THE CONVICT KILLER (1980, aka IRON CHAIN FIGHTER, as its English-dubbed version was called) is a much more atmospheric kung fu film than usual as ex-con Teng Piao (Ti Lung) prowls a remote Chinese town at night in search of an elusive crimelord who'd framed him and caused him to be jailed for 15 years. The film was shot entirely at the Shaw Bros. studio with many outdoors settings recreated on lavish sets. It's set in early 20th century China, as indicated by some of the western fashions worn by some of the main characters, but the sets are the same ones used in so many Shaw Bros. costume tales of Old China. Many of the men wear fedoras and newsboy caps and some even carry automatic pistols, but there isn't a modern structure in sight.
Ti Lung plays a loner, armed only with a length of iron chain, who seeks a mysterious figure known as the Black Leopard. He gains an ally in the form of Shang Lin (Ching Li), an elegant widow who wants to learn about the killing of her husband 15 years earlier and thinks the Black Leopard had something to do with it. Master Zhou (Jason Pai Piao), the town boss, offers Ti a considerable sum to back off. A dapper man in western dress named Mr. Du (Liu Yung) arrives with an arsenal of throwing knives and a set of questionable loyalties. In response to all this activity, Master Zhou calls on the Seven Killers, a team of legendary fighters, some of whom are women, who emerge from hiding to take on Ti. The local police force gets involved also. Ti gets into lots of kung fu fights, using only his chain and his feet as weapons. The frequent fights involve kung fu, knives, and, ultimately, guns. Lots of furniture and interior décor get smashed to pieces. There is a dramatic twist ending.
Ti Lung is as good a fighter here as he's ever been, swinging and twirling the chain to lethal effect, but also delivering assured kung fu kicks as well, in a series of fights that often force him to fight alone against large numbers of opponents. Fortunately, he eventually gains some allies. Jason Pai Piao, as Master Zhou, makes the most formidable enemy, clearly outclassing the cast members playing the Seven Killers. As it stands, the suspense diminishes with the introduction, one by one, of each of the Seven, since none of them is ever much of a credible threat to the hero.
The stylish direction is by Chor Yuen (aka Chu Yuan), who's better known for his series of traditional costume "martial world" spectacles based on novels by Ku Lung (THE MAGIC BLADE, KILLER CLANS, THE SENTIMENTAL SWORDSMAN, LEGEND OF THE BAT, etc.). This one actually has a lot more kung fu than most of those do.
Special Note (9/29/07): I revised the above review after finally seeing the remastered Hong Kong original on a Region 3 DVD from Celestial Pictures. Among the details confirmed is the 1980 release date which is at odds with an erroneous © date of 1974 given in the credits of the English dubbed version, IRON CHAIN FIGHTER, which I'd based my original review on. I also learned that the source for the screenplay is a novel by Zhu Yu. In addition, the music cues lifted from Bernard Herrmann's score for TAXI DRIVER (1976) and heard on the English dub are all on the original soundtrack as well. Finally, the comparison to film noir I originally made is easier to make while watching a grainy, high-contrast full-screen video than it is with a viewing of the colorful widescreen original.