Karate Warriors

July 12, 2011 at 2:01 am (8 Heads, Karate Warriors) (, , , , , )

Karate Warriors – 1976 – Japan

While I’ve yet to see the beloved The Streetfighter, I’m hard-pressed to find a more excellent Sonny Chiba flick than Karate Warriors. Compared to his usual stony-faced roles, Chiba’s performance is shiningly emotive and his kung fu is in top form. Karate Warriors triumphs with intrigue, drama, skull busting, and poetry.

In the frenzied opening scene, hoods demolish a pachinko parlor “and porno shop”. Per the narrator, it’s a heroin deal gone awry. In a decrepit coastal town, Chiba is a mercenary tramp who (borrowing from Yojimbo) manipulates a gang war. Chiba’s multi-faceted character balances stone-coldness with honor and humor to be alternately despicable and lovable. He slaps a prostitute, smokes stogies, steals a toddler’s rice ball and murders the kid’s pappy. More shockingly, Chiba frequently tosses the kid about like a sack of rice (the child actor does his own stunts even). Of course, by the end, Chiba adopts him. Meanwhile, hundreds of gangsters are hacked/punched apart as Chiba mixes swordplay with his customary brutal kung fu.

The plot is fairly involved as three factions double cross for a million dollar heroin stash. Disregarding shaky motivation and meandering pacing, Karate Warriors stays interesting with outrageous tough-guy characters and endless action. Chiba’s nemesis is a quietly intense “samurai”.  Despite sharing mutual respect, the two have a climatic graveyard showdown. Another choice bit: Chiba walks into a teatime gang meeting and plops a severed arm on the table, provoking a riot that can only end with scores of decimated dudes.

Surprisingly for this caliber of flick, Karate Warriors is visually stylish. The cluttered, dilapidated urban setting is made starker by a palette of desaturated yellow. Angular, layered compositions further emphasize the atmospheric locations. While the fights are over-edited (typical of Chiba), dizzyingly frantic handheld camerawork adds energy while alternating slow-mo and normal speed footage accentuates Chiba’s graceful power.

Unlike the dismal The Bodyguard, Karate Warriors is inspiringly intense. When Chiba’s passionate personality combines with interesting writing and direction, magic happens. Kung fu heads, check it out.

Rating: 8/10 Shrunken Heads. Notable as one of the era’s few flicks that dare to utter the word “cunt”.

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