Matt Carver, an American raised in Japan, returns to his adopted country to cause trouble. He comes into possession of a mysterious coin that a lot of disreputable characters want, as it somehow contains the key to well over a million dollars in Nazi platinum. Noir ensues.
John Holt, better known as a voice actor, produced, directed and starred in this black-and-white bibelot, which has come to be known as the First American Martial Arts Film, the movie that introduced karate to the USA. And, like a lot of first attempts, it simply isn't very good.
For a movie entitled Karate Hand of Death (the actual onscreen title), there is damn little karate in evidence. Though Carver possesses a black belt in the titular discipline, he killed too many men with his bare hands in World War II (Japanese soldiers, adding an additional layer of guilt), and can no longer bring himself to use his Five Fingers O'Death. There is a lengthy demonstration at a dojo, featuring the "Japan Karate Society", but when the climactic fight occurs - between two masters of the deadly art - the result is so poorly filmed and rife with jump cuts that any catharsis that comes is only as a result of the realization that the end of the movie is near.
Past that, the rest of the story is a blend of Dashiell Hammett, Ian Fleming, and, bizarrely, Vertigo. One character, an attempt to provide a Sidney Greenstreet genteel villain almost steals the movie, but is ultimately so one-note it fails. The script provides some interesting elements, but could have used a few more passes through the typewriter, as it depends on lengthy expository speeches to unfold. The actors get through these speeches in one continous shot, locked down and lethal to your attention span. Were I more charitable, I would say this is an hommage to the French New Wave. I am not that charitable.
Ultimately, Karate: Hand of Death is more interesting as film history than as entertainment, or as an exercise in "That would have been good, if only they'd..." But the reason to purchase this disc does not lie in the headline feature, no. That lies down there, in "extras".
Holy cow, that's an ugly box. For a moment, I thought I was buying something from the Wade Williams Collection.
The fact that Something Weird found any print of this movie is remarkable, and the fact that it is both widescreen and largely free of damage pushes this into the realm of amazing. There is a suspicious splice in an exotic dance scene, though, that is going to give you a What's Up, Tiger Lily? flashback. Where's the International Version?
I always look forward to the extras on any Something Weird disc - especially the trailer collections. This time, there are so many, SW decided to bill them as the second feature, "The Incredible Martial Arts Mayhem Kung Fu Trailer Show". But if I didn't continue to count these as an Extra, I'd have nothing to put down here.
This disc contains previews for a mind-boggling fifty martial arts films from all over the world, largely from China. A lot of the more obscure movies have a title card of plain white letters over a red background, accompanied by a canned fanfare; this was apparently slapped over the picture whenever the Chinese title appeared, giving rise to irritating instances when the chattering red card appears for only a few seconds in the middle of a trailer, the same fanfare clumsily chopped off after a few notes.
Even a hardened old-school kung fu fan like myself will find it very hard to chew through all these in one sitting. Familiar faces are few and far between, and when you finally see Angela Mao in Deep Thrust, Jimmy Wang Yu in Master of the Flying Guillotine or Sonny Chiba in the Streetfighter movies, it's like coming upon an old friend in a crowded roomful of strangers. There seems to be an effort to get most of the major stars in there: Jackie Chan, Chuck Norris and Jim Kelly get one flick each, and there are trailers for both of James Ryan's South African karate flicks, Kill or Be Killed and Kill and Kill Again.
Most of these trailers are in excellent shape, and skipping around in the collection can be a rewarding experience. Why did I so want to see Fearless Fighters back in the day? (I wasn't allowed to - it was at the "bad" theater). How can you possibly resist a movie with a title like Flying Claws Fights 14 Demons or Shanghai Lil and the Sun Luck Kid? And, most importantly, who knew there was so much nudity in kung fu films?
Yes, I still miss the 70s.
Like I said, it's rather easy to tell why I bought this disc. Your mileage, as ever, may vary.
Dr. Freex, 3/3/2004