A young kung fu hero (Chen Lee) arrives in San Francisco, but has no interest in becoming a servant, washing dishes, doing laundry or any of the usual jobs foisted on Chinese immigrants. He wants to be cowboy and heads for Texas. Sadly, the hardworking hero finds little friendship or employment from the many racist tricksters and gunmen, but his lethal skills make short work of them all. Wealthy land baron, Mr. Spencer (Piero Lulli) hires him to smuggle Mexican slaves, but “Shanghai Joe” rebels when he sees their senseless slaughter. He wins the love of a sultry senorita called Christina (Carla Romanelli), but the vengeful Spencer sends four master gunfighters to bring back his head.
This spaghetti western with a kung fu twist has that grungy, gory, grindhouse vibe viewers either loathe or adore, but also an unusually intelligent and sensitive script. The story musters real sympathy for its kindly, compassionate hero who is ill-treated and abused almost everywhere he goes, before bonding with similarly downtrodden folk (Mexican slaves, women, the elderly). It also features a rare interracial romance, something from which many 21st century action movies still shy away. Little is known about leading man Chen Lee. He makes for noble, unfailingly polite protagonist (never actually referred to as Shanghai Joe, but characters suddenly start calling him Chen Ho in the last ten minutes) and it’s enormously satisfying watching him kick racist ass in super-stylized slow motion. Director Mario Caiano was active in an array of Italian exploitation genres: sword and sandal pictures, cop thrillers, and gialli; and does a fine job imbuing the spaghetti western setting with martial arts mayhem. Action fans should relish the over the top heroics as Joe’s fist drives a nail through a wooden board; tumbles through the air to mount his horse; rips an eyeball out; and punches a bull unconscious!
Especially entertaining for cult movie fans are Joe’s comic book opponents. They include such outlandish characters as Pedro the Cannibal, Scalper Jack (Klaus Kinski), Tricky the Gambler (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), and former sword and sandal star Gordon Mitchell as a ghoulish, black-clad gunfighter. Eventually, the villains send for a fighter from Joe’s own mystical martial arts temple, who inexplicably turns out to be a Japanese samurai (Katsutoshi Mikuriya). Perhaps the most likeable thing about Joe is that, in spite of all the awful people he meets, he never develops a ruthless, “kill whitey” streak and retains his idealism. “Your kind of America isn’t what I came for”, he tells Mr. Spencer. “I think there’s another kind of America, one that has no room for degenerate scum like you.” All pretence at seriousness went out the window for the comedy sequel: Return of Shanghai Joe (1974).