The Hand of Death [少林門] (1976)
AKA Countdown in Kung Fu, Dragon Forever, Strike of Death, Shao Lin Men
Starring Dorian Tan, James Tin Jun, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, John Woo, Chu Ching, Yeung Wai, Wilson Tong, Gam Kei-Chu, Ko Keung
Directed by John Woo
From what I could gather, The Hand of Death was actually made well before New Fist of Fury, but for some reason it didn’t get released until after. According to his autobiography, Jackie Chan had made this film and then moved in with his parents in Australia, taking jobs as a construction worker. Months later, he received a telegram asking him to be the lead in New Fist of Fury. His father allowed it on one condition: that Jackie had a two-year time limit to “make it,” or else Chan must come back for good. And two years after New Fist of Fury, Chan had indeed become a star. But not with this film (and also not with Lo Wei), so I’ll hold that story for later!
The story in The Hand of Death is simple, yet multilayered and oddly structured. At the heart of the film is the often-told struggle between the Shaolin Temple and the Manchu. In this version, an evil warlord names Shih Shao Feng controls the region with an iron fist (not a literal one), and his group of eight badass bodyguards. The Shaolin priests know that he is looking to intercept a man named Zhang Yi (John Woo) who holds a map important to the cause, and who must not be allowed to land in enemy hands. So they send Yung Fei (Dorian Tan) to save Zhang Yi and kill Shih Shao Feng. Along the way there’s a number of sidetracks and flashbacks as new characters are introduced, but that’s the gist of it. The way characters were introduced and given ample time felt like a wuxia film to me, while the rest of the film is definitely straight-up kung fu.
The Hand of Death was John Woo’s fourth film, but it comes off as something much more mature than that might seem. Woo was a rare young director in Hong Kong, only 27 at the time of this film, and his time in the industry was also rather short. He had spent about two years as an assistant director under Chang Cheh at Shaw Brothers (roughly 1972-1973) and The Hand of Death shows that he was not only ready to make films on his own, but that he learned rather well from the master. The Hand of Death feels like it could’ve been a Chang Cheh film with its themes of heroic bloodshed & brotherhood, and it’s made nearly as competently. This is also something of the film’s downfall as it doesn’t have its own distinct identity, as Woo had yet to develop his own personal style. You can see him shaping and changing the standard Shaw Brother shooting style to suit his budding creativity though, for instance instead of using the traditional snap zooms, Woo opts for slower, metered zooms that give the film a different flow and feel. But even with these slight variations and touches that Woo adds, it still feels derivative to a degree and not completely his own.
With that out of the way: The Hand of Death is a great kung fu movie. It isn’t regarded as such (at least as far as I know), and it definitely has its issues, but the fact that a movie with fights this good is only regarded as a middle-level kung fu movie says a lot about the high bar set by the genre greats. But for me, coming off of watching loads of earlier, less exciting films, The Hand of Death was pretty great. Filled with exciting fight after exciting fight, the film features a lot for fans to sink their teeth into. And speaking of teeth, Sammo Hung wears a set of big, fake teeth the entire movie! It’s worth watching for that alone. Sammo also gets a number of good fights in, too!
The Jackie content is rather light as he’s only a supporting character, but he’s arguably the most important supporting good guy (and Sammo is the same for the villain team). After his character is introduced, he gets a couple of quick moments to show the well-loved comedic faces that would serve him well throughout the bulk of his career. Later in the film, he’s featured in two wonderful fights wielding a staff. I’m pretty sure this was the first time (or at least the first major time) where Jackie’s on-screen actions were choreographed by Sammo Hung, so it’s interesting to see how Jackie is utilized in The Hand of Death compared with Jackie’s prior films. Growing up together, Sammo was intimately familiar with what Jackie was capable of and it shows. The fights are fast and showcase Chan’s precise movement very well. Chan’s agility rarely comes into play (more the character’s fault than the choreography’s), but it’s the right choice for this film as we can’t have the supporting guy stealing the show, now can we?
In the lead we have Dorian Tan, affectionately known by fans as “Flash Legs” with good reason. This dude can kick! It’s ironic that such an incredible kicker would have his big breakthrough role in a movie called The Hand of Death, but it doesn’t diminish his strength as a kicker one bit. I’ve gotten so used to seeing the old school methods of fighting in the early Shaw films, where the actors weren’t generally martial artists beforehand, so the sheer force of Tan’s kicks were immense here. I felt like I was the one receiving them! Tan is truly amazing and any list of the best on-screen kickers would be wrong not to include him.
The film’s story does muddle about during the first 40 minutes or so, but once it hits the mid-way point it’s pretty much smooth sailing through training sequences, shots of Jackie Chan forging badass weapons and furious martial arts battles, so whatever slowness the story has is totally worth it. Woo’s focus on telling a deep story, along with the intense action reminds me of the best Chang Cheh films where the emotional currents run deep and are punctuated with thrilling explosions of meaningful violence. Woo isn’t up to that level just yet, but he’s closer than you’d think such a fresh-faced director could get.
I’d definitely recommend The Hand of Death to old school kung fu fans and Jackie fans willing to accept him in a smaller role. If you don’t go in with a Jackie Chan expectation, you should find a lot to like here. Oh, and this is also the first movie where Jackie, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah all appear together, but Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah are only background extras so this is something of a misleading distinction. Even still, it’s totally worth watching and it’s easily the best of the Jackie films so far!
Next up in this chronological journey through the films of Jackie Chan: 1976’s The Killer Meteors! It’s really a Jimmy Wang Yu movie with Jackie Chan in a limited role as a villain, but it’s still significant enough to include in the series. And besides, when I watch it this time I’ll actually know who Jimmy Wang Yu is! I didn’t have much of a clue about him in my teenage years. But more on that in that review!