Eagle's Claw

Reviewed by Yves Gendron

Dating back from 1977, EAGLEíS CLAW is a kung-fu potboiler with a twist starring minor martial stars Chi Kuan-chun and Don Wong. Chen Tien-chun (Chi Kwan Chun) and Li Chi (Don Wong) are the top students in an Eagle Claws martial art style school. One day an old enemy of their master, the long white-haired Chow Ma-wu (Chang Yi), comes back with his own disciples to settle some old scores. He has now become an exponent of the lethal Mantis Fist and he and the Eagleís master grievously hurt each other in the ensuing duel. Knowing he is dying and his school still endangered by Chow, the Master appoints Li Chi as his successor much to the dismay of Chen the expected heir. In fact he grows so bitterly despondent over this that he accidentally kills the ailing master in a drunken rage. Now a pariah hunted down by his own former Eagle fellow disciples, Chen is invited to join the enemy camp. Having to choose between a life on the run or becoming a complete betrayer, Chenís decision will determine the very survival of the Eagle Clan. But everything may not be actually what it seems.

While EAGLE'S CLAW uses the familiar element of the vengeance driven plot, the white haired villain and the rival animal styles, the tale is given a whole now twist by having the usually heroic Chi Kuan-chun apparently heading towards the dark side. Itís a neat trick leading to quite griping suspense, drama and plot twists that is head and shoulders above those usually found in k-f films. There is much fighting throughout the film but they usually donít last very long and end before any real excitement can be built-up. Thankfully, the last twenty minutes contains two sustained bouts, involving blade-wielding henchmen.  The movieís most quirky element also develops in the last third of the film. Chi Kuan-chunís character begins to flirt with the cute female henchman, who as she keeps exchanging barbs and slaps (ďyouíre the most cunning and odious man I ever got to knowĒ) with Chen is slowly falling for him, a very neat plot development.
Shortly after having seen EAGLE'S CLAW's English sub version, this reviewer saw a French-dub one. Besides sparing me the arduous task of having to decipher hard to read sub-titles, this version actually sports dubbing voices of astonishing warmth and eloquence. English dubbing jobs are notoriously bad and have massively contributed to k-f cinemaís repute of cheesy mediocrity, while the French ones on the other hand sound very classy with voices done by seasoned actors (which may explain why the French have generally a somewhat greater respect for martial art cinema than Anglo-Saxons do). Unfortunately at least some French distributors took the sorry habit of drastically cutting their k-f exports.  Not for any censorship reason (as in England) but to shorten the running time and to allow for more daily screenings, a despicable practice that is especially disheartening considering the usual great quality of the dub.
EAGLE'S CLAW was directed by Lee Tso Nam deemed by many as one of the best Taiwanese-based independent k-f directors whose HOT COOL AND VICIOUS (76), THE WOMAN AVENGER (78) and LEGS FIGHTERS (80) are also reviewed on this web site. His movies often featured an unusual take on a convention of the genre, sounder dramatic plotting as well as memorable characters. EAGLE'S CLAW is well in line with his other films and might be one of his very best works.
Both Eagle Claws and Mantis fist are actual martial art styles of northern origin. Eagle (or Ying Jao in Chinese) is said to date back to the Yuen Dynasty (1271-1366). It is therefore a much more ancient art than the southern Shaolin derived styles usually seen in k-f movies such as Hung Gar or Wing-Chun which were primarily developed in the course of the last three centuries.  A joint-hook, throw down, pressure point attacks centred brand of fighting, Eagle Claw is said to actually look like Japanese Jujitsu to some degree. Its main recognisable features are itís claw like handgrip and itís characteristic stance mimicking a bird of prey. Like Eagle, Mantis (or Tong Lun) is a pressure-point attack centred, a merciless brand of fighting. Typically the mantis stylist would grasp an opponentís arm with itís hook-like hand, throw him off-balance, leaving him open to a devastating darting attack on some of the bodyís most vulnerable areas, such as the throat, the temple, or the armpits. Both Eagle and Mantis are favourites among k-f movie choreographers because of their flashy, exotic moves, although whether these arts are accurately being shown in this particular film might be another matter entirely. Indeed the two EAGLE CLAWS stars are actually southern animal stylists while the main villain Chang Yi and the fight choreographer Ė Tommy Lee - are Peking Opera trained performers. Except for the opening credits sequence, the film does not really offer any real insight into how Eagle Claws truly works and the film contains some typical Peking Opera acrobatics as well as a couple of wire enhanced jumps, which thankfully do not really detract from the fight scenes.
EAGLE'S CLAW's lead star Chi Kuan-chun was a discovery of the great martial art filmmaker Chang Cheh who showcased him during his Taiwanese autonomous period between 1974 and 1977. Towering and stoically intense, Chi was the perfect foil for the smaller and impish Fu Sheng and they were often paired together as in SHAOLIN MARTIAL ART (74), FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS (75) and DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN (same). But while both Chang Cheh and Fu Sheng eventually rejoined the Shaw Brothers studio in H-K, Chen continued his career on his own. Up through the early Eighties he made another twenty movies (he made 32 in total) and but since then he appears to have transitioned to television. As a real live Hung-gar exponent, Chen is a splendid screen-fighter with great presence but rather a one-note actor. The filmís villain is being played by Chang Yi who actually started out in the late sixties as a Shaw Brothers heroic lead player before switching to bad guys towards the mid-seventies. One of his henchmen appearing towards the end is a shaved Phillip Ko wielding a steal retractable spear. Another one is Leung Kar Yan who had his screen-debut with SHAOLIN MARTIAL ART, one of Chen Kwan Taiís very first movies. Ironically a couple of years later in the Sammo directed THE VICTIM (80) both Leung and Chang would work again although this time, it was Leung as the hero to Chang Yiís usual ruthless bad-guy. One of Chen and Don Wongís fellow Eagle Claw disciples is being played by Lung Fung (a.k.a. Jimmy Lee) who would become quite notorious later on in playing villains in gambling movies such as GOD OF GAMBLERS (89). EAGLE was also the film debut of cute Hwa Ling who did a handful of k-f movies in the late seventies. Sheís involved in some fights which she performs all by herself, but neither her role as the Eagleís master daughter or her fighting make any real great impression. The lovelorn henchwoman played by an actress named Wang Kuai-sheng on the other hand is a bit more memorable.
In the end some viewers might find EAGLE'S CLAW just too tame in terms of fighting to fully satisfy. On the other hand, in a genre where formulaic and sloppy plotting is the rule, the intriguing take offered by EAGLE'S CLAW isnít something to overlook thus making the movie into a very recommended find for those who would have something more than mere exotic fist fights on their k-f menu.

My rating for this film: 7.5