Some movie are, by design, rooted in the real world. For example, classic films like Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars or Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai are totally fictitious, yet are easily accessible to audiences because they are anchored to real-life places and time periods. And then sometimes, you get a film about a kung-fu master who travels to the Wild West in order to protect Latino farmhands from incredibly racist ranchers.
The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe is one of the latter.
The Fighting Fist of Shanghai Joe (also known as My Name is Shanghai Joe, To Kill or to Die, and The Dragon Strikes Back) is the story of Chinese immigrant Chin Hao (Chen Lee) and his attempt to live the American Dream by traveling to Texas and start some sort of barely-defined farm or ranch. He is met with a ridiculous amount of racism and abuse from nearly everyone he meets. Eventually, he is duped into becoming a near slave by probably the most corrupt Texas rancher/cattle smuggler stereotype I've ever seen (Piero Lulli). The film really starts to pick up at this point, as Hao injures/humiliates the rancher, escapes, and picks up an attractive Mexican sidekick Cristina (Carla Romanelli). All is not well for Hao, however, as the rancher hires a cadre of murderers and bounty hunters to eliminate our heroes, including crazy characters such as Pedro the Cannibal (Claudio Undari) and Scalper Jack (Klaus Kinski). Of course, these men are no match for Hao's skill. Oh, did I mention that Hao is one of only two people in the world who is a part of a super-secret society of kung-fu called the Fire Lotus? Didn't I? Well, that's because the film doesn't tell us until this point either. And guess what? The other Fire Lotus guy (George Wang) just happens to be moonlighting as a mercenary in Texas. What a coincidence! What follows is an epic-ish showdown that has to be seen to be believed.
This movie is ridiculous. First off, I really enjoy the wacky results of this genre mash-up between Kung-Fu flick and Western. I think the two genres work very well with each other, much like peanut butter and chocolate, or Skittles and Sprite (seriously, try it). As an added bonus, The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe was filmed in Italy during the 1970s, which only adds to the campiness by supplying the film with odd shots, crazy voice overdubbing (which actually adds to the off-track nature of standard kung-fu films), and chintzy special effects on par with the ever-popular Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Puma Man.
In short, this is a pretty cheap, technically awful B-movie. I'm not going to argue that one bit. However, this film has a very engaging story, and Chen Lee plays the titular character quite well. He is heroic and disciplined without becoming completely emotionless and two-dimensional. This may very well have saved the movie from being complete dreck. Another standout is Klaus Kinski as Scalphunter Jack. Kinski's role was minuscule (clocking in at just under 10 minutes out of the 1 hour 40 minute running time!), but he somehow gave the character depth. The score by Bruno Nicolai is pretty epic as well, with heavy acoustic guitar and trumpet, which is actually pretty common with Spaghetti Westerns.
Shanghai Joe would be great (well, great for low-budget fare), if not for the overabundance of racial slurs. I mean, I'm no prude by any means, but there is at least one derogatory term (all of which I've decided not to include here) every 30 seconds. That is not an exaggeration. Asians, African-Americans, Latinos, Caucasians, the Irish... no one is spared. I guess that makes it OK, right? (Don't answer that.)
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the final fight between our hero and the rogue Shaolin master Yang. This duel plays like a standard western showdown, except the characters are trading blows, not bullets. There is extremely choreographed karate, “expert” knife throwing, swordplay, and yes, at one point the evil Yang pulls a gun on Hao. The gun is only revealed after Hao straight cuts off Yang's hand, only to have Yang cauterize his wound by shoving his bloody stump into an open fire. And the culmination of the scene where – SPOILER ALERT FOR A 40-YEAR-OLD MOVIE – Hao catches a bullet then punches clean through Yang is pretty hardcore.
The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe is, in short, a goofy, cheaply made film. It was never intended to set the world on fire or radically change anyone's perception of cinema. However, it is a different take on the Western and Kung-Fu genres, and a whole, it gets it right more times than not. And honestly, I'd rather watch an interesting mess than a boring, formulaic big-budget blockbuster. That's why I'm giving The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe 3 ½ stars out of 5*.
*When it comes to rating B-movies, I will be determining the score based on other B-movies, meaning this film and, say, for example, Ghostbusters II can both be worth 3 ½ despite their staggering differences in quality. It's all relative, guys.