Director: Cheng Hou
Starring: Chen Sing, Yasuaki Kuratta, Nancy Yen
Chen Sing produced as well as starred in this 1973 modern day Basher that exists as much as a police drama as it does a revenge picture and features several unusual plot devices that manage to keep things thankfully unpredictable.
Chen Sing plays a man who is framed by his two friends (the exact reason is never made clear) who stash contraband in his briefcase for the authorities to find. He spends three years in prison not uttering a word other than proclaiming his innocence. The warden believes him as he has been investigating a Japanese crime lord (Yasuaki Kurata) and discovers that Chen's two "friends" are now working for him. After breaking out of jail due to false information given by a visitor who claimed his main squeeze (Nancy Yen) was now with Kuratta, Chen goes on a path of revenge. The warden while still piecing things together, follows his trail.
While it's true that any Basher that stars Chen Sing is worthwhile, Black Panther is a particularly strong entry. Thanks to some sharp direction on the part of Cheng Hou, Black Panther's plot feels fresher and more original than it actually is. An interesting conceit here is that Chen's much put upon character is never once allowed to exact his vengeance on Kurata or (for the most part) anyone else! His battles (the ones that count, anyway) end with him either being knocked out or having his adversaries assassinated or ultimately broken up by the police. It's a brave move on the part of the filmmakers and the fact that the movie's tone does not feel overly cynical is quite an accomplishment.
There is also a bit more character depth than usual for this sort of thing. The warden is given a three dimensional portrayal. Though our sympathies do not slide towards him (he is after all, merely using Chen to involuntarily help in his investigation), his motives seem logical and do not feel villainous (something a lesser kung fu film would have done). As the doomed girlfriend, Nancy Yen is given enough screen time to make her character something more than eye candy standing on the sidelines. Her character is tough, yet feminine and she is afforded a couple of decent fight scenes (certainly this is a more interesting character than the one she played in Tiger From Hong Kong). Chen's two treacherous ex-friends are even given a little bit of depth. When it comes time to killing Yen's character, one of them objects, "I won't do it, she's always been nice to me". A small and simple touch, but a welcome one. Kurata isn't given enough to do, but as always, makes for a suavely sinister lead villain. His final battle with Chen is terrific (as are all of their many celluloid smackdowns) even if it is not allowed to reach it's expected conclusion.
The thing that truly sets this film apart from others of it's ilk however, is it's bewildering stunt work. There are two absolutely amazing moments here. The first involves a mid film chase that has Chen being pursed on foot by an automobile. Cornered, it looks like our hero is about to become roadkill. That is until he turns and in a fit of rage, jumps feet first through the windshield, killing his pursuer. This was many years before a similar (and less spectacular) version was performed in Chuck Norris' Good Guys Wear Black and it literally caused me to jump to my feet thinking "Did he REALLY just do that?!". The other stunt has Nancy Yen being pursued on the roof of a building. Attempting to fend off her attackers, she quickly finds herself hanging off the edge of the building, her hands holding on for dear life to a flimsy fence as the two men attempt to shake her off. The entire thing is shot in such a dizzying way as to make it seem as though there were no safety precautions taken (though I'm sure there had to be... right?). It is a fairly nervewracking series of moments that is matched only by her crazy, last second rescue by Chen. For those who mistakenly assumed (like I did) that major stunts in Hong Kong movies began in the 80s, this film proves to be a rude awakening.
Black Panther shapes up a particularly strong entry. It is one of Chen Sing's best starring vehicles and one of the more memorable martial arts movies of the early 70s.
*** / ****