Grand Duel/The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe

I’ve been meaning to write a post about these two movies for quite some time now. I saw them both back in November, and when I reviewed True Grit I thought it would be great to have a post about these flicks to make the week have an unofficial “Western” theme. Unfortunately, I caught a snag: I wasn’t sure that I could accurately describe just how much fun these movies are (I do speak with a slight bias though – I love Spaghetti Westerns).

The two films are part of this twenty-movie collection from Mill Creek Entertainment. It’s one of the those box sets that you find lying at the bottom of a Wal-Mart bargain bin and don’t think too much of. Sure, it’s twenty movies for less than the price of one movie ticket, but they probably aren’t very good. I was lucky enough to receive this collection as a gift, otherwise I would have done the same thing as everyone else: left it at the bottom of the pile. And I would’ve missed out on two of the best film (Western or otherwise) experiences I’ve had in a long time.

A word of warning for those of you who want to buy the collection: the sound and picture of the movies are almost all VHS level. And not the good VHS either. I was only able to find two films that could be considered DVD-quality worthy: Grand Duel and Beyond the Law (which is pretty forgettable – except for the villain falling from a water tower to his death, black cape fluttering through the air). But still, two decent quality transfers for about $10? And with another eighteen potential classics – this set is a deal.

Don’t look to Grand Duel and The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe for grand issues or complex philosophical themes. They’re just pure entertainment free from realism or the constraints of telling a message. The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe in particular has some of the most ridiculous scenes I ever seen. It’s the type of film that you’d imagine with a few buddies over a couple bottles of beer – “wouldn’t it be great if the main character had a razor-blade yo-yo?” – with that anarchic vision realized onscreen. It ain’t Shakespeare, but it’s a helluva lot of fun.

Grand Duel

Hi I'm Lee Van Cleef. I'm a badass.

I made the mistake of putting this on while I’m trying to write this review. It’s an incredibly addictive film, and it has one of the coolest opening sequences ever (which is probably why you’ll find it on Quentin Tarantino’s list of his favorite 20 spaghetti westerns). The main character is Clayton (Lee Van Cleef), an ex-sheriff traveling across the West in a stagecoach who gets stopped when a bunch of bounty hunters are lurking in a town and waiting for a wanted outlaw (Alberto Dentice) to leave his hideout. Because he’s tough-as-nails, Clayton leisurely walks through the town, revealing the positions of the hidden bounty hunters to the outlaw. One is crouching behind a well, so Clayton throws water on him after taking a drink. Another is hidden in a haystack; Clayton throws his matchstick into it after lighting his cigar. One is standing behind a pillar; Clayton blows smoke in his face. He’s totally cool and in control.

Clayton takes a break in the town saloon to have a whiskey, and that’s when the outlaw decides to make his escape. It’s a thrilling action sequence, with the outlaw diving out of his window and shooting the bounty hunters, being flung into the air on an impromptu catapult, and when overwhelmed by the sheer force conspiring against him, he retreats into the saloon. Directly into Clayton’s paws. The sequence plays like a Rube Goldberg machine with Clayton as the omniscient mastermind of it all. He just looks at the outlaw with a thin smile and offers him some whiskey. Brilliant.

The plot of the movie deals with a cover-up, the framing of an innocent man, and three brutal brothers (one of them with some unsightly facial acne) that Clayton faces off against in a climatic shootout (what, like it would end any other way?). There are so many great sequences in the film all revolving around Clayton’s almost super-human skills. In one scene, he’s shot with a pistol at point-blank, but he catches the bullet with his TEETH. Beautiful.

The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe

Even better than Grand Duel is this movie. This movie starts off trying to make a grand statement about racism and prejudice (the lead, Chen Lee, is only offered menial positions because he’s Chinese) but then forgoes all that to dive into batshit insanity (since he’s Chinese he’s obviously a master of Kung-Fu…and everything). Rather than go into what the movie’s about (it’s really about hinging as many ridiculous scenes as possible along a loose plot) I’ll just break down a few key sequences that you need to know about:

  • In the first scene, Joe breaks a coconut with his yo-yo. Just cause he can.
  • He’s challenged to hammer in a nail in one hit – but he uses his hand to do it instead.
  • He does a double back flip onto a horse.
  • He rips a man’s eyes out.
  • He battles, and wins against, a bull.

You must watch The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe. Once it gains a cult following, maybe they’ll make a better transfer of it. Or maybe they’ll make a remake – which I’d be more than happy to see (as long as they keep in the double back flips and animal beat downs). Just incredible.

Buy the set for a great double feature – and then have 18 movies left (I’ve only seen three so far, but I’m looking forward to checking out White Comanche with William Shatner!).


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