Hand of Death | aka Countdown in Kung Fu (1976) Review

"Hand of Death" Chinese Theatrical Poster

"Hand of Death" Chinese Theatrical Poster

AKA: Shaolin Men
Director: John Woo
Writer: John Woo
Producer: Raymond Chow
Cast: Dorian Tan, James Tien, Jackie Chan, Yeung Wai, Sammo Hung, Gam Kei Chu, John Woo, Ko Keung, Polly Shang-Kwan, Chu Ching, Wilson Tong, Yuen Wah, Chan Feng Chen, Chiu Chun, Lin Ke Ming, To Wai Wo, Tong Kam Tong, Ricky Cheng, Chiang Sheng, Lu Feng, Yuen Biao
Running Time: 92 min.

By Zach Nix

The Hand of Death (aka Countdown in Kung Fu) is an early John Woo film from his formative years as a filmmaker. Woo wouldn’t become an acclaimed or recognizable filmmaker until his breakout hit, A Better Tomorrow, was released upon the world in 1986. While one might expect The Hand of Death to be a decent or throw away entry in Woo’s filmography, viewers will be pleasantly surprised to discover that film contains a well-paced story, likable characters, and solid action sequences. The Hand of Death is worth checking out by Woo fans for his incredible action mastery and trademark themes of honor, loyalty, brotherhood, and self-sacrifice. Action fans will also want to seek out The Hand of Death for two early appearances by action legends Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan.

The Hand of Death opens during the Qing Dynasty as a Shaolin traitor, Shih Shao-Feng (James Tien), leads an attack on the Shaolin Temple by Manchu rulers. Various Shaolin teachers and students retreat from the temple in order to preserve their teachings and to fight another day. As Shih and his right hand man, Officer Tu Ching (Sammo Hung), take over the land, one of the temple’s best students, Yun Fei (Tao-Liang Tan), trains in secret in order to avenge the death of his Shaolin master and to kill Shih. Yun Fei eventually aligns with two men, Tan Feng (Jackie Chan) and a wandering swordsman (Wei Yang), who wish to avenge their fallen loved ones at Shih’s hands and to restore their honor.

Woo holds one of his earliest action pictures together with traditional martial arts themes. The film is ultimately a story of revenge amongst strangers become brothers in the process. Tao-Liang Tan does fine work as the film’s lead, a determined martial arts expert who must learn how to combat Shih’s own powerful methods. Tao is given most of the film’s action sequences and showcases superb martial arts mastery against several henchmen, bodyguards, and James Tien himself. Supporting performances by Jackie Chan and Wei Yang are especially enjoyable. Chan is charming and likable in this early performance of his that allows him to show his stuff in two awesome fight sequences. Wei Yang also plays a memorable drifter who joins up with Yun Fei. The Hand of Death’s trio of lead characters feel like a formative step in Woo’s career leading up to the unforgettable trio of leads in Woo’s own A Better Tomorrow.

James Tien and Sammo Hung play two despicable villains, one a vile and cruel murderer and the other a dopey but loyal martial artist. Tien, a main stay in the genre, plays one of his earliest villain roles here. Poor Hung is forced to wear a ridiculous set of fake teeth throughout the film as well. However, his impressive moves, especially his final fight against Tao-Liang Tan, off set his ridiculous pair of chompers.

The Hand of Death is never boring because Woo graces the viewer with an action scene every few minutes. The film opens and closes with action for goodness sakes. Every action sequence is a solid display of Woo’s mastery of photography, editing, and direction. The Hand of Death really comes to life in its final act when Yun Fei, Tan Feng, and The Wanderer guide a scholar (John Woo himself) through the country-side while fighting off Shih’s various bodyguards and loyal servants. Characters sacrifice themselves and put their lives in danger, an important theme in Woo’s filmography, in order to stop Shihs’ evil reign.

Unfortunately, The Hand of Death is not immune to problems, as some cheesy wigs and a rushed opening hamper the film from being one of Woo’s top tier pieces of entertainment. Fans of classic martial arts cinema are typically used to the cheesy wigs atop the actors’ heads. However, the wigs in this film seem particularly cheap and fake, especially the one atop Jackie Chan’s head. The film is also burdened by a rushed opening that hurls as much exposition at the viewer as possible. The Hand of Death could have benefited from a more organic and natural opening that relied less on narration. The introductory action sequence would have been made more dramatic if the audience were slightly familiar with the characters and their plight, especially Yun Fei.

Woo’s The Hand of Death is a solid martial arts film made all the more enjoyable thanks to the inclusion of martial arts mainstays Tien, Hung, and Chan. The film is never boring, as Woo provides the audience with an action scene nearly ever few minutes. And the characters, while far from complex or original, are all likable and developed enough so that their motives are understandable. The story that surrounds all of these characters and the action sequences is enjoyable too, as the film contains actual stakes to its proceedings. All in all, The Hand of Death comes highly recommended to die hard John Woo fans curious to see his early work. Woo’s future mastery of character, action, and story is all evident in this early film of his. Fans of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung will also want to seek the film out to see some solid fist and spear play by the two.

Zach Nix’s Rating: 8/10

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7 Responses to Hand of Death | aka Countdown in Kung Fu (1976) Review

  1. Ningen21 says:

    It’s kind of funny, because back in the Face/Off days, I asked Woo if he was ever going to do the martial arts thing again. And he said he wasn’t interested. But then he obviously changed his mind with Red Cliff. 🙂

    • He needs to change his mind again instead of doing high budget romance films. I seriously think Woo is in Francis Ford Coppola land. He lost his edge forever. Hope he proves me wrong in the future.

      • DougWonnacott says:

        Sadly I think you’re right. But you could say that about most directors. They all have a ‘hot’ period then the quality gradually drops.

        I would say Woo’s early works like The Dragon Tamers and Hand of Death are good but not classics. Last Hurrah For Chivalry is a big improvement, Heroes Shed No Tears is not bad (underrated IMO), then there’s a massive step up with A Better Tomorrow, a slight dip with A Better Tomorrow II, at his absolute best with The Killer, maintaining the high quality with Bullet in the Head, Once A Thief and Hard Boiled. Then it starts to gradually decline from Hard Target onwards.

        I have no idea why Face/Off is so popular. All I learned from that film is that there is one thing more irritating than Nicholas Cage, John Travolta imitating Nicholas Cage.

        I did think Reign of Assassins was excellent but I’m not sure if it counts as he wasn’t the primary director on that one.

        Anyway, Hand of Death is very enjoyable. The final kick that ends the film from Dorien Tan is brilliant.

      • Masterofoneinchpunch says:

        Considering how good the two Red Cliff films (in my top 10 for both 2008 and 2009) are I think he has the ability to still do good material. I also tend to think more of them in the subgenre historical battle (with strategy) films than straight out martial arts film.

        But since Johnnie To is doing a musical I know John Woo would love to do one. He has wanted to film one for decades.

        • I don’t know… Red Cliff might have been his Dracula, if you catch my drift. Windtalkers was definitely his Godfather 3. I, too, never saw what was so great about Face/Off.

          • Masterofoneinchpunch says:

            I enjoyed the two times I saw Face/Off however, I have not seen it since VHS days (so it has been many years and several thousand movies ago.) I think a potential rewatch is there and possibly mini-review. I have not seen Windtalkers, mainly since the reviews were bad (yes I’ve seen Laughing Times which I have to imagine is much, much worse.)

            Red Cliff was one of those films that just awed me. I also lent it to several people who loved it (strangely enough my Dad too.) Now critically it is still underrated. The only major list I know it is on is LoveHKFilm.com’s The Best Hong Kong Films Ever. But I think I can speak qualitatively on it if I need to.

            Now can Woo do it again? Was Red Cliff a reprise? It will be interesting to see what he can do in the next decade. But his career really has been up and down if you see most of his films. He tends to do best in action, his comedy is so-so to terrible.

          • Ningen21 says:

            Windtalkers was underrated for me. But yeah, it was definitely never going to make waves like Woo’s other work.

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