Whistling sailor Wang Hai-Lung (Jimmy Wang Yu), nicknamed Number Seven, brawls with a bar full of drunken Japanese bullies but is such a hot-head, he kills an innocent bystander. On the run, he becomes a stowaway aboard a Japanese ship but is discovered by a vicious gang of gang of drug smugglers. They force Wang to deliver a letter warning about police patrols to their cohorts in Kyoto, but the note also reads: “kill the messenger.” Being an all-round badass, Wang fights his way out of this fix and finds sanctuary with his cousins Hsiao Li (Lee Kwan) and Hsiao Fang (Maria Yi Yi) and their Uncle Tien (Tien Feng). However, the smugglers led by Golden Hair (James Tin Jun), a suspiciously blonde villain in a preposterous pink suit who spars with a giant sumo wrestler, hound Wang everywhere he goes.
Both writer-director Lo Wei and star Jimmy Wang Yu were Shaw Brothers exiles who found a happy home at Golden Harvest, the studio founded by disgruntled former Shaw’s accountant Raymond Chow. Both men had already done their part to establish Golden Harvest as a filmmaking force to be reckoned with: Jimmy having directed and starred in the groundbreaking smash The Chinese Boxer (1969), Lo having wrote and directed the international hits The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972) starring the studio’s newest discovery, Bruce Lee. Most likely, the studio suspected the combination of Lo Wei and Wang Yu would be dynamite and they were right.
Also known as Wang Yu’s 7 Magnificent Fights and as simply The Fighter, Seaman No. 7 is an intriguing neo-noir thriller that imports the familiar Hitchcockian man-on-the-run gambit into an far eastern milieu. Jimmy’s surly, amoral antihero initially comes across as a real jerk. Hot-headed and downright homicidal, the character trades on his off-screen notoriety as he was well-known for getting into a scrap or two, but was usually valorized by the public either because the publicity department were doing their job well or because his opponents were mostly triad thugs. However, Wang Hai-Lung is steadily humanized as the story develops. As with Fist of Fury, the anti-Japanese sentiment (more apparent in its early scenes) needs to be placed in context. Tensions between Chinese and Japanese were still running high even almost thirty years after the war. As many Chinese ventured overseas to earn money to support families back home, films like this tapped into feelings of homesickness, bruised pride and desperation, whilst stressing the camaraderie between bullied immigrant workers. Lo Wei himself cameos as a friendly noodle chef in a touching scene where he and Wang reminisce about Taiwan and how the standard of living has improved.
“I hate Japan”, grumbles Wang in an early scene that must have shocked Jimmy’s many Japanese fans (in 2010 he appeared at a Tokyo film festival acknowledging his own debt as a filmmaker to Japanese cinema). Having just completed filming Zatoichi vs. the One-Armed Swordsman (1971) where he was allegedly ill-treated by the Japanese crew, it is possible Jimmy was out to make a point as he did with his excellent Beach of the War Gods (1973). However, Wang Hai-Lung learns Japan is not such an awful place and not all Japanese are glowering bad guys. He gets a job sweeping floors at the local dojo where a kindly sensei (Masafumi Suzuki from the karate classic The Streetfighter (1974)) admires his dedication and teaches him a wider variety of martial arts. More importantly, Wang rescues some Japanese girls from a group of what the script amusingly calls “Teddy Boys” and earns himself a pretty Japanese girlfriend who shows him around Kyoto’s picturesque tourist spots. Her father coincidentally happens to be the local police chief, leading to a surprise twist revealing Wang’s bar-room victim is not dead at all and also an undercover cop investigating the drug smugglers. Inevitably, the dastardly villains attack Wang’s friends, driving him to take revenge in a series of increasingly thrilling fight scenes.
The action is among the most frenetic and visceral of the period, complemented by exellent camerawork including some spectacular aerial shots and sweeping vistas. Whereas Bruce Lee tended to portray himself as an invincible superman and Jimmy admittedly followed suit, this time he is far more vulnerable and shown getting really hurt in his showdown with blondie and his pet sumo, both sides wielding some mean-looking ninja weapons. A fight aboard a moving truck is nicely staged with a few sadistic touches as Wang repeatedly slams the door against one villain’s hand. A nifty speedboat chase culminates in a marvellous, extended, underwater kung fu fight. Jimmy was a former water polo champion, so performed these scenes for real.