A prestigious Kung Fu tournament. Two rival schools, one of which will stop at nothing to win. A promising young student. Imposing villainous fighters with exotic techniques. Despite the abundant tropes, the film surprised me.
To be fair, these elements were fresh in 1972. But today, the setup proves predictable. The student joins the “good” school, trains hard, and learns a secret Kung Fu technique. A rival student grows jealous. The “evil” school attempts to sabotage the student, providing smaller fight scenes before the big tournament. Five Fingers of Death hits these beats, but surprises with a bloody third act full of unexpected carnage.
I loved the scenes filmed on location. Staging battles outside of a sound stage permits wider shots and removes some of the artifice. I say “some” because you’ve still got fighters splitting skulls with karate chops and trees with head-butts.
But the film proves judicious with such hyperbole. This results in finale pregnant with pent up tension. When our hero finally unleashes his new technique, it’s accompanied by a visual flair and sound cue that must have had 1972 audiences cheering. And you know what? It still works.