The Hand Of Death a.k.a. Countdown To Kung Fu a.k.a. Shao Lin men (1976): Breakdown by Kain424
Several martial arts heroes band together to stop the ruthless slaughter of Shaolin monks by an evil warlord.
John Woo performed well enough under his mentor, Chang Cheh, that Golden Harvest gave him a three year contract to make films for them. After The Young Dragons failed to meet their standards and was vigorously re-edited, Woo worked on The Dragon Tamers (if you can see a pattern in the names, it’s because Golden Harvest was still in the midst of attempting to replicate the Bruce Lee success formula) and then was finally able to collect together a hand-picked team for The Hand Of Death. Regardless of the effort put into making the film, HoD still wouldn’t see a release until 1976.
In an effort to cast actors who could perform as well as act, Woo brought in former Tae Kwon Do champion Dorian Tan and Bruce Lee film semi-regular James Tien as the lead and antagonist, respectively. Tien had worked with Woo on The Dragon Tamers and would go on to become an audience favorite in dozens of other films. Tan, however, lacked a certain charm and the looks to remain much of a major star. He manages competently enough, but is overshadowed in every other scene by the formidable presences of his co-stars, even in the dawn their careers.
Of particular note here is Jackie Chan. Chan had attempted to branch out after The Young Dragons, appearing as small roles and extras in several films and even showing up in low-rent semi-porn like All In The Family (James Tien had also shown up in this fluff, though it wasn’t more than a cameo). Woo was able to wrangle Chan again here, but this time Jackie would bring with him Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, marking the first time these three friends would appear in a film together. Hung did most of the Action directing here, with Biao and Chan on the stuntwork.
Performance-wise, Chan comes out looking very impressive. He gets to show his skill with the spear and a bit of his acrobatics as well. Sammo Hung, on the other hand, wears a set of false teeth and tight-fitting silk clothes. While his character is meant as an antagonist, he borders on silly too much of the time in a movie seemingly bent on being taken seriously. It’s a nice early role for him, and Woo gives him some decent characterization scenes as well. Once again though, I can’t help but think his appearance is meant to be laughed at.
The music by Joseph Koo is rather dated now, but it’s interesting to note his relationship to John Woo. They would continue working together on Princess Chang Ping (which would actually see release before this film) and Koo would go on to score one of the more memorable soundtracks in Woo’s A Better Tomorrow.
Woo (who also appears in this film) likes his camera zooms, though of particular interest is his use of slow motion. It’s used on and off in several of the key fights here, but perhaps it should be more so noted that he chooses not to use it for the deciding blow in the final battle. What results is a moment of tension built up through the slow motion technique and dissipated in an instant. But more on that later.
The Hand Of Death isn’t especially great, but one can see the parallels with Woo’s later work. Themes of male bonding and unity abound here, and so does a sense of trust and honor. Scenes of men befriending one another are often contrasted with those of cruelty and betrayal. The movie is ultimately just another stepping stone in the careers of many involved, and is worth a look for that alone.
[HOW BAD-ASS ARE THE MAIN CHARACTERS?]
Dorian Tan is Yun Fei
In addition to telling us he is a bad-ass, Yun Fai’s master also shows us. We see that he trains against multiple opponents using almost every known weapon and fighting style. He can break necks with his wrists, is incredibly acrobatic, and if hung up by his feet, can do a hanging sit up and untie his feet with his teeth. Holy shit.
Jackie Chan is Tan Feng
Seemingly a buffoon, he is actually a martial arts master apparently just by relation. He has mastered the spear and has waited for three years, taking every bit of abuse, just to get close enough to his brother’s killers to exact his revenge. Plus, he takes out an entire enemy stronghold by himself. He’s probably the most bad-ass of the bunch.
Sammo Hung is Lord Du Ching
While his physical appearance pretty much negates most of his accumulated bad-ass points, he shows some serious skills. A one-time betrayer and a failure as a martial arts instructor to the soldiers under his command, he still respects decent fighters and the intelligence of the film’s protagonist. However, he is quick to anger and quicker to act on it. His pride is his ultimate weakness. That and those chompers.
[THE BODY COUNT: 60 (est.)]
The bodycount is pretty impressive here, with a lot of stabbings and people being beaten to death or even having their necks broke. Most of the points go to the bad guys (especially early on), but the good guys do manage to not completely shame themselves. Jackie Chan actually kills 11 people, which you can view HERE.
[MOST SATISFYING ASS-KICKING & DEATH]
Dorian Tan vs. James Tien, round 2.
While every scene featuring Jackie Chan fighting is a real treat, I think the most satisfying battle was the final one. Using all of the moves learned doing his earlier training regiment, Yun Fei finally takes down the powerful Manchu warlord. He crushes the muscles in Shih’s arms to mush but that doesn’t stop the man from one last charge.
But Yun Fei is ready and kicks the bastard right out of the air. He then does a backflip, landing with his knees on either side of his fallen opponent’s head. Squeezing and turning, he slowly breaks the villain’s neck. Pretty nasty.
[DUDESWEAT AND MACHISMO]
As with many John Woo films, the scenes of male bonding come packed with a strong current of homoerotic undertones. In this film especially, these land on the side of overt. A couple of our heroes meet and flirt over tea, with one talking about how long it’s been since he’s last used his sword before sticking it directly in the other’s face.
And then there is the training sequence. In addition to shirtless posing and a bit of hand-to-hand action, our heroes oil up bamboo staffs to strengthen their grips. Only the montage sequence in No Retreat No Surrender and Rocky III rival the over the top gayness on display here.
[EXPLOITATION AND MISOGYNY]
Another frequent theme of John Woo films is his constant placing of women in a narrative’s background. The women of The Hand Of Death are all whores (literally) anyway, but are relegated to backstory sequences and distant references. We do get an extreme close-up of a nipple though.
[EPIC MOMENT AND BEST ONE-LINER]
Tan Feng, played by Jackie Chan, has pretty much just been a silly side character up to this point. While helpful in his own way, he is seen by the others in the film as a bit of a simpleton until Yun Fei is training with his bowstaff to fight with the movie’s antagonist.
Feng watches as he chops wood and finally asks Fei if he is expecting to go against Shih’s sword with the staff. When Fei tells him he is doing just that, Feng grabs the staff mid-strike and chops it in half with his bare hand.
“Your staff is wood. His sword is steel.”
It’s only at this point does Yun Fei realize Tan Feng is far wiser and likely more skilled than he has ever appeared to be. Meanwhile, Feng goes on to make Fei a more suitable, metal staff.
[THE MORAL OF THE STORY]
With loyal friends and the right reasons, you can accomplish anything. And Jackie Chan is a bad-ass, but we already knew that.