Hand of Death is a finger-pinched, claw punch of kung fu quality from the past. Written and directed by John Woo back in 1976, it’s long before John Travolta was a gleaming in his eye - but he was already proving his muscle as an action director of note. His take on the period martial arts movie is just as winning as his gangland and action epics. Although he’s not the only star performing here.

Tan Tao-Liang’s highly trained Shaolin disciple, Yun Fei, is on a mission for a show down with James (Game of Death) Tien’s evil Shih Shao-Feng to avenge the sacking of his temple and the brutal murder of his master. Along the way he is joined by or locks limbs with no less than Jackie Chang, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. It’s a role call that should whet any martial arts film enthusiast’s appetite – and no one fails to deliver. Everyone has a chance to shine in the numerous fights that ensue.

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James Tien makes a great pantomime baddie, with a deadly moustache and a lethal technique at his disposal and Sammo has exuberant, scowling fun as one of his lead henchmen. Young Jackie Chan excels as an acrobatic fighter and weapon-wielder whilst getting to exercise his by now traditional funny bone when he becomes Tan’s side kick. A skinny Woo even gets in on the acting towards the bone-crunching finale, but wisely leaves the fighting to the professionals. The star, though, is Tan Tao-Liang. A credible hero, he invests his character with a passion and a visible conscience as well as a cool calm and cuts an archetypal figure strolling across the ancient feudal countryside – and his fighting skills are truly excellent, well exercised in numerous drawn out sequences with his high-kicking justly earning him the moniker ‘Flash Legs’.

The simple plot checks off all the right genre requirements: honourable missions, lone swordsmen, allegiances formed, conspiracies revealed, meetings in secret, personal vendettas, training sequences, fighting styles venerated, fearsome punch combinations encountered. And, of course, regular bouts of exhilarating combat in various arenas with the heroes taking on multiple victims from all angles.

Woo’s idiosyncratic touches are in evidence, from superbly choreographed fights with expert editing, to exuberant slow-mo sequences of energetic kicks and swished weapons, to vengeful honour and innocent man compelled by his duty. No white doves for the moment, though.

It’s all committed with style, serious-faced conviction and panache to make this a standout classic from the genre, showing any newcomers where the likes of modern fare such as Hero and House Of Flying Daggers find their heritage.

Reviewed on: 11 Apr 2007
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Quality period kung fu with some modern day masters.
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Director: John Woo

Writer: John Woo

Starring: Tan Tao-Liang, James Tien, Jackie Chang, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, John Woo

Year: 1976

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Hong Kong


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House Of Flying Daggers