Twelve Gates of Hell (1980)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2011-07-06
Summary: The 18 Steel Legged Kicks
Two McGuffins that appear in many kung fu movies are the List and the Book although only one of them serves as a plot point in “Champ vs. Champ”. The List has the names of all the rebels against the central government or of all the members of the White Eagle clan; in any case if it falls into the hands of the enemy the revolt will fail, the White Eagle clan will be crushed or, even simpler, everyone on the list will be killed. It is hard to imagine why such a dangerous document was even created, let alone given to couriers crossing enemy territory and subject to capture. The Book has the secrets of the now dead master’s kung fu; not just stances, conventions and strikes but all the wisdom and cunning that the master learned during his lifetime. It is usually kept in an obvious place—the shrine to the dead master, for example, but those searching for it never bother to look there, leaving it for the hero to stumble across it.

The McGuffin has been around for as long as stories have been told. The Golden Fleece was one, as was the Maltese Falcon and the briefcase in “Pulp Fiction”. Given its current name by Alfred Hitchcock, it is simply an object that is a motivating element in the story—everyone is looking for it—that goes away and isn’t referred to again after it serves its purpose. Hitchcock said that “[It] is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers."

The list of northern insurgents is the object that Master Ti must keep safe and also get to their allies in the south while his sworn enemy, Master Kai, will do anything to obtain it. The plot is driven by their attempts to steal the list or protect it; since Master Kai has platoons of very capable and ruthless fighters it doesn’t look good for the revolutionaries. But, purely by chance, they have Dragon Lee on their side and he is more than a match for the various thugs he faces.

“Champ vs. Champ begins with Dragon Lee walking through a rocky countryside. He passes a man who is either asleep or dead next to the trail but then has to defend himself when the man attacks him from behind. He is told that he isn’t welcome here and to go back the way he came, a demand underlined when a few more toughs appear. Dragon doesn’t spend much time or energy while dispatching them. The alarm is raised that he is nearby and Master Kai realizes the interloper must be driven out or killed. Dragon and his father aren’t looking for trouble—they are on their way to arrange Dragon Lee’s marriage to the daughter of Master Ti not knowing that he is locked in a duel to the death with Kai.

A lot happens before the nuptials can be arranged including the prospective bridegroom losing the lower half of his left leg when ambushed by Kai’s men and pierced with a poison dart by Kai himself. The poison would kill a lesser man but Lee manages to get to the home of his fiancé who finds a doctor to amputate his leg. In a flashback we see Lee being berated by his martial arts master who tells him of the legendary fighter who didn’t let the loss of a leg stop him. It turns out that the legend is the grandfather of Lee’s beloved who lived right there in the house where he is staying. He finds the book (here not a McGuffin but an integral and important part of the story) with the plans for fashioning a steel leg plus instructions for the secret 18 kicks.

The newly steel-legged Lee soon proves himself in battle—one kick from his left leg not only disables or kills an opponent but sends him flying or skidding for several yards. It is quite a weapon. While Lee has been forging his new leg and consummating his relationship with his betrothed, his father has been killed, Master Ti has been captured and is being tortured to get the list of names and Master Kai’s men are roaming around terrorizing the countryside also looking for the list. The attentive viewer will know that the list isn’t anywhere in particular by now—it was entrusted to a courier who was killed almost immediately after receiving it but not found by Kai’s people since they don’t bother with things like searching the bodies of dead couriers. He was literally tossed into a corner and forgotten about with the list still in his pocket.

“Champ vs. Champ” now becomes Dragon Lee fighting all of Master Kai’s men and women. He has to deal with the women from the palace that use an invisibility bomb to make themselves transparent—Lee (I think) makes smoke come from his hands in order to locate them by the smoke they displace and leaves them tied to a tree. He has to fight the same group of assailants who beat him so that Kai could try to finish him with the poison dart, this time, of course, defeating them. An excellent touch in the action choreography during these fights: Lee’s opponents aren’t all defeated by kicks from his mighty steel leg but because they are made a bit tentative by it, they are open to other moves.

There must be a final showdown; Lee and Kai face off in a well done fight that takes place in Kai’s underground palace that tumbles down around them. The last killing blow is delivered after they have gotten outside and things are wrapped up as we watch Dragon Lee walk into the sunset.
Reviewer Score: 6