The Qing Government are cracking down on Shaolin Temples across the land, and one of their chief operatives is Shih Shao-Feng (James Tien) who ten years ago betrayed one of the most important temples, leading to a massacre there. Now a group of Shaolin disciples have been in training for five years to fight back, and one of their number, Yun Fei (Tao-liang Tan) undergoes gruelling training to emerge as the prime candidate to strike out on his own and accept an important mission. His master tells him to seek out Shih Shao-Feng and see that a vital map detailing the Qing authorities' bases falls into the right hands. Yet as he bids farewell to Yun Fei, the master isn't sure that one man will be enough...
And he's right, so why didn't they send the whole bunch of fighters we saw in the training sequence under the credits along with him? I guess it's down to the fact that Yun Fei is essentially a spy, and has to work undercover, but he soon finds out he can't do everything by himself. Hand of Death, or Shao Lin Men as it was known originally, was a notable kung fu epic in some ways, although not because of its strictly by the numbers plotting. Look at the cast and you'll see the "Three Brothers" of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung (also the choreographer here and boasting huge teeth into the bargain) and Yuen Biao were assembled before the cameras for the first time.
Although they are strictly in supporting roles, and not teaming up at any point either, the trio add colour to characters that border on the uninspired. Also notable is the man who wrote and directed the film, one John Woo, in his seventies phase of traditional martial arts stories, with the barest minimum of slow motion and not a dove in sight. One thing that marks it out as his work is the sense of camaraderie between the fighters Yun Fei eventually assembles, although the opening apart, there's no real betrayal theme, no plot involving two friends battling on different sides, nothing like that.
What happens is that Yun Fei walks all the way to Shih Shao-Feng's location, with a lift from Chan who he's helped along the way alleviating the strain of his journey and forming a bond between them. At first Chan's character comes across as simple comic relief, but he's hiding a secret and will encounter Yun Fei later on. As for the villain, our hero finds a way of bluffing his entry into his stronghold but once his cover is blown, he discovers he's not the fighter he thought he was after a lengthy period of combat (all the martial arts scenes tend towards the generous) with the henchmen. This means he has to rely on his new found friends, including a swordsman who has disgraced himself by accidentally killing a young woman - what's the betting he will redeem himself before the film ends? Addicts will find much to appreciate here, and Hand of Death has historical significance too. Music by Joseph Koo.
[Hong Kong Legends' Region 2 DVD has an audio commentary and trailers as extras; also worth noting is whoever named the chapters has a sense of humour.]
One of the most influential directors working in the modern action genre. Hong Kong-born Woo (real name Yusen Wu) spent a decade making production-line martial arts movies for the Shaw Brothers before his melodramatic action thriller A Better Tomorrow (1987) introduced a new style of hyper-realistic, often balletic gun violence.
It also marked Woo's first collaboration with leading man Chow-Yun Fat, who went on to appear in a further three tremendous cop/gangster thrillers for Woo - A Better Tomorrow II, The Killer and Hard Boiled. The success of these films in Hong Kong inspired dozens of similar films, many pretty good, but few with Woo's artistry or emphasis on characters as well as blazing action.
In 1993, Woo moved over to Hollywood, with predictably disappointing results. Face/Off was fun, but the likes of Broken Arrow, Windtalkers and Mission: Impossible 2 too often come across as well-directed, but nevertheless generic, studio product. Needs to work with Chow-Yun Fat again, although his return to Hong Kong with Red Cliff proved there was life in the old dog yet.