The Thunderbolt Fist [霹靂拳] (1972)
Starring Shih Szu, Chuen Yuen, James Nam Gung-Fan, Wong Gam-Fung, Tung Lam, Fang Mian, Chen Feng-Chen, Gam Kei-Chu, Wong Ching-Ho, Chu Gam, Kam Kong, Gai Yuen, Shum Lo, Hsu Yu, Kong Lung, Chow Yu-Hing, Austin Wai Tin-Chi, Stephen Tung Wai
Directed by Chang Il-Ho
Expectations: Moderate, but I’m pumped because I haven’t seen a Shaw film in months.
Up until the last 20 minutes or so, The Thunderbolt Fist is a fairly boring and average Shaw Brothers film. Since I’m a huge fan, I still had a good time watching it, but this definitely isn’t the film to jump into the Shaw Brothers on. I shake my head once again as to how Shaw films like this find their way to a US DVD release, while legitimate classics are still only available in Hong Kong. Anyway, The Thunderbolt Fist!
Since this isn’t an innovative film, The Thunderbolt Fist is a pretty basic Chinese vs. Japanese tale. It begins with the ridiculously evil Japanese riding into a quiet Chinese town. They assault the townspeople, take over their businesses and strong-arm their way into controlling the supply lines, forcing the Chinese to buy and sell their goods from them. When a lowly picker of ginseng pleads for mercy, the wicked Japanese swordsman chops off his hands in one quick swipe!
The good guys of the film are a small group of Chinese martial artists who fled during the raid to a mountain cave. There they dedicate themselves to training their skills to the point of being able to take out their Japanese oppressors. The key to this plan is the pre-teen son of the martial arts teacher who was, of course, murdered in quite dramatic and bloody fashion during the escape. The son was in possession of the school’s secret kung fu manual detailing the devastating Thunder Fist technique (as it was called in the subtitles), but for some reason he doesn’t take it with him to the cave. Instead, he entrusts it to his girlfriend who’s staying in the town. Flash-forward 15 or so years and the kid is all grown up and ready to go back to the town to claim the manual and learn the Thunder Fist technique.
So with the movie titled after this so-called ultimate technique, a fair amount of expectation comes along with it. The fact that it takes most of the movie to build up to its reveal only serves to intensify this. And when that build up isn’t anything all that special or interesting, I don’t think it’s wrong to hope that, if nothing else, the big Thunder Fist skill is at least something cool. Maybe I’m just spoiled. Maybe I should self-lobotomize the part of my brain that holds the memories of amazing techniques featured in other martial arts films. I don’t know. In any case, the Thunder Fist does not hold up its end of the bargain.
But all is not lost! A “fairly boring and average Shaw film” is still a Shaw film, so that means it’s still fun and entertaining. There are quite a few fights throughout the film, and they are mostly of pretty good quality (choreographed by Leung Siu-Chung). There are a couple of slow, stinker moves, as well as some “horribly edited because we’re cutting between actors and stunt doubles” moments, but for the most part the fights are fun. As the final act approaches the fights only get better, too, and by the end of the film you’ll have been treated to a couple of highly entertaining, exciting brawls, the last of which containing a couple of outstanding moments of gore.
For Shaw fans already dyed in the wool, The Thunderbolt Fist is definitely one to check out, if only for its final act’s fights. For everyone else, there are better places to start, or continue, your journey into classic Hong Kong martial arts films.
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the non-Shaw Bruce Lee film, The Way of the Dragon, which will also finish off 1972 for this series! See ya then! (Hopefully sooner rather than later.)