Director: Chang Yi-hu
Image Entertainment

Prominent Korean director Chang Yi-hu, credited here as Chang I Hu, began a brief run with Shaw Brothers studios in the early 1970s, helming FISTS OF VENGEANCE, NIGHT OF THE DEVIL'S BRIDE and THE IRON MAN starring Jimmy Wang Yu. Gathering a cast of Shaw Brother regulars, many of which would appear the same year in Chang-hwa Jeong’s KING BOXER, Chang Yi-hu tackles a tale of revenge and innocence lost with THUNDERBOLT FIST. By no means one of the studios most impressive pictures, it does feature a final act filled with blood, betrayal and dismemberments, however it unfortunately takes forever to get there.

Shortly after the Chinese Revolution, a small Chinese village is being bullied by a gang of Japanese thugs, eager to take over the town and rob its people of both their money and goods. Seeking to put an end to the thievery and brutality, local martial arts instructor Fang Ping Bai (Fang Mien, INTIMATE CONFESSIONS OF A CHINESE COURTESAN) defeats the gangs’ leader in a public match, leaving the Japanese humiliated. Wounded, Fang Ping Bai is ambushed the following night by the remaining members of the Japanese mob and is struck down in front of his adolescent son, Tieh Wa. Before dying, Ping Bai instructs one of his men to abscond with his son to the mountains nearby, where a resistance movement is secretly training. Before saying their final goodbyes, young Tieh Wa is entrusted with his father's Thunderbolt Fist manual, for fear that the deadly technique could fall into the hands of the Japanese. While attempting to escape the village, Tieh Wa hands over the guidebook to his female friend Feng Niou, fearing that it might be taken if their escape to the mountains proves unsuccessful. Feng Niou agrees, promising to protect the documents and to stay true to the young boy until his return.

Years pass and Tieh Wa (Chuen Yuen, THE DUEL) has grown into a formidable opponent. Having trained relentlessly with his sparing partner Sister Die (Shih Szu, THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES), Tieh Wa feels ready to take on the invading Japanese and seek vengeance for his father's demise. Traveling down the mountain, Tieh Wa’s first stop is to scope out the skills of the occupying Japanese gang, now run by Gu Gang (James Nam, THE HEROIC ONES), a childhood acquaintance that Tieh Wa scrapped with as a child. Having checked out the competition, Tieh Wa drops in on Feng Niou (Chin-Feng Wang, FOURTEEN AMAZONS), who has herself blossomed into adulthood, to reclaim his father's fighting manual, left in her possession so many years ago. Having retrieved the booklet, it isn’t long before Gu Gang and his men track down Tieh Wa and overpower him, taking him prisoner. Tied up and tortured, Tieh Wa refuses to divulge the location of the resistance mountain hideout, resulting in the maiming of one of his hands. Hoping to follow the wounded warrior to his secret hideaway, Tieh Wa is set free to stumble back home. With Gu Gang’s gang hot on his heels, Tieh Wa begins training his good arm in the secret art of the Thunderbolt Fist, determined to avenge the death of his father.

One of my favorite aspects of the Shaw Brothers martial arts films are the training scenes. The sparing, the preparation, the menial tasks that don’t make any sense until the same technique is introduced during combat, in which it all suddenly falls into place; I love every minute of it. THUNDERBOLT FIST’s lack of such training scenes greatly hamper the film's excitement level, almost to the point where you forget that the Thunderbolt Fist fighting technique is in some way unique. You have to sit through an hour of drama and build-up before Tieh Wa gets his hand on his father’s manual, only for him to turn around and somehow absorb the knowledge therein through osmosis. There is one memorable scene in which Tieh Wa pictures his opponent Gu Gang as a tree before chopping it down with a blow from his good fist, but otherwise you leave the film feeling cheated. Likewise, it would be easy to expect that the fatal final blow would be courtesy of the title appendage, but such is not the case. In fact, there was not one move, or any combination of moves that felt in any way distinctive to Tieh Wa’s previous skill level.

That said, many fans of Shaw Brothers films will find THUNDERBOLT FIST another enjoyable entry in the studio's creative output, but let’s be honest; no one is reinventing the wheel here. You know that as soon as Tieh Wa find his father's guidebook, his revenge will be quick to follow, and truthfully I don’t know that I would want it any other way. It’s just that the film takes so long in getting to its conclusion, one that is so obviously set up the moment Tieh Wa’s father is killed in front of him. Action scenes are consistent throughout the picture, with a number of severed limbs and a fair amount of arterial spray, but it is mostly forgettable, with nothing memorable happening until the last 30 minutes, when Yuan Chuan's character finally starts to display a bit of charisma. Comparisons are made on the back of the case to Jet Li’s 2006 film FEARLESS, Li’s apparent last wushu picture, and while there are similarities such as the open air tournament set up, I wouldn’t go so far as to compare the two too closely, as the latter is vastly more entertaining.

THUNDERBOLT FIST is presented in its original ShawScope 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The print is blemish free with not a scratch or spot to be found, allowing for a clean picture that displays an admirable amount of detail. Colors are clear, with red in particular standing strong. The mono audio features both the film's original Mandarin and English Dubbed soundtrack with optional English and Spanish subtitles. Both audio tracks are relatively clean with little disturbance, although I did notice some issues with the levels on the English Dub track that required me adjusting the volume more than once (by jason). As with past Shaw Brother release from Image Entertainment, extras include a variety of Shaw Brothers trailers, all of them updated by Celestial Pictures for their respective re-release. Highlights include trailers for THE CAVE OF SILKEN WEB, KISS OF DEATH. BAT WITHOUT WINGS and THE WANDERING SWORDSMAN. (Jason McElreath)