Five Fingers of Death (1972)

Genres - Action, Adventure  |   Sub-Genres - Martial Arts  |   Release Date - Dec 2, 1978 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 98 min.  |   Countries - Hong Kong  |   MPAA Rating - R
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King Boxer is not the best kung fu movie the Shaw Brothers put out, but as an early entry it holds up surprisingly well for a genre getting its legs. Rather than incorporate story elements of its wuxia/swordplay precursors, it offers an original plot, with a formula that would be taken up and repeated in subsequent films. Primary among them is the story of two warring kung fu schools, one good and bad, and the tournament at the climax which establishes dominance. The brief section where Chao Chi-Hao (Lo Lieh) must work his way through the ranks of the school would be incorporated into almost the entirety of The 36th Chambers of Shaolin. However, the overall revenge theme is familiar from previous martial arts films. A more unfortunate stereotype perpetuated by this and future films is the Japanese as primitive ape-like villains. Korean director Cheng Chang Ho brings an energetic yet brutal immediacy to the story, which is no doubt the basis of its enthusiastic global response. He frequently opens scenes with gorgeous establishing shots that take full advantage of the color and width of Shawscope. The fight sequences are violent, relentless, and unhindered by the fantastical elements of wuxia. Similarly, the choreography, though lacking in clever invention, is performed with the unpretentious street fighting appeal of a populist hero. Lieh turns in a rather clean cut and bland performance as the leading man (the actor's classic good guy looks are better used as a quietly menacing villain) but Tin Fung as the evil master and Gam Hei Chu as reform-minded mercenary make up the lost charisma. King Boxer drags a bit on what are now tired kung fu cliches, but the punchy spirit that made it popular still survives.