In 1973, there was a new rage in American pop culture: kung fu. Along with Bruce Lee's smash hit "Enter The Dragon", and the "Kung Fu" TV series starring David Carradine (1972-75), Director Cheng Chang Ho's "Five Fingers of Death" aka King Boxer was one of the main films that kicked open the doors to the kung fu craze. Since 1973, audiences around the world have seen all kinds of martial arts movies. From the great 70s Shaw Brothers kung fu films to Jackie Chan to the modern Thai martial arts film Ong Bak (2003). When I was a little kid in the early 80s, I got my first taste of kung fu while watching a UHF TV show called "Black Belt Theater". I saw all kinds of great Shaw Brothers films and even some cool 3-D kung fu films as well. There was an old kung fu master who hosted the show. He would introduce the films and talk about the actors and styles of kung fu used in the movies being shown. Well, since those days of yesteryear Ive seen all kinds of kung fu films and theyve been part of my regular film watching world. Theres something very unique about kung fu films. When you watch them you get the urge to train to be a kung fu master and talk in dubbed sentences. I think thats why audiences love these films so much. For an hour or two you are there fighting along with the stars of the films and recreating their moves and dialogue. Whether its Lo Lieh, Bruce Lee, Jimmy Wang Yu, Gordon Liu or Jackie Chan, you want to be like them and kick ass on all the bad guys out there. They have a certain energy, quirkiness and vitality that you cant get in other action films.
Five Fingers of Death tells the story of a young martial arts student named Chao Chi Hao (Lo Lieh). Chao lives with his adopted father and his niece Yin Yin whom he both loves very much. One night while walking through his village the old man Sing is attacked by a vicious group of thugs led by the evil baldheaded Wang. The old man fends off the attack, but barely makes it. When Chao and Yin Yin hear of the attack they run to Sings aid and like the wimps they are Wang and his crew take off. Back at home Sing explains to Chao that hes getting old now and he cant fight like he used to. Sing wants Chao to go with a family friend to a school to train. The school is owned by Chen Chin Pei. Chen Chin Pei is a kung fu master who can train Chao to be one of the best around. Chao doesnt want to leave but after Sing tells him he must win the kung fu tournament so Min Dong Chen and his thugs like Wang dont take over the province and ruin everyones lives. Chao then agrees to go.
We get a closer look at how much of a scumbag Wang is, when he encounters a beautiful young girl singing in the village. This girl is actually Chen Chin Pei's daughter. So Wang walks up to her and tries to get her to come back to meet Min Dong Chen. When she refuses, Wang grabs her and she pulls away again and runs off to a local bar. She runs over to our hero Chao who is relaxing having something to eat and drink. Chao sees shes in trouble and when Wangs thugs rush over to Chao, he doesnt even know what they want before they start trying to kick his ass. Chao fights off the thugs and shows his skills as a fighter. Even though hes not that great yet, he has potential. Afterwards, Chao and Chen Chin Pei's daughter leave the town and take a carriage through the countryside to Chen Chin Pei's school. Theres some heat between the two while they camp out that night. We can see the girl has the hots for Chao.
When Chao arrives at the school, Chen Chin Pei tests his martial arts skills, but he quickly sees that Chao isnt a very skilled fighter yet. He tells Chao he will give him a job working in the kitchen until he feels he is ready to train with the rest of the school. Theres some great scenes with Chao carrying buckets of water. Chen Chin Pei trains him by throwing things at him while he carries the water and Chao ends up falling over. Chao then tries to break a piece of wood with his hand, but when he strikes it and instead breaks his hand, Chen Chin Pei laughs at him mockingly. With an anger, Chao wacks the log again, this time breaking it. Chen Chin Pei throws spears at Chao the next day as hes carrying more water and this time Chao flips up into the air catching each spear. Chen Chin Pei is impressed and can see Chao is learning fast. He accepts him into the school to train.
We meet another young martial arts named Chen Lang who challenges a local fighter for some money. Chen Lang wins but before he leaves, he is met by Min Dong Chen a respected and feared local chieftain who owns his own martial arts school. Min asks Chen to join his school to train for the upcoming tournament. Min and his son Chin Sun know that if he can bring Chen Lang onboard Chen Chin Peis students will have a good chance of losing. Chen Lang agrees to sign on with Min. Now they have a secret weapon.
Back at Chen Chin Pei's school, Chao is training to be the best he can be. One night Chao goes out to get some wine for one of his fellow pupils. While at the local bar, he runs into Chen Lang and Min Dong Chens students. They call out to Chao and make fun of him calling him a stinky country boy. Chen Lang walks up to Chao and pours water on him and then takes his wine flask and throws it in the air. Chao flips into the air and manages to catch the flask using his skills, but doesnt fight Chen Lang, instead he just calmly walks away. When the students back at Chen Chin Peis school hear about this, they see Chao as a wuss and look down on him.
Chen Chin Pei calls on Chao to talk privately. What he tells him surprises him. Chen tells Chao he has considered him one of his best students and he wants him to learn the secret "Iron Fist" style. He gives Chao a secret book so he can study the method. He instructs Chao to remember to never use the Iron Fist for anything but honorable intentions. Chao agrees to this and begins to ready his body for the secret method by dipping his hands in hot burning sand. When one of Chaos fellow students challenges him to a spar, we can see Chao is beginning to show signs of emitting his invicible "Iron Fist" style. Whenever Chao begins to use it, we hear a loud siren like noise (the opening of Quincy Jones' Ironside TV show theme) and his hands glow firey red. One of the reasons I love Chang Cheh's heroes is because they always have some unique sound/visual effect that starts when they start to fight.
When Min Dong Chen hears that Chao is learning the Iron Fist style, he knows he must do something to stop Chao from entering the tournament right away. One day while Chao is walking along the country road, one of his fellow students tells him someone wants to meet him under a tree nearby in the woods. When Chao arrives he is jumped by Chen Lang and a group of Min Dong Chen's thugs including two new hired Japanese recruits (seen as a dispicable act in Chinese culture). They wrap Chaos arms around a tree and proceed to break his hands with hard sticks. Chaos hands are now ruined and hes finished as far as the tournament goes.
Chao is discovered passed out by Chen Chin Peis daughter as they drive down a dirt road. They bring Chao back to the school and wrap his hands up in bandages. Chao is very distressed because he cant do anything else. He has been studying martial arts his whole life. After awhile, Chao's hands begin to heal, but hes not able to help Chen Chin Pei with Min Dong Chen, Chen Lang and his bullies. While Chao is recovering, Min Dongs men engage in a fight and rip out one of Chao's fellow students eyeballs so he cant see. When Chen Lang sees this, he realizes that Min Dong is too cruel for him to work for. On the country road, Chen Lang runs up to Chao and tells him hes sorry for everything he did before to him. He warns Chao to look out for trouble. With noone left to fight for him, Min Dong Chen is now going to lose the tournament.
Chao fights off Min Dongs men long enough to train once again to enter the big martial arts tournament. Chao shows his incredible fighting skills to all of the attendees and wins!! While the entire place cheers Chao and throws him up in the air, the defeated Min Dong walks over to Chen Chin Pei and seems to be humbled by his opponents honor and skill. Chen Chin Pei is then stabbed by the two faced bastard Min Dong Chen. Chao sees his teacher Chen Chin Pei has been stabbed and rushes over to him. Chao knows theres only one thing left to do: strike back! He confronts Min Dong Chen's students at the school and fights them all using his incredible Iron Fist style. Chao tears through them, and he even fights the two Japanese thugs who come at him with samurai swords. Since Chaos hands are made of Iron and he can now even fend off sharp metal swords and knives. When Chao confronts Min Dong Chen, like the coward he is, Min Dong kills himself with a large knife spraying blood everywhere. Chao saves Min Dongs son Chen Sun for last and while fighting Chen Sun he even punches right through a large tree!! Chao kicks his ass several times, blasting him right through the wooden walls in the village (The Big Boss Style!). When Chao finishes Chen Sun off, his main squeeze Yin Yin is there waiting for him and we see Chao has won this fight and he walks with his two friends into the sunset.
Five Fingers of Death is one of the top kung fu films ever made. Its a very special film that was one of the biggest international hits which ushered in Kung Fu to America. It has everything you want in a great kung fu film: lots of excellent kung fu fighting, great characters (Lo Lieh rules in this!), supercool sound FX (that awesome Ironside theme!)and great direction by Chang Chang Ho. Every kung fu film fan should have a copy of this film!! A Grindhouse classic!
Reviewed by Popeye Pete - 5/28/07