THUNDERBOLT FIST Shih Szu and a strong finale boost minor Shaw Bros. kung fu film
THE THUNDERBOLT FIST (1972) is an oddly cast kung fu film from a Korean director working for Shaw Bros. All the key male good guy parts are played by actors who normally played bad guys in these films, so it's hard to develop much trust for them, especially since they behave so much like bad guys. The lead actor is Kang Chia, a thin, sullen, gaunt-looking fellow who never looks particularly heroic here. (The actor who plays him as a child appears to be a lot more trustworthy.) The only character who comes off as genuinely heroic-looking is the hero's female partner, Sister Die, played by Shih Szu, a frequent star of Shaw Bros. kung fu/swordplay films in the 1970s (THE LADY HERMIT, THE RESCUE).
The plot has to do with the takeover of a Chinese town by a group of Japanese who wear traditional costumes, ride horses and carry swords, even though this is set in the early 20th century, long after Japan's modernization. Our hero, Tie Wa, is sent off as a boy to train in the mountains with a resistance group. He has left his family's "Thunderbolt Fist" manual in the care of a female friend, Feng Niou, and, after growing to adulthood returns to the town to scope out the strength of the Japanese fighters and their Chinese lackeys, including one Gu Gang, whom Tie Wa fought as a child. He gets the manual back after some difficulty with Feng Niou's jealous husband, but gets beaten up and maimed by Gu Gang for his trouble and eventually is let go, allowing him to return to the mountain to train his one good arm in the Thunderbolt Fist style so he can lead the others back and retake their town from the Japanese.
It takes way too long for Tie Wa to get back the manual and when he finally starts training, with 20 minutes left in the film, it's only a three-minute scene and we never see him actually using the manual. This bothered me, not only because I was waiting impatiently for him to start training and acquire the skills needed to combat the town's occupiers, but because there are long stretches in the middle of the 87-minute film where nothing significant happens. Some of those scenes could have been cut and more training scenes added.
Granted, the final series of fight scenes in the town offer well staged action and much excitement. Shih Szu is particularly good here, in some of the best fight scenes I've seen her in, doing kung fu in some bits and wielding a sword in others. She also looks great, decked out in one colorful silk outfit after another. Too bad she only has a supporting role. (The IMDb cast list identifies her character as "Red Butterfly," a name that never appears in the subtitles of the Celestial DVD I viewed for this review.) James Nam plays Gu Gang and he's quite good in a ruthless role. He's a Korean actor, also known as Nan Kung-hsun, and he appeared as villains in a bunch of kung fu films in the 1970s. A number of the cast, including Nam, turned up the same year in KING BOXER, also known as FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH.
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