The Hand of Death (1976)
Reviewed by: morgold on 2001-04-01
After having seen only the miserably cropped versions of John Woo's "Hand of Death" (aka "Countdown to Kung Fu") that circulated for years, I eagerly awaited the new remastered, letterboxed DVD, imagining that the widescreen compositions would offer some revelations about a film I had previously found dull. Unfortunately, being able to see the film in its entirety only reinforces how unexceptional it is; at least when it was cropped there was some mystery about it, and you could always blissfully fantasize about the images you were missing.

The plot, if you care to follow it, is cardboard "Hans vs. Manchus" fodder, and the oafish buckteeth evil Sammo Hung must wear make him appear absurd rather than threatening. It is, however, interesting to see a young Jackie Chan in a conventionally violent role, as he slaughters faceless soldiers in ways he would not in his later "family-oriented" films. But Woo's direction shows neither imagination nor enthusiasm, and whatever widescreen compositions he can muster are soon aborted by crude deployment of that damn 1970's zoom lens. Clearly, Woo's interest in male bonding, cathartic violence, and Peckinpah-esque montage do indeed begin with 1978's "Last Hurrah for Chivalry," and not with this film.

While it is still a treat to see an older film restored on DVD, the fact that this film, as opposed to classics by Chang Cheh or King Hu, receives the DVD treatment is somewhat depressing in itself. In fact, this utterly ordinary production may be a great argument against auteurism, since few would even be interested in it if the name "Woo" were not found in the credits.