“King Boxer” (1972, Arrow Video) Possessed of a steely gaze but only limited fighting skills, a martial arts student (Indonesian actor Lo Lieh) sets out on a journey of self-improvement and becomes embroiled in a battle royale between warring dojos. The owner (Tien Feng) of one school seeks to win the contest through dastardly means – a star pupil is blinded and Lieh’s hands are shattered – which forces Lieh to dig deep and learn the fearsome Iron Palm style in order to settle the score and spill some blood. This 1972 production from Hong Kong’s legendary Shaw Brothers Studios was the first Asian martial arts film to receive a wide theatrical release in the States where, under the title “Five Fingers of Death,” it topped the American box office and helped to kick off the ’70s martial arts craze in conjunction with Bruce Lee’s “Big Boss”/”Fists of Fury” and the “Kung Fu” TV series. Time and endless imitations from both Hong Kong and the States may render this 1972 Shaw Brothers production somewhat stock and even silly for modern action/martial arts fans (who may note elements from the movie in Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” and Wu-Tang Clan tracks); viewers with less grasshopper-like patience will find Korean director Chang-hwa Jeong (billed here is Chen Chang-Ho) offering gorgeously ripe color vistas and jaw-dropping action scenes rife with a baroque mix of fighting styles and gallons of blood. Arrow’s presentation – part of their sprawling and (for kung fu devotees) essential “Shawscope Vol. 1” set, which compiles twelve of the company’s most iconic titles – features interviews with Chang-hwa, his biographer Cho Young-jung, and co-star Wang Ping, as well as commentary on and appreciation by Hong Kong film experts David Desser and Tony Rayns (respectively), as well as the first part of a three-part documentary on Shaw Brothers, which features interviews with Jackie Chan, John Woo, and others. International trailers and the US feature credits round out this skull-busting disc.
“Santo in the Wax Museum” (1963, VCI Entertainment) A rash of disappearances is linked to the owner (Bunuel and Del Toro star Claudio Brook) of a wax museum, which prompts an investigation by wrestling superhero El Santo. Eighth feature film adventure for lucha libre legend El Santo (Rodolfo Guzman Lopez), who battled Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, a host of extraterrestrial invaders, and various supernatural entities in more than 50 films between 1958 and 1981. “Wax Museum” is one of only a handful of these titles that are liklely familiar to English-language audiences, thanks to American distribution K. Gordon Murray, who dubbed and distributed several Mexican horror and fantasy titles for Stateside release during the early 1960s. The English-language version of “Wax Museum” – for which Santo is called Samson – is featured on this Blu-ray set from VCI, which bundles eight Santo films (all with English dubs) on four discs; “Wax Museum” is the earliest title in the set, and the sole entry in black and white. The action is occasionally plodding and the script logic-free – Brook, who is clearly the guilty party from the get-go, invites Santo to investigate his museum in the hopes of throwing him off the trail (it doesn’t) – but the picture eventually delivers the psychotronic goods in the form of several monsters, a vigorous trio of ring matches, and a queasy back story for Brook that merges the “Mystery of the Wax Museum” into real-life atrocities. Santo’s screen persona is also appealing: he essentially plays himself, albeit a version that moonlights as a crime fighter, complete with a high-tech lab and a jazzy convertible. It’s not entirely unique – Gene Autry and Clyde Beatty “played themselves” in fantastic screen adventures during the 1930s – but it does lend an extra dash of surrealism to the proceedings. While one wishes that the Spanish-language track was available on this set (the dubbing is particularly cartoonish), the picture is relatively clear and there’s an introduction for each film by film historian Dr. David Wilt, who knows his lucha movies. The VCI set also includes Wilt’s biographical featurette on Santo.
“Strike Commando” (1987, Severin Films) Italian-made carbon of “Rambo: First Blood II,” with Reb Brown – who played Captain America in a pair of TV movies in the 1970s – as a volatile soldier out to avenge various war buddies, old and new, who died at the hands of his double-crossing superior (Christopher Connelly, looking more pained than usual) and super Soviet heel Alex Vitale. The pairing of director Bruno Mattei, who never met a film or genre he didn’t want to imitate, and writers Claudio Fragasso and Rossell Drudi (the responsible parties behind “Troll 2”) results in a sort of schoolyard dramatization of wartime action, with Brown ceaseless shrieking and emptying endless blank rounds into the Filipino actors cast as Viet Cong, who writhe and spew bright red blood with admirable abandon. The adrenalized combat pauses occasionally for furrow-browed dialogue before culminating in a face-off between Brown and Vitale – who has outfitted himself with steel teeth – that doesn’t stretch the limits of credulity as much as much as it shoves it down a flight of stairs. Severin’s Blu-ray includes interviews with Fragasso and Drudi, who discuss the pleasures and perils of filming low-budget action with Mattei in exotic places; the company has also issued “Strike Commando 2,” which ups the ante, so to speak, by replacing Brown with the far-less-agitated Brent Huff and adding Richard Harris as the commanding officer in need of rescuing from various Communist threats.