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No deathless classic but easily one of the best of Chan's pre-stardom movies
on 28 July 2009
The Hand of Death aka Countdown in Kung Fu/Shao Lin Men didn't make much of an impression in 1976 but it's become something of a historical curio as it unites the Three Brothers, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao under the direction of John Woo at the beginning of their careers. Woo even plays a supporting role. However, don't expect to see them teamed up along similar lines to later efforts like Dragons Forever or the Lucky Stars series: Sammo Hung is the villain's buck-toothed sidekick, Jackie Chan the hero's sidekick and Biao odd bit parts and a lot of stunt doubling. Instead the lead is taken by Dorian Tan, a nondescript and one-note but inoffensive lead who's better at the kicks than the acting, though Chang Chung's swordsman, the first of Woo's tragic fatalistic professional killers, compensates so admirably in that department that it's a shame his career never took off. The film is slightly above average for its time, a decidedly formulaic but more than competently staged period piece that sees yet another Manchurian despot decide to wipe out the Shaolin temple and Tan's survivor teaming up with Chan and Chung to guide a revolutionary scholar (Woo) to safety and have their revenge on James Tien's traitor. But as usual, the plot's just an excuse for a string of action sequences, here choreographed by Sammo Hung, and while they may be a long way from the Bruce Lee level they're entertaining enough to more than hold your interest en route to the grand finale battle. It's not a deathless classic but it's easily one of the best of Chan's pre-stardom movies, filling an hour-and-a-half excitingly enough without outstaying its welcome.
Unfortunately while Hong Kong Legends' DVD boasts an impressive widescreen transfer, infuriatingly, as with many of their releases, it also has subtitles that aren't widescreen TV friendly for older TVs.