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‘The Fist of the Condor’ (review)

The Fist of the Condor is a 2023 Chilean martial arts film directed by Ernesto Diaz Espinoza (Kiltro, Redeemer) and starring martial arts phenom Marko Zaror (John Wick Chapter 4) in their third collaboration. It was received with wild enthusiasm on the festival circuit, was picked up by our old friends at Well Go USA and arrived in theaters on April 4th and on their Hi-Yah streaming service on the 7th.

Special note: the Staten Island Alamo DraftHouse which is a cathedral to kung fu movies is having a special screening on the 4th with the star and that would be worth attending if you’re in the Northeast corridor and you love martial arts films.

The Fist of the Condor is in a very exclusive subgenre of martial arts pictures which do not just pay homage to the movies of the “kung fu boom” of the early 70’s but actually transpose their world into some version of our own.

Think how Kill Bill is set in roughly our world but Uma Thurman learns kung fu from the bad guy in Clan of the White Lotus, or everything in The Last Dragon.

In this case, the basic story is culled from Jin Yong’s Condor Heroes series of wuxia pulps, and concerns a secret Incan manual, suppressed by the Spanish, of physical combat that allows the student to move in accordance with nature and gain the powerful and deadly Condor technique.

It’s a wonderful touch of taking the traditional “Han vs. Manchu” setting of every Shaw Brothers film and finding a parallel in the history and culture of the filmmakers.

The film, like Kiltro and Redeemer, is built around the physical capabilities of its star, Marko Zaror. Zaror is a living comic book: built like a wrestler but capable of some incredible feats of agility.

Here the choreography isn’t so much building on Redeemer (highly recommended for its fight scenes, by the way) but knowingly invoking the styles or “shapes” films from kung fu film’s golden period. The film is bookended by brilliant fight sequences that draw on everything from Seasonal era Jackie Chan to Sonny Chiba’s The Street Fighter.

The homages aren’t limited to the fights: I caught deliberate call backs to training sequences in Master of the Flying Guillotine, the inn scene from Five Fingers of Death, the duel that sends Ogami on the “road to hell” in Sword of Vengeance, and a number of callbacks to the David Carradine Kung Fu. The structure of the plot and the device of hinting at a larger, unseen, antagonist feel like tips of the hat to the aforementioned Kill Bill. This is a love letter to a style of film that sadly is slowly going extinct just as its greatest triumphs are finally being made available in their original formats on Blu-ray in the West.

I want to give a quick shout out to Eyal Meyer who plays a villainous assassin who drives much of the third act of the film. Zaror is a great martial artist but truthfully, he can be a bit stiff dramatically at times. Meyer’s striking villain– decked out with eye black and a hairdo that sort of reminds me of a ginger Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight does much to raise the dramatic stakes of the final fights with his supremely self-satisfied performance. His charisma just overflows out of the screen and I would be very interested to see him as the star of a martial arts film in the future. He’s got the chops, and a unique look that will commit him to your memory banks.

I have some quibbles: the call backs can get a little too cute at times. I appreciate thematic references but trying to imitate the look of quick zooms from the 70’s made by directors who had to eyeball the focus on modern digital cameras takes me right out of the drama and reminds me I’m watching a movie.

Ideally, we should be celebrating what works and trying to improve on what didn’t in these old films.

Nostalgia is a wonderful drug, but the hangover can be deadly. Better to evaluate honestly and build upon a foundation so that the genre can move forward– and one day hopefully you’ll be the touch stone. Also, this film feels like it has the weakness of peak Sonny Chiba where the filmmakers knew they only had one or two guys who could go move for move with the lead and so outside the “big” fights they have to hold back.

These are minor issues though. If you love Kung-Fu movies, you need to go see this. Highly recommended.

4 out of 5 stars.

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Michael Bianchi, Diego Moral Heimpell,
Nicolás Ibieta, Marko Zaror
Written and Directed by Ernesto Díaz Espinoza
Starring Marko Zaror, Gina Aguad, Eyal Meyer,
Man Soo Yoon, José Manuel, Fernanda Urrejola

 

 

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