Famed Shaw Brothers workhorse director Chang Cheh was at the helm of this 1971 production, The Duel, also known as Duel Of The Iron First and released in the U.S. on videotape as Duel Of The Shaolin Fist. As is typical with the director's output, the film deals with honor, loyalty, and violence with an emphasis put on the latter.
The film stars Ti Lung as Tang Jen Chieh who goes into exile when his father, a gang leader, is killed in a massacre at a restaurant. Things cool down in his absence and so he returns to the town a year or so later only to find that his former gang is now in cahoots with the thugs who murdered his father. Almost as soon as he sets foot in the town, all bets are off and he's forced to defend himself against an onslaught of knife wielding killers. While Tang is absent, his girlfriend, Hu-Die, or Butterfly (Ping Wang), turns to prostitution, so if constantly living under threat of attack wasn't bad enough, he's got that to deal with. Complicating matters even further for Tang is the presence of Chiang Nan, who everyone refers to as The Rambler (David Chiang), who Tang suspects is the true murderer of his father. As Tang and The Rambler basically stalk one another, the bodies pile up around them and the truth about the murder of Tang's father comes to light.
At the core of the story is a pretty hardboiled tale of cold blooded revenge, but there are enough twists and turns throughout the almost two hour running time that the film is never dull. When things start to slow down, plot wise, the film throws in one of its many massacres wherein a gang of knife wielding tough guys will take on another gang, or in more than a few scenes, show us how Tang Jen Chieh or The Rambler are tough enough, individually, to take down numerous opponents (most of whom are also knife wielding tough guys). There isn't a lot of one on one combat here nor is there a lot of traditional kung fu but there's a plethora of gang fights, carnage, bloodshed and arterial spray to keep fight fans on their toes and the edge of their collective seat.
Shot on the famed Shaw Studios lot, the film has that fantastic appearance to its sets that is so often associated with the studio's output during its heyday, but what sets this film apart from the countless others shot on the lot is the use of color and the way that it contrasts with shadows. It makes for a nice mix of film noir and pop art, and it's frequently set to a bizarre mish-mash of a soundtrack, large portions of which have obviously been culled from 2001: A Space Odyssey (you'll know it as soon as you hear it), among other films. Sometimes the music feels out of place or provides some unintentional comedic value, other times it fits perfectly, but this does result in some unevenness in terms of the film's tone.
Comparatively speaking, The Duel has more in common with Lung Wei Wang's 1985 picture Hong Kong Godfather than with some of Chang Cheh's better known films like The Five Deadly Venoms or The One Armed Swordsman. While thematically they might not seem so similar, in terms of pacing and particularly in terms of their depiction of criminal life, gang violence and the tragedy that often times accompanies those facets, they share many characteristics, indicating that Chang Cheh's picture might very well have been an influence on Lung Wei Wang's later effort.
In terms of the performances, the supporting cast are all fine but this is really Ti Lung and David Chiang's show all the way. Chiang in particular looks awkwardly smooth in his black suit and with his slicked back jet black hair, waving his way mysteriously through the plot. Ti Lung's character is more traditional in appearance and stature and he fits the part well, but Chiang's character is the more memorable and interesting of the two. All involved bring their A game, however, and the film is as well cast as it is fast paced, exciting, and wonderfully entertaining.
The Duel 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.
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. An optional English language Dolby Digital Mono dub is also provided.
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).
The Duel is a tense, exciting and gleefully violent tale of revenge and redemption. David Chiang and Ti Lung's performances are great and Chang Cheh's direction as fast paced and exciting as his reputation would have you expect. Funimation's DVD release is typically (and consistently disappointingly) light on extra features, but the audio and the video quality are both quite good and this release comes 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.