In Hong Kong, it's known as COUNTDOWN IN KUNG FU, in England, THE HAND OF DEATH. In America, where it was released on video to coincide with the theatrical run of FIRST STRIKE (1996), it's STRIKE OF DEATH. Under any title, it's a seminal 1976 pairing of HK's two hottest exports to the
west: John Woo and Jackie Chan.
Shaolin student Yun Fei (Dorian Tan) is sent to kill the traitorous ex-Shaolin Shih Shao Feng (James Tien)--who is now working for the Chings--and to protect a man carrying a map showing the locations of Manchu forces and their strengths. Arriving in town just in time to surreptitiously help his
contact escape Shih's murderous right-hand man, Tu Ching (Sammo Hung), Yun impresses Tu with his skill and bravery, and is offered a job. Using the escaped man as bait to get near Shih, Yun attacks Shih, but only succeeds in getting himself captured and his contact killed.
Helped to escape by Tan Shu Ping (Jackie Chan), a Ching-hating woodcutter he had befriended earlier, Yun begins planning vengeance. Joined by two more Shaolin students, they enlist the aid of Zorro (Yang Wei), a former champion swordsman who has fallen to drink since accidentally killing his
beloved while tangling with Shih. Once Chang I (John Woo) arrives with the map, they set to action.
After creating a diversion at the Manchu fort so the others can slip away, Tan joins them as they make for the river, and winds up sacrificing his life on a Ching spear to protect Chang. Yun stays behind on the beach to battle Tu and his partner to the death, while the rest hop a boat for the
other side. Halfway across, the two students prove to be traitors, and stab Zorro, who kills them both before dying. As Chang arrives at safety on the opposite shore, Yun kills the remainder of Shih's men, and finally Shih himself.
The pre-stardom, pre-eyejob Chan had been working as a stuntman and film extra for years, even playing the lead in a minor, unreleased quickie, but he's just another hired gun here, appearing briefly in the first half and dying in the second, with none of his trademark acrobatics on display. The
fights, choreographed by Hung, are varied and well-mounted, both with weapons and without, but straightforward and decidedly unostentatious. Even the film's star, Dorian Tan, the spectacular kicker from THE LEG FIGHTERS (1980) and FLASH LEGS (1977), seems relatively restrained in this early lead
Writer-director Woo had already directed a pair of films since apprenticing under prolific kung fu master Chang Cheh, and was clearly developing certain underlying themes which would crystallize once he put guns in the hands of his protagonists. The themes of loyalty, honor, self-sacrifice, and
redemption through noble death were all borrowed from the chivalrous, male-centric cinema of Chang Cheh, whereas the seemingly telepathic conversation between Shih and Yun as they approach their final showdown foreshadows the psychic bonding that would come to define Woo's heroes and villains.
Interestingly, a very young Yuen Biao appears in the brief training sequence during the credits and again with a single word of dialogue as a Shaolin spy in Shih's court who is killed before he can deliver his dagger (although the domestic print is so drastically cropped that his reaching for the
weapon occurs offscreen), making this the first time that the hot box-office team of Yuen Biao, Jackie Chan, and Sammo Hung (later seen together in such popular action vehicles as the Chan-directed PROJECT A) had speaking roles in a film together. It's also one of the few times that female nudity
can be found in the films of either Woo or Chan. (Violence, nudity.)
Cast & Details See all »
- Released: 1976
- Review: In Hong Kong, it's known as COUNTDOWN IN KUNG FU, in England, THE HAND OF DEATH. In America, where it was released on video to coincide with the theatrical run of FIRST STRIKE (1996), it's STRIKE OF DEATH. Under any title, it's a seminal 1976 pairing of HK… (more)