The Hand of Death aka Countdown in Kung Fu (1976) is a vastly underrated early work by director John Woo. The film stars Dorian Tan (Tan Tao-liang) and features Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and James Tien in significant supporting roles. Many people believe, or have been lead to believe by deceptive advertising, that this is a Jackie Chan film. This is not a Jackie Chan film, Dorian Tan is the star but Jackie gives one of his best (most serious) early performances.
The Hand of Death is about a Shaolin disciple named Yunfei (Tan) who is sent on a mission to assassinate a Shaolin traitor named Shih Xiaofeng (Tien) and protect a revolutionary named Zhang Yi (Woo). Along his journey Yunfei meets up with a young woodcutter named Tan (Chan) and a disgraced sword fighter (Chang Chung) known as "the wanderer." Both men have suffered at the hands of Shih and want to take revenge. The three team up to defeat Shih and his eight bodyguards and escort the revolutionary to safety.
The martial arts action is above average under the direction of Sammo Hung. Dorian Tan uses his trademark high kicks very effectively as the "Northern eighteen styles kicks" along with some "Southern five styles boxing." Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan provide excellent martial arts performances as well. James Tien is not the greatest martial artist on the Jade screen but does an acceptable job. Some of the early fights are a bit slow and seem over choreographed but the final showdowns featuring Chan, Tan and Hung are very good.
Director John Woo provides plenty of interesting character development in the film, which is refreshing. The cinematography by Leung Wing Kat is very stylish, unique and beautiful for a kung fu film of this era. Joseph Koo's music: a combination of soft flutes and 70's "Shaft" style orchestral pieces is kung fu cinema at its best. Hand of Death is not Jackie and Sammo's usual kung fu comedy. Hand of Death is a serious, straightforward revenge driven story.
Hand of Death aka Countdown in Kung Fu is an underrated classic in the old school kung fu genre. The film is one of the best artistically of its time and a preview of the great things to come from Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. Hung's great choreography is put on display here before his directorial debut and Chan's early charisma and talent can be clearly seen.
Hand of Death is a solid, stylish old school kung fu film and a brilliant early work of the legendary John Woo.
Kung Fu Genre Rating 7.5/10
Wanderer to Tan (referring to his new weapon): "The Little Eagle Wing God Lance."
Tan: "Just a knickknack."