A man walks into a bar and notices another man sitting at his table. He tells the man that he has to pay for the transgression. Either with his life or the pretty bird he’s carrying with him (and that’s an actual, literal bird not some metaphor for an attractive woman). The other man gets up to fight and pays with his life.
A third man, Yu Tien-Lung (Jimmy Wang Yu), our hero who has yet to lose either of his arms to become the man of the title, interjects. Sitting in the wrong seat is not a good reason for a man to lose his life. The killer is a member of the Hook gang who runs the local opium and prostitution rings. Yu Tien-Lung and his friends throw down on the Hook gang and easily win. The Hook gang then challenges them to a battle royale later that day. They lose that battle too and a revenge scenario begins.
Yu Tien-Lung is the best fighter in the Ching Te school of martial arts. He tells his master what happened that day and begs for forgiveness (as he shouldn’t have agreed to fight the Hook gang a second time). Meanwhile, the Hook gang members tell their master some lies about how Tien-Lung started it all and how he called the master some dirty names. The Hook leader brings his gang to the Ching Te school and yet another battle royale begins. The Hook gang loses, again.
At this point, any self-respecting gang leader would take his losses and go pick on some poor schmucks in some other town or down the street or something. Or they’d just return to the prostituting and opium dealing and leave the gang that keeps kicking their asses alone. But then we wouldn’t have a movie. Instead, the Hook leader hires some outside help. There is a Japanese vampire (I don’t think he’s actually a vampire but he’s got crazy-looking fangs and so that’s what everybody calls him – not in the movie mind you, just fans of the film) / a Yoga master whose main trick is walking really fast in circles on his hands, and a bunch of other random dudes.
They wipe the floor with the Ching-te school, killing most of them while the vampire-looking dude literally punches Tien-Lung’s arm off. This is like two-thirds of the way through the movie which is pretty far along for a movie called One-Armed Boxer. But that’s the way this movie goes. The thing about action movies is beyond the ample amounts of action they really need to do something in the way of creating a character you care about. You need someone to root for.
Oh, and your action should probably actually be good.
One-Armed Boxer fails in both of these categories. The story is pretty basic and Tien-Lung is not in the least bit interesting. Jimmy Wang Yu, who also wrote and directed the film, was a pretty big star in Hong Kong at the time. He rose to fame making films for Shaw Brothers Studio but legal troubles caused him to get banned from the Hong Kong film industry sending him to Taiwan to make this film for Golden Harvest. The film that made him a star was actually called One-Armed Swordsman and he no doubt had the success of that film in mind when he was making this one. Whatever he had that made him famous sure doesn’t show up here. There’s virtually no charisma or charm or even prowess during the action scenes.
For a movie that is essentially nonstop action, they sure aren’t staged very well. In scenes where a large number of people are fighting at once, the background actors are essentially just wailing their arms around. But even in one on one combat, the choreography sucks. The sound effects do all the heavy lifting.
Whenever they do slow things down for a story beat, they almost always miss the mark. After Tien-Lung gets his arm knocked off, he runs away in despair, then is saved by an elderly man and his daughter. In a good film, this would be cause for our hero to ponder life without an arm. There might be a scene where the elderly man gives him a good talking to. The girl might bring him comfort or even romance. Then he’d spend time learning how to do small things with one arm and learn to fight again. In other words, there would be some character building. One-Armed Boxer gives us a short montage.
This does lead us to a good example of why I can still recommend the film. After the montage, the elderly man tells our hero that he has an elixir that will heighten his strength tremendously. The catch is that in order for it to work he has to deaden all the nerves in his arm. Cue Tien-Lung jamming his entire arm into some hot coals. That plus the elixir turn his arm into some kind of unstoppable, unfeeling machine that can smash stones just as easily as it will smash heads. It’s that kind of nuttiness one looks for in an old kung fu movie. It is that plus the ridiculous cavalcade of enemies he must fight (did I mention there is a Japanese vampire?) that makes the film worth your time.
Arrow Video’s presentation of One-Armed Boxer comes with a 2K restoration from the original elements and the original lossless Mandarin mono audio, alternate Mandarin soundtrack, and original English dubbed audio. Extras include audio commentary from Frank Djeng from the New York Asian Film Festival, an interview with Jimmy Wang Yu, over half an hour’s worth of trailers from other Jimmy Wang Yu films, and an essay from Simon Abram.