Former police commissioner Arashiyama (Ryo Ikebe) instructs his sexy accomplice Emi (Doris Nakajima) to recruit three street toughs for a special mission. By far the most badass of them all is modern day ninja Ryuichi Koga (Sonny Chiba), whom we first glimpse in flashback (played by Chiba’s fourteen year old protégé and future mega-star Hiroyuki Sanada) enduring the harsh training methods of his crazy grandpa. Having been forced to leap over a sword stuck in the ground and had quicklime flung in his face, Koga basically tells grandpa to go fuck himself and goes freelance. Next on Emi’s hit list is Hayabusa (Makoto Sato), a lumpy faced ex-cop turned contract killer, whose one punch pops a yakuza’s eyeball out of its socket before he makes sweet love to his girlfriend, right beside the corpse. Classy guy. These two knuckleheads are tasked to spring the third team member out of jail: Sakura (Eiji Go), a perpetually swollen sex addict. Quite what Sakura brings to the group is unclear, since he spends most of his time ogling Emi with his groping hands up her sexy miniskirt. But Emi is so sassy and cool she puts this pervert in his place. Arashiyama hires this wild bunch to wage war on drug traffickers across Japan, that is if they can stop squabbling for long enough.
Writer-director Teruo Ishii made superhero movies for children, crime thrillers, extreme torture films, biker flicks and his own favourite genre, erotic horror movies based on stories by his literary hero Edogawa Rampo. What he did not want to make were martial arts movies. He hated them. Tough luck, because as a contract director at Toei Films, Ishii had to do as he was told. So he set out to make the most irreverent, anarchic karate caper he could, in the wackiest, most deliberately haphazard manner possible, certain the film would be a spectacular failure and the studio would never ask him to make a martial arts movie again. Unfortunately for Ishii, Chokugeki! Jigoku-ken (Direct Hit! Hell Fist) or The Executioner as it was retitled in the USA, became a smash hit!
Frantic, frenzied and fast-paced this witty and stylish fight farce endures as one of the most memorable vehicles for Japan’s number one action star: Sonny Chiba. Ironically, given Teruo Ishii set out to film the karate scenes in the most lackadaisical way he could, the choreography by Yoshiaki Hatsumi is arguably the best of any Chiba movie. The film is marvellous showcase for his skills as he cracks skulls, rips ribcages and batters bodies like a rabid animal. It’s gory, gritty and gloriously unhinged, from the fight where Sonny dips his feet in paint just so he can slap his enemies with his wet footprints, to the sight of him hanging from a cliff with his grappling hook stuck in one villain’s leg. Nevertheless, Ishii’s irreverent attitude permeates everything onscreen: the goofy cartoon-like sound effects, Hayata’s trademark wheezy laugh (he sounds exactly like Muttley in The Wacky Races), Sonny pouncing from the ceiling to attack Willie Dosey (the black actor whom he seems to kill in every one of his movies) only to land on his naked girlfriend instead, and one character’s dying declaration: “Please take care of my car payments!”
There was an amoral tone to almost all Toei action movies, which seems predictable for a studio founded by yakuza. Koga and Sakura spurn Arashiyama’s noble cause. They are in it for the money and to avoid prison. Equally Arashiyama and Hayabusa may be intent on avenging the deaths of six policemen killed by the drug traffickers, but fully intend on keeping the drug money for themselves. If the film has one failing it is that this don’t-give-a-damn spirit prevents any emotional involvement, but after so many stoical martial arts sagas the rampant anarchy on view here was briefly a breath of fresh air. Martial arts movie fans will relish a terrific supporting turn from Yasuaki Kurata as a karate champion who belatedly joins our heroes, while sporting a hairstyle, scowl and bare chest styled after Bruce Lee. Kurata went on to work extensively in Hong Kong where he made many memorable movies including the Shaw Brothers classic Heroes of the East (1979) and the excellent Fist of Legend (1995) where he shared a legendary screen bout with Jet Li.
Such was the success of The Executioner that Ishii’s worst fears were realised: Toei ordered him to make a sequel. With Executioner II (1974) he set out to make an even wackier, more idiotic, most deliberately inept seeming karate movie no self-respecting moviegoer would ever want to see, but guess what? It proved an even bigger hit. But that, my friends, is a whole other story.