Killer Constable | aka Lightning Kung Fu (1980) Review

"Killer Constable" Chinese Theatrical Poster

"Killer Constable" Chinese Theatrical Poster

AKA: Karate Exterminators
Director: Kuei Chih-Hung
Writer: Sze To On
Producer: Run Run Shaw
Cast: Chen Kuan Tai, Gam Biu, Ha Ping, Keung Hon, Kong Do, Ku Feng, Kwan Yung Moon, David Lam Wai, Lee Chun Hwa, Jason Pai Piao, Walter Tso, Dick Wei, Yuen Wah
Running Time: 92 min.

By Matthew Le-feuvre

Released in the closing years of the Shaw Brothers reign, Kuen Chia Hung’s arresting socio-politically charged actioner confidently reintroduced the interesting, if not debatable, abstraction of misplaced loyalties for the crux of a generous travelogue adventure. Although previously, and obviously, examined by filmmaking giants: Chang Cheh, Liu Chia Liang and Sun Chung; therefore what else could be said, or more appropriately, visually expressed?!

For very few critics it was a tired formula that harkened back to a pioneering decade where local superstars – David Chiang and Ti Lung – were (screen) struggling against corrupt administrations; and/or Tartar influenced monarchies, forfeiting their many incarnations for the sake of national identity. However too hardened Hong Kong audiences, it was an alternative universe where the daily grind of employment could be put aside for a few hours, even though the apprehension of a spiralling economy loomed like an inevitable sunrise. Worse still were the afterthoughts of Thatcher’s impending tense negotiations with mainland China over the prospective future of the colony. This reality was always a favoured metaphor for aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers to exploit, yet shielded their personal concerns behind traditional values.

Indeed, no stranger to controversial themes dealing with either occult imagery (i.e. The Killer Snakes, The Boxer’s Omen), underdog aspirations or ideologies of the criminal classes as overtly depicted in Kuen Chia Hung’s earlier seminal masterpieces: The Teahouse and its highly anticipated follow-up Big Brother Cheng. It was these pictures that started a long association with its leading actor, Cheng Kwan Tai – an unglamourous, if not stoic personality in the Charles Bronson mould who (was) catapulted to international recognition playing the doomed streetfighter-turned-syndicate boss for Chang Cheh’s brutal morality tale: The Boxer from Shantung.

In due course, Tai furthered his career with reprised epitomizations of Shaolin/Hung Gar folkhero Hung Xi Kwan for the aforementioned Cheh and Liu Chia Liang. Yet prior to his extensive affiliation with the Shaw Brothers, Tai – also a former fireman, – had already established a legitimate tournament background where he invariably demonstrated his mental and physical prowess as a ‘Monkey’ stylist competitor. It is not fully known ‘how’ and ‘where’ Tai became involved within the HK film industry: an invitation, the lure of fame or rich rewards perhaps?! He did, like the majority, entered this exhausting profession as a stuntman – reliable and resolute – generally meeting an unbefitting end-at the hands of either Wang Yu or (soon-to-be contemporary) David Chiang.

Killer Constable afterall wasn’t so much a departure for Tai, but more of a welcomed reunion into that cycle of pictures which, in formative terms, manufactured and celebrated his star status. He projected a majestic, brooding and ofttimes, an intensity other leading actors’ simply lacked; few surprisingly did not retain proper martial arts qualifications, often relying on locally trained Peking opera debutants to perform intricate movements that on first viewing defy both the mechanics of grace and the physics of gravity.

Tai, on the other hand did not opt to sell himself as a showman of inordinate strength, nor did he confine his versatility to elaborate spectacles or generic fighting falsehoods: namely improvisation or overly rehersed circus routines. Instead, he was notably tenacious, exerting authentic techniques and in some cases ‘vulnerability.’ Hung Xi Kwan, for example, was a very human depiction(s); a passionate character whose emotions fueled members of his inner circle into total committment, eventhough their collectiveness for political liberation appeared conflicting, especially in Cheh’s classic Heroes Two (1974).

Here, for his third and final collaboration with Hung, Tai’s performance – bordering on the psychotic – as ruthless Ching loyalist Ling Tien Ying, is quite the antithesis: sinister, morose and absent of humanity. Nevertheless, while peers’ and village-folk subjects have deified him beyond the physical extension of Judge, Jury and Executioner, Ling’s intrinsic self-confidence and, equally, unparalleled skills as an official bounty hunter are so well respected, none question his resolve until the royal treasury is expertly looted by a select number of Han patriots.

It is up to this juncture of the first act where Hung’s epic scope diversifies into a fascinating pursuit-type picture with Ling energetically rampaging across countryside farm lands, imperial coastline vistas and treacherous Han-occupied landscapes where (much to the repulsion of his morally-divided assemble), one by one, Ling instinctively apprehends and methodically tortures each suspect involved in a travail of learning the ring leader’s identity (as played by stalwart character actor, Ku Feng). As the body count rises on both sides, the ethics of right and wrong becomes increasingly blurred, giving Ling the opportunity to curb the pressures of duty and compliance while awakening personal reflection and self analysis during a chance encounter with a lonely blind girl, who maybe potentially linked to the Han rebels?

Verdict: Although a loose reworking of The Invincible Fist (1969) – starring Lo Lieh and David Chiang in his lead debut – as it stands, Killer Constable, on occasion, is not an easy watch. Moments of grandiosity are overshadowed by melding alleged historical events with sullen melodramatics, however the real beauty is within the film’s iconography, Ling’s broadsword for instance – a weapon of true elephantine proportions – amputates limbs and other body parts with nimble ease. Tellingly, another profound and underrated classic from the Shaws’ vast film depository.

Matthew Le-feuvre: 9/10

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2 Responses to Killer Constable | aka Lightning Kung Fu (1980) Review

  1. Matt says:

    Good review.

    My favorite aspect of this movie is that the fights feel like they truly have purpose, and are brutal. They’re made great as much by the circumstances, acting, and emotion as they are the choreography.. You really get the feeling that the characters are fighting for their lives. It is somewhat unique in that the fights really feel like part of the narrative, as opposed to the narrative being an excuse for fights. (Which can be great too, don’t get me wrong!). Another good (albeit lesser IMO) film that conveys this same feeling is Bells of Death. Ironically, these two Shaw films are more than a decade apart!

  2. Andrew H. says:

    Looking forward to checking this out! – thanks.

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