Director: Chang Yi Hu
Starring: Tieh Wah, James Nam, Shih Szu
Pivotal, early basher from 1971. This film appears to have bridged a gap between Wang Yu's groundbreaking 1970 film, The Chinese Boxer (widely regarded as the first empty hand martial arts movie) and the legendary King Boxer (aka 5 Fingers of Death) from later in 1971. Thunderbolt Fist contains not only many of the same plot points as it's counterparts, but more than a few of the same faces and names, both in front of and behind the camera.
The story starts at the end of the Chinese Revolution. A small village is under siege by a gang of evil Japanese fighters who are attempting to take over the land. Their leader is defeated by the villager's top fighter in a tournament match. Disgraced, the gang has him murdered. His young son escapes to the mountains where after many years of hard training with his band of rebels, sets out to avenge his father's murder and regain the town for the Chinese.
Ultimately, Thunderbolt Fist will draw comparisons to the aforementioned King Boxer (both of which shared the same production timetable) and as such, it comes up lacking. The direction by Chang Yi Hu is competent and provides for a fast paced adventure, but it lacks the well drawn characters and buildup of tension that Cheng Chang Ho so brilliantly devised with his masterpiece. Compared to King Boxer, Thunderbolt Fist is a very much by-the-number production. This is exactly what King Boxer would have been like had it been in less capable (less visionary) hands.
One advantage that this film does have is the presence of a female martial artist, portrayed by Shih Szu. As the hero's sister, Shih is very engaging in the part and even get's to briefly perform some Robin Hoodesque deeds. As the main hero, Tieh Wa just doesn't quite cut it. A good actor and decent fighter, Tieh's looks are best suited to villainous roles or as second billed to the lead. As the main star, he just doesn't have enough charisma to fully pull it off. As the lead Japanese villain, James Nam does an excellent job here. A Korean born veteran of early 70s martial arts films, Nam has always brought a sense of realism to his roles, be it hero or villain. With his slightly crossed eyes and inner intensity, Nam conveys rage and sheer hatred like few others in the genre. By the time he recieves his ultimate come uppance in the ring (via a graphic flying kick that goes clear through him!), you find yourself fully cheering along with it.
Overall Thunderbolt Kick stands as a pretty good (and pretty bloody) basher for it's time. It isn't a classic, but fans can do worse than this one.
**1/2 / ****