A Man Called Tiger - (1973)
At one time before Bruce Lee decided to go his own way with the self-directed “The Way of the Dragon” (U.S. Title : “Return of the Dragon”), “A Man Called Tiger” was to be the third Bruce Lee / Lo Wei vehicle after “The Big Boss” & “Fist of Fury”. However, except for the opportunity it would have allowed Bruce to wear the snazzy garish seventies fashions he seemed to prefer in real life, this doesn’t seem like a natural fit for The Little Dragon. But as the Wang Yu vehicle it became, it’s one of the stars most beloved films (At least in the west due to its theatrical release by World Northal and the early Embassy Home Video release), and one of his most violent movies (and for Wang Yu, that’s saying something).
Wang Yu plays a Chinese stranger in Tokyo, who Tony Montana-style moves his way up the Japanese Yakuza ladder. The reason he does this isn’t to be a successful gangster. It’s to find out who’s responsible for his father’s murder. However, Wang Yu doesn’t fake being a gangster. He is a gangster, shaking down stores for protection money, beating up people, and moving up the ladder by being more ruthless and violent than anybody else.
After becoming China’s first action hero with the seminal “One-Armed Swordsman,” and even starring and directing Hong Kong’s first fist fight film, the great “Chinese Boxer” (no wuxia swords, only fists), by the early seventies Wang Yu’s popularity was beginning to decline. Mostly because Wang Yu wasn’t a real martial artist (he was just an actor) and he was starting to be surpassed by men (and women) who could fight better. Namely Bruce Lee. Wang Yu responded by subtly making his movies a little more action oriented, and a little less martial art specific. Turning himself into “The Steve McQueen of Asia” as he was dubbed at the time. In the film “The Dragon Flies,” his only English language western set picture, he was rechristened Jimmy Wang Yu, which admittedly is more fun to say.
The movies in this Steve McQueen phase of his career pretty much all consist of Wang Yu acting cocky, talking shit, and kicking a lot of dudes’ asses. Which, minus all the intrigue, (At one point Wang Yu has four different women working for him, none of which know about the other), is a pretty good description of this film. But part of this Steve McQueen persona was the complete ditching of the almost pious characters he played in his earlier pictures. Not to mention his wonderful innocence in the first “One-Armed Swordsman” film that deservedly made him a superstar. To be replaced by an arrogant son of a bitch, who talks shit to your face, in front of your minions, as he pops peanuts in his mouth, before he slaps you across the room. A bastard who makes such an impression kicking your ass, your boss not only doesn’t avenge your treatment, he hires Wang Yu, and makes him your boss. And no film better demonstrates this Jimmy Wang McQueen style then “A Man Called Tiger” (naturally there’s nobody in the movie called Tiger).
Lo Wei’s film has a lot of attractive elements. Chief amongst them being its Japanese Yakuza milieu, which gives it a very different look than any other Hong Kong martial art film of this period. Wang Yu doesn’t go into full on Chinese avenger mode till about halfway through the picture. So the whole first half is a straight up Chinese made Japanese Yakuza flick. In fact with its Yakuza setting, Wang Yu’s bounding performance, and fights that turn into bloody mayhem, it’s much closer to a Sonny Chiba picture of the era. I bring up Sonny Chiba because the number Wang Yu does on both rival Yakuza gangs, all to clear his father’s name, is as bad as if Sonny Chiba’s Terry Tsurugi (his great antihero character from “The Streetfighter” movies) had been hired to break up both gangs.
The whole revenge for my father routine is a soft cock idea, only put there so Wang Yu’s unlikeable character seems more sympathetic. But there’s nothing sympathetic at all about this guy, he’s a real fuckin’ bastard. In one scene Wang Yu, in a “Mean Streets” – like red lit bar, busts a bottle on the bar and grinds the broken end in one of the gang’s face, as he lays out his threats. And like Chiba’s Terry Tsurugi, what we (the audience) like about him is we don’t like him. In fact in his ruthlessness, if not his wit, he actually reminds you of the savage plots Simon Templar would hatch in Leslie Charters The Saint novels, especially “The Saint in New York” (always more of a bastard, and more deadly in the novels then in other media interpretations). Also, with its emphasis on the crime film aspect, it can’t help but bring to mind Italian Sergio Martino’s directed Luc Merenda policer/mafia pictures. It even has a halfhearted Martino-like car chase (a rarity in Kung Fu flicks of the day).
For most of the movie it looks like a Japanese Yakuza film, plays like a Italian gangster film, and has the fight every ten minutes pace of a Hong Kong chop socky pic, until suddenly, without any proper set up, we find ourselves into the beginning of the film’s extended climax. The climax revolves around a gambling table sequence, involving the same dice game they play in “God of Gamblers” (with a lot of the same fancy dice in cup flair), between the two different set of villains and a high roller played (very well) by director Lo Wei. Wang Yu sits back as a spectator for most of the game. Having the films two villains face off against each other in a suspenseful gambling scene is a fresh idea. And Lo Wei commits to staging this sequence for all it’s worth. You actually feel the pace of the film shift from a fight every ten minutes chop socky flick, to a slower, more serious dramatic storytelling rhythm. This gambling scene (which at one point actually manages to get all the film’s characters into the same room) eventually, after much suspenseful intrigue, leads to the film’s bloody climax, where a bunch of goons attack Wang Yu with axes and hatchets. And as opposed to most films, the axes often times hit their target, spraying blood all over the screen, the set, and Wang Yu’s wardrobe. All ending with a magnificent slow motion final kick to head, that’s as good as I’ve ever seen. When it comes to bloody mayhem, it’s on par with the climax of DePalma’s “Scarface” and the Candyland shoot out in my “Django Unchained”.