One of the latest in the new line of Funimation's Shaw Brothers catalogue releases, appearing under the Hong Kong Connection banner, Shaolin Handlock begins when a kung-fu master named Li Bai (Dick Wei) is killed by Fang Yunbiao (Chan Shen), a man he once considered a friend. Fang doesn't just beat Li up, however, he takes him out using the retractable blades that he has hidden under the sleeves of his shirt. Two of Li's students are also murdered by Fang, who believes them to be Li's children. Fang doesn't realize that Li's two children, Li Chengying (David Chiang) and Li Mengping (Chen Ping), are actually quite alive and more than a little unhappy that he's murdered their father. As such, they vow to avenge their father's death and when they learn that Fang has fled to Thailand, Li Chengying decides to follow him.
Li Chengying soon finds Fang hanging out at a brothel and bribes the madam to tell him which room he's in. He bursts and forces the assassin to tell him who hired him to kill his father and why, and Fang tells him that it was a martial arts teacher named Lin Hao (Lo Lieh). From there, Li Chengying decides to infiltrate Lin Hao's organization by stealing some of his gold and then returning it to him, just to prove how sneaky he is. This impresses Lin enough that he hires him to work with him. Lin's right hand man, Kunshi (Michael Chan Wai-man), however, is very suspicious of Li Chengying. When Li Mengping goes missing, however, Li Chengying realizes that all bets are off and that it's time to act, even if it means blowing his cover by using his family's secret kung-fu move.
Shaolin Handlock, named after the Li family's secret kung-fu move, isn't at the cream of the Shaw Brothers martial arts crop but it's a pretty entertaining film. The opening credits make use of some excellent color schemes and bizarre animation and they segue into the opening murder sequenced quite well, setting the film up in a very dramatic and exciting fashion. Chan Shen makes for a pretty fun bad guy as he makes his way from one murder to the next, stopping to hang out and make time at the local whorehouse once he makes his way to Thailand. The Thai settings are nice and offer something different to look at, though the use of some stock footage during what is essentially a scene in which some characters go sightseeing feels like nothing more than nicely shot padding - particularly when some stock footage inserts are used.
Directed by Ho Meng-Hua, a name that may be familiar to western audiences thanks to Tarantino's re-release of the director's bizarre King Kong knock-off Mighty Peking Man under the Rolling Thunder Pictures banner a few years back, the film works simply because it contains a few decent action sequences and moves at a good pace. It's got a few stand-out fight scenes and a novelty weapon thanks to Fang's extending elbow blades, and Lo Lieh's presence is always welcome and here he shows why he was one of the most popular bad guys in the Shaw Brothers stable. David Chiang does a fine job in the lead and he makes for a likeable enough hero, even if his actions don't always make sense and the story isn't always believable when following his character. The final fight, generally the high point of any martial arts film, is a bit of a let down here as it's over fairly quickly and doesn't top some of the earlier bouts but that complaint aside, Shaolin Handlock is pretty fun. The signature move which the film was named ever isn't nearly as cool as the bad guys' moves (though calling the film Deadly Sliding Elbow Blades probably would have been a bad idea).
Shaolin Handlock arrives on DVD in a progressive scan anamorphic 2.35.1 widescreen transfer this is generally a strong effort from Funimation. A little bit of print damage shows up here and there but otherwise the source material used for this disc has been very nicely restored. Colors are bright and bold and garish, just as they should be, and they really bring out the splendor of the various costumes used in the movie. What looks to be some mild edge enhancement pops up here and there but aliasing and compression artifacts are never a problem. Some mild blurring is evident during scenes of very fast motion but aside from that, there's not much worth complaining about here.
The Mandarin language Dolby Digital mono mix is well balanced and easy to follow since the optional English subtitles are easy to read and free of any typographical errors, though there are spots where the sound effects are a bit higher in the mix then they probably needed to be. The score sounds good, never overpowering the performers, while the sound effects are presented at the proper volume as well. It's not a track that will amaze you, but it definitely sounds as good as it needs to. A 5.1 track might have been fun, especially during the zany last half hour, but what's here is good. An optional English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo dub is also provided but it's of lesser quality and is a bit fuzzy sounding in spots - still, it's there for those who want it.
Extras are disappointingly light, limited to a few trailers for unrelated Funimation releases and a forced promo spot for their Shaw Brothers line that plays before you can get to the main menu screen (which also offers chapter selection).
Shaolin Handlock doesn't offer the best final fight in martial arts history but the rest of the movie works reasonably well even if the plot is more or less a standard revenge story. Funimations DVD release, like all of their Shaw Brothers titles so far, is disappointingly light on extra features but it does offer up the film in good quality and with both its original language track and the English dubbed track for those who want it. Maybe not an essentially Shaw title, but a fun one nevertheless - recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.