One-Armed Boxer was “Jimmy” Wang Yu’s statement of intent after leaving Shaw Brothers for rival Golden Harvest. At the time, Wang Yu had starred in several of the former studio’s instant classics, including The Chinese Boxer and One-Armed Swordsman. His exodus from the studio, along with executive Raymond Chow (who founded Golden Harvest), was a big deal for Hong Kong cinema, and Boxer became a big deal for the genre itself. Wang Yu wrote, directed and starred in this martial arts epic, delivering fights and character work befitting his reputation as one of the best.
The story is fairly standard: Yu Tien Lung (Jimmy Wang Yu) is the best student at his martial arts school, which runs afoul of the dastardly Hook Gang, who hire mercenaries to attack the school. The mercenaries all practice different forms of martial arts — karate, judo, taekwondo, yoga, etc. They attack the school and kill everyone but Tien Lung, who loses his arm. He vows revenge, trains up and eventually beats the ever-loving shit out of the bad guys.
Like I said, pretty straightforward and even echoing The Chinese Boxer to a great degree. When watched in rapid succession with other Shaw and Golden Harvest films, One-Armed Boxer suffers by comparison. Its virtue is that it features a little bit of everything that worked for Wang Yu before he left Shaw — great choreography, colorful villains and an exposition-style display of multiple fighting styles. What doesn’t work, though, is that the story is slow and uninvolving, mostly a lesser retelling of more interesting films. The Chinese Boxer, for instance, features a finale in snow and several stage-bound scenes with a gorgeous design aesthetic that mask their inherent artificiality. No such lengths are taken here. There’s just a lesser overall craft on display.
Still, Wang Yu (who passed away last month) was a legendary figure in the martial arts landscape, and it’s probably unfair to say “I’ve watched 15 of these movies this year and they’re starting to blend together, so this one pales in comparison.” One-Armed Boxer provides basically everything fans or curios could want from a 1970s martial arts film, and the new Arrow set is currently the easiest way to get it in the United States.
Arrow’s new release features a 2K restoration, presented in 1080p. As with most of their Hong Kong releases, there is both an original Mandarin audio track as well as an English dub. A commentary track with Frank Djeng and a career retrospective with Wang Yu are also included. Features-wise, this is a somewhat thinner release than many of Arrow’s recent kung-fu features. One has to wonder if Golden Harvest is a less willing partner than Shaw Brothers.