Sometimes, a movie title just hits you in the face and demands to be noticed. Not content to have a subtle or ambiguous name, certain films lay it all out and make you want to know if the whole thing can live up to the promise of the nomenclature. As good a movie, and as great a title, as Texas Chain Saw Massacre is, it’s a bit of a lie since (SPOILERS) only one person is killed with a chainsaw. All of this is to say that when a movie has a great title, like the 1976 Kung Fu action picture Master of the Flying Guillotine, you just hope the rest of the film can measure up. And yes, friends, yes, it does. If you want there to be a master of a flying guillotine, you have come to the right place. If you want fighting aplenty among characters with equally peculiar skills or physical traits, this is the movie for you. If you want a movie with a good story and interesting dialogue… maybe go elsewhere. But hey, it’s called Master of the Flying Guillotine, not Kung Fu Fighters Have Gripping Conversation.
Written by, directed by, and starring Jimmy Wang Yu, Master of the Flying Guillotine is actually a sequel to Wang’s 1971 film One-Armed Boxer, in which a young fighter’s family is killed and his right arm severed by two evil Tibetan Lamas (I know). He eventually kills the two responsible by learning how to fight with just one arm. In this film, the master of the two killed men, a blind and very old yogi (Kam Kong) decides to get revenge on this one-armed boxer when he receives an invitation to an annual to-the-death-or-incapacitation fighting tournament. He decides to pretend to be a simple Shaolin Monk and strike at his enemy with his secret weapon: a razor-circled bag on a chain which can cut off people’s heads in one quick, horrible motion.
This sets up nicely the frame structure of the film, but it’s by no means what we see most often. The One-Armed Boxer now runs a dojo and is known throughout the land for his fighting prowess. He, too, is invited to take part in the tournament; he chooses not to but takes his students to go and watch. For a good half hour or more of the 89 minute film, we see these fights take place, between a whole lot of people with long names, strange powers, unique weapons, and weird facial hair. Among these are a brash young Thai boxer who dances before each fight, an Indian yogi who has the ability to stretch his arms to give him added reach and strength, a man with seemingly unbreakable skin, and a mysterious Japanese fighter whose nickname is “Win Without a Knife.” His weapons of choice are a pair of tonfa, or side-handled baton; However, at the end of his fight, a small blade pops out of the end of one of them and he kills his opponent with it. This causes One-Armed Boxer to remark, “So, he did use a knife. How clever.”
While this is going on, the Master comes into town and proceeds to kill everybody with one arm. Since he’s blind, all he has to go on are people talking about them. The silly thing about this is that each of these one-armed people he kills are missing the exact same arm as the hero. How many people are getting their arms cut off in this town? And why are so many now boxers? You’d think the man called “the one-armed boxer” would be a bit of an anomaly, but apparently they’re everywhere. Henceforth, I demand to be called “The Bespectacled and Bearded Internet Writer.”
After TOAB leaves, having again turned down the tournament’s founder a second time, the MotFG shows up and kills a one-armed boxer in the contest. The founder tells him off and accuses him of murdering an innocent man in cold blood. This, of course, leads to the founder being brutally murdered in cold blood and the tournament in horrendous disarray. The founder’s daughter, who has been fighting in the tournament using a vicious and particularly scratch-filled brand of Tiger Claw, wants revenge and quick, but she’ll need some help. Win Without a Knife offers this and gets her away as she gets knocked out.
For pretty much the rest of the movie, The One-Armed Boxer is trying to fortify his school and himself from the imminent attack by the Master of the Flying Guillotine. He keeps being interrupted, however. The Thai boxer allies himself with the MotFG, and the Indian Yoga master and Win Without a Knife decide they want to defeat TOAB before he’s decapitated. Man, it’s like our hero can’t catch a break. All the while, he’s setting up traps for the MotFG, involving bamboo (which will dull the guillotine’s blades) and spring-loaded axes in a coffin shop.
These end sequences are by far the best in the movie, save the opening scenes of the Master practicing alone at his hillside hut. Wang Yu certainly knows how to dynamically shoot and direct fight sequences and it’s these end few which are his best work. The tournament itself seems to just go on and on, and even though the fighters are all interesting and funny in their own way, and the referee continually makes me laugh with his dramatic unfurling of paper fans to announce the victor, there’s only so many fights I can watch that are devoid of story.
But, despite these moments, Master of the Flying Guillotine is really, incredibly enjoyable and also gives a bit of insight into where people like Quentin Tarantino and the makers of games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat got their ideas. The Indian Yoga fighter in this stretches his limbs, not unlike Dhalsim in Street Fighter; Win Without a Knife is dressed in a manner very reminiscent of Rayden from later Mortal Kombat games, not to mention the disparate fighting styles and places of origin for all of the contenders. It’s a pretty cartoony-video gamey group of fighters in this movie, and that makes for entertainment in my book.
The success of this film led to a prequel the following year, entitled Fatal Flying Guillotine (I guess implying that there’d be a type of flying guillotine that wasn’t fatal) which tells the story of how the evil Master obtained the deadly weapon, but this movie was not directed by or had anything to do with Jimmy Wang Yu, who went on to direct and star in The One-Armed Swordsman, continuing a theme with a different character of an earlier era. Wang Yu, by the way, had two arms. He just apparently hated using his right one. Difficult availability for a number of years meant Master of the Flying Guillotine wasn’t on people’s radar much, but it is available now on DVD and has even been on cable networks. So, see it now, is what I’m saying.