971), THE SWORD (1971), BEACH OF THE WAR GODS (1973) and FOUR REAL FRIENDS (1974). However, if it's unbridled insanity you seek, you can't go wrong with ONE ARMED BOXER. Fans of unintentionally farcical dubbing will have a grand time watching. It's a cheap drink with a strong kick; make it a double with its more famous sequel for maximum bliss... and no regrets the next morning.

This review is representative of the Japanese Twin/Paramount bluray. Specs and Extras: 1080p widescreen 2.35:1; Japanese, Mandarin, and English Audio; original Chinese trailer; running time: 1:32:36.

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