The truth is we didn’t stumble upon it naturally, which is to say that none of us were athletes studying any particular self defense discipline. Rather, there happened to be a nearby small-town television station that on Sunday afternoons broadcast any number of these fight films under the heading of Kung Fu Theatre. This was before the days of home video – well, there weren’t affordable Betamax machines in our one-horse town, anyway – so we’d hunker down around the television set and enjoy whatever it was they were screening that lunchtime.
Like so many folks do (at a certain age), we ended up making fun of the goofy sound-dubbing work. Back in those days, the translations were almost exclusively awful. But what we did learn was that all of these flicks – big and small – functioned from a pretty universal formula:
- Boy becomes hero
- Hero loses stature
- Fallen hero undergoes training metamorphosis
- New hero emerges to save the day.
Of course, there were any number of minor variations to this framework. Honestly, most of the divergences from what I recall involved the villains more than they did the lead – occasionally, even the baddies were tragically flawed, or they were sometimes ‘blessed’ with super-special almost superhero-like strength or gadgets that became their lethal gimmick. But before all was said and done, the hero recovered his place in the community by rising up, kicking butt, and never thinking twice about taking names.
Thankfully, I don’t have to stretch my imagination all that far to enjoy a little something something like One-Armed Boxer (1972). Like the films of my younger days, it fit easily into the methodology. Our lead rises and falls and rises with the best of them, only this time the gimmick ended up being attached (erm … or is that unattached?) to him: when he comes to that midpoint narrative crossroads when failure is required, he ends up losing an arm.
Ouch. That’s gotta sting.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
“After his schoolmate and master is killed and he loses an arm, student Tien Lung has to learn the art of one-armed boxing.”
Just for the sake of argument, let’s all assume that there is a form of – ahem – one-armed boxing or – as it’s known in the feature somewhat of the same name – the ‘Crippled Hand Technique.’ Also, let’s assume that it’s medically possible to remove all nerve-endings from your hand by subjecting it to a soul-crushing dip into a burning fire. Last but not least, let’s all agree the mastery of an entirely new way of fighting can be achieved within a handful of months. Now if we can all agree on these points then One-Armed Boxer makes perfect narrative sense for both you and I.
In all seriousness, Boxer is exactly the kind of film I’d cut my teeth on in those afore-mentioned high school years. It follows the traditional riches-to-rags-back-to-fighting-riches cut-and-paste that services the plot for many a kung fu film. And as many of these films did Boxer also serves up a love interest whose heart our hero Tien is sure to clinch if he can face down those adversaries who took everything (and his arm!) from him, win the day, and emerge with life and … well … limb.
These films always told stories on their own economy, leaving very little room for deep and meaningful subtext of any type. What mattered most was how many fights could be squeezed in between the opening and closing credits, and plot developments were truly engineered to maximize the potential for even more fisticuffs when the audience least expected them. Their gimmicks – a previously unheard of form of kung fu, some kind of triple-headed spear, or even a man with one arm – were all well and good because they rarely stood in the way of a good throwdown; rather, they gave choreographers yet one more trick up their sleeve (pun intended) to raise the stakes.
In fact, I’ve always thought of them this way: it’s like someone called for a physical showdown, and the idea of shooting it as a movie broke out secondarily.
What makes Boxer different (besides its namesake fighter) is the cast of heavies showing up to wreak havoc on this otherwise quiet suburb. Writer/director Jimmy Wang Yu fills out the cast with an assortment of martial artists of varying disciplines, giving each combatant a unique style and approach to exchanging blows that requires our hero and his comrades to adapt. (Heck, one of the heavies even sports doglike canine teeth!) As you can guess, the good guys initially are not up to the task, putting Tien in dire straits that finishes with his devastating loss of five fingers and a thumb. (Yes, it’s all delivered with unintended laughs. So sue me!) Yet, a fall from grace was required; otherwise, he wouldn’t return … with the ability to kill a man with a single blow!
Still, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that Boxer has some incredible camera work. It’s all shot and framed with great focus on the fighting (that’s what put the butts in the seats, after all), though some of the fight choreography looks a bit too well rehearsed. Thematically, these flicks have always been similar to America’s Westerns, and Jimmy Wang Yu and cinematographer Shen-Ku Mou keep the action coming as fast and as furious as they can, slowing down only long enough for a death here and there or for someone … well, our hero … to lose an arm. That’s frankly no big deal as it only serves as the catalyst here for more impressive pacing later on once Tien proves, definitively, that he can best all even with one hand tied behind his back.
One Armed Boxer (1972) was produced by Cathay Studios, Cheung Ming Film, and Golden Harvest Company. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by Arrow Video Films.
As for the technical specifications? Sweet mother of dragons, this print looks fabulous! Having watched so many of these films growing up, I really had low expectations on how good the transfer would be … but this looks like it was digitally recorded just yesterday! Honestly, the sound was a bit underwhelming in a handful of places, but – if I’m being perfectly honest – most folks don’t go into one of these flicks looking for riveting speeches anyway. It’s good, but I found it strikingly average, personally.
As for the special features? Arrow hasn’t grown to be one of the best in the business by short-changing folks, and Boxer delivers. There’s a commentary track (provided by Frank Djeng, a Blu-ray producer and expert in the field of Kung Fu cinema); an extended interview; a collector’s booklet (with essays and extended product information); an assortment of trailers and adverts specific to the film; and a photo gallery. Again: if Arrow’s name is on the packaging, a good rule of thumb is that you’re in for a treat.
Highly recommended. The first rule of fight films is that you have to enjoy the fight, and One-Armed Boxer manages to deliver the goods while sticking true to the very predictable formula. Still, it’s glorious fun – if you know what you’re getting into – and a delight to behold from beginning to finish. There’s a modest amount of blood – there always is with these flicks – but losing an arm was surprisingly bloodless. Pop some corn. Put the wife to bed. It’s fight time, boys. Let’s get ready to rumble.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Video Films provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of One-Armed Boxer (1972) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.