Duel of Iron Fist

Reviewed by Yves Gendron

Try to imagine owing your life to the man who killed your beloved (god)father. This is the predicament that poor Ti Lung finds himself in DUEL OF IRON FIST (also know more simply as THE DUEL). This 1971 kung fu pot-boiler is from the martial art master filmmaker Chang Cheh and is part of his "Blood Brother" movies that he directed back in the early seventies which showcased the deadly duo of Ti Lung and David Chiang.

Set in the Republican era of China, Ti Lung plays Chan Cheh the (god)son? (the dubbing isn't clear on that), of an ageing underworld godfather on the verge of retirement. The latter is killed in a surprise attack during a celebratory party however, forcing Chan into exile for the good of the gang. A year later after various attempts against his life, Chan Cheh discovers that the one who took over his (god)father’s group, the book-keeper Kang, not only wants to kill him but had also arranged his (god)father’s murder in the first place. A guest at the party, the “Rover” (David Chiang) – a dapper suited mysterious mercenary - carried out this assassination. Naturally, Chan Cheh sets out for revenge with the help of his drunkard elder brother (Ku Feng), his best buddy, but along the way the Rover saves Chang on a couple of occasions for his own mysterious reasons.

It's rather hard to make a fair assessment of DUEL OF IRON FIST nowadays as most current versions suffer from the triple outrages of so many kung fu films from this period - weak English dubbing, extensive cutting and a terrible video transfer. It’s more than enough to wreck any viewing experience and of making any griping pot-boiler into shoddy looking chop socky silliness. Under such treatment even a classic like John Woo's THE KILLER, would end up looking pretty bad.  Small wonder then that DUEL recently ended up being used as an example of a "bad" kung fu movie in an episode of the TV series BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.

Yet despite being reduced to a shadow of it's original self, some juice still comes out of this movie and it still remains a tense, compact action drama with an adequately gloomy atmosphere and frequent one against many thundering battles scenes. Not of the intricate and ballet like kung fu variety seen in later martial pictures, but far more raw and bloody with whirlwind-like ample use of knives, daggers and hatchets. Another strong asset going for the film is the showcasing of Ti Lung in the prime of his mid-twenties. He plays an impetuous young fighter, earnest enough to tattoo a red butterfly on his chest in honour of his beloved sweetheart and yet he is a furiously kicking two blade carrying human tornado in battle.

This said, DUEL is far from being a masterpiece. Plot-wise it lacks focus and meanders a bit. It's most grievous lapse is an odd subplot which feels as if it has been put there only so as to avoid Ti Lung and Chiang ending up slaying each other at the picture’s close. It involves a crooked senator and makes the Chiang character some sort of secret agent. Not only does this needlessly complicate the plot, but it also diminishes the dramatic "You saved my life yet you killed my (god)father" twist. Fortunately this shortcoming does not detract too much from the riveting final third with three huge fights coming one after the other - the one in the middle being a bamboo pole duel between Ti and Chiang. It's done in a setting of rain, mud and blood and allows Chang Cheh to create some superb homoerotic heroic blood-shed imagery.

Seen in a straightforward way, DUEL is fair enough. It's possible however to see the movie from a quite potentially interesting angle: as a prototype of John Woo's late eighties heroic bloodshed movies (the reference earlier of the THE KILLER was not gratuitous). It's widely acknowledged that Chang Cheh was John Woo’s mentor to whom he worked as assistant director in the early seventies and to which he patterned his themes of tragic heroism, male bonding, chivalrous like code of honour and bloody, balletic battle scenes after. As a kung fu gangster mix-up DUEL OF IRON HAND’s affiliation with the later gangster epics by John Woo is even more clear than most of Chang Cheh’s “Blood Brother” movies.

It's just that it's 1930 Republican China instead of contemporary Hong Kong - knives instead of guns, and David Chiang rather than Chow Yun Fat. Indeed, Chiang may not have the all consuming charisma of Chow and looks rather like Tony Leung Chi wai (aka Little Tony), but his dapper suited, smirking, secretive cool dude character is much like the characters of Mak Gor and John/Jeff played by Chow in A BETTER TOMMOROW and THE KILLER respectively. As an aside - ten years later Chang Cheh recycled the DUEL plot for another movie, the Venom gang martial art movie FLAG OF IRON aka: SPEARMEN OF DEATH in 1980.
DUEL OF IRON FIST exists in two different versions, both far from being satisfactory. One is 100mn long, dubbed, in full screen format and seemingly cut around the edge to some unknown extent. The other is letterbox, which greatly improves the viewing of the fight scenes, but is even more extensively cut, ends in the middle of the final fight and wears the title DUEL OF SHAOLIN FIST which is a sheer travesty as the film has nothing to do in either plot or fighting style to the Shaolin mythos. As it now exists, DUEL OF IRON FIST is recommended mostly for Ti Lung and old school dedicated fans, as well as fans of Heroic bloodshed movies who might be interested in seeing an "ancestor" of their beloved genre. However once it is restored - if ever - DUEL might be possibly considered quite worthwhile for a far wider range of Hong Kong cinema fans.

Rating: 6.0