Eureka Entertainment brings us an intriguing little box set of two works from early on in the career of now legendary director John Woo (Hard Boiled, Mission Impossible 2, A Better Tomorrow) – Hand of Death (1976) and Last Hurrah For Chivalry (1979).
Hand of Death is the story of Shaolin Monks who are hunted down and killed by a powerful warrior called Shih Shao-Feng (James Tien). Sent to stop him is the best student the Shaolin have left – Yun Fei (Doran Tan) who along the way recruits allies in the form of blacksmith Tan Feng, played by Chen Yuan-Lung who is better known these days as Jackie Chan. Jackie was 22 when he did this film and it was his second leading role, following on from New Fist of Fury which was also released in 1976.
Hand of Death also features Sammo Hung as Tu Ching, wearing an impressive set of (presumably?) fake teeth which give him one heck of an overbite. The film is classic chop-socky fare, with some impressive fight sequences and fair lashings of blood.
It’s interesting that the fighting on display here seems far more fluid and natural compared to the other film in this set. It’s more scrappy, with characters rolling around in the dirt and flailing wildly while in Last Hurrah it’s far more stilted and almost mechanical for most of the film.
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Speaking of Last Hurrah, the story here is somewhat more convoluted. On his wedding night, Kao Peng (Lau Kong) is betrayed, his family murdered and he gets sliced up a treat and only barely escapes with his life. Seeking vengeance he eventually ends up hiring the skills of both Chang San/The Divine Blade and Ching I/Green to claim his revenge… but is there more going on than he lets on? Right from the start this is a film of shifting loyalties, plans within plans and betrayal on top of betrayal which will keep a viewer guessing about who is really on whose side, right up to the very end. The choreography on display is impressive, the fight scenes long and intricate though after a while the fake “clapping” sound of every hit does get a little wearing and there’s just something a little robotic about the way they fight compared to the raw energy of Hand of Death.
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Both of these films are classic John Woo, though there are no doves on display here! Guess he picked that particular signature move up later in his career. Both films have plenty of blood and even some gore, slow-mo aplenty and some quite impressive camera work, especially in Hand of Death. There’s almost no wire work on display, just mano-a-mano action. The characters are, for the most part, little more than heroic stereotypes, particularly in Hand of Death, though Last Hurrah plays around with that far more and gives our protagonists some real depth.
Both of these films are rather rough and ready both in terms of production and direction, but it’s already possible to see the potential here, hints of the director Woo would come to be. Looking into the actual transfer, there’s not a single complaint to be had. Eureka have done a beautiful job with their restoration, with both films looking spectacularly good considering their age. Colours are vibrant, the picture sharp and detailed. In terms of sound, both offer multiple language tracks to allow viewers to pick their poison. Cantonese, Mandarin, classic English and up to date English are offered on both. Other special features include: brand new audio commentaries on both Last Hurrah for Chivalry and Hand of Death, by martial-arts cinema authority Mike Leede; archival interviews with director John Woo; trailers; eversible inlay featuring original poster artwork; and Limited Edition Collector’s booklet featuring new writing by film writer Matthew Thrift.
These films are worth picking up for both fans of John Woo, and fans of kung-fu films. While Last Hurrah for Chivalry is slow to get going, once the story picks up it doesn’t stop till the end, and Hand of Death is just fun from start to finish. Two excellent films from a brilliant director, lovingly presented by Eureka. What’s not to like?
Last Hurrah for Chivalry & Hand of Death: Two Films By John Woo is available now from Eureka Entertainment.