The year is 1876 and the Dowager Empress has arrived at the Royal Palace to receive bad news: two million taels of gold have been stolen from the Royal Treasury, and there are no leads to go on as to the culprits. Understandably, when that amount is in question she is not best pleased, and orders her Chief Eunuch to fetch the head of the Treasury, which he does. He is informed that he, or his Chief Constable Tian-Ying Leng (Chen Kuan Tai), now have ten days to retrieve the pilfered hoard, lest there be a terrible price to pay, and Leng would appear to be the right man for the job as he has a reputation not simply for high morals, but also a hardline approach to law enforcement - meaning he has no qualms about slaughtering the wrongdoers.
The Shaw Brothers advanced into the eighties as they had done in the previous decade, as if they would still be around in another decade, though that would not turn out to be the case as other Hong Kong studios overtook them. Although often most readily associated with the nineteen-seventies, you can tell by this that they were adapting to the demands of the times, specifically here with far gorier violence than their filmmakers had used before, this point in time being when gory violence had become more fashionable with the advent of new techniques in special effects. You could note the amount of limbs and occasionally heads that were lopped off during Killer Constable as proof of that.
Often with sprays of blood, sometimes hitting the camera lens for added dramatic effect. Although this was not the most extreme of the bloodthirsty Hong Kong movies of the eighties, neither did it stint on the enthusiasm for seeing its characters bumped off, as our dubious hero sets off in search of the robbers with a team of equally muscular officers at his command. Leng was interesting in that with many a martial arts movie, he would have been the ideal villain given his propensity for relying on his sword to do his bidding, indeed when questioning one suspect he wastes no time in half-drowning him to secure information, and then when he retaliates Leng slices him open, in front of his wife and screaming baby (!).
Not a nice guy, then, and he has been warned by a close friend and colleague that his techniques are highly questionable, but what was intriguing was that while Leng realised the error of his ways, he did not necessarily alter them for the antagonists he was facing were, if anything, more ruthless than he was and therefore needed a firm hand to take care of them. Killer Constable was not a kung fu movie when you boiled it down, it was more interested in the possibilities of swordplay, and not graceful swordplay either as there was a tough, nasty edge to every fight sequence, with that aforementioned stage blood flowing free. With that in mind, you could also recognise there was very little noble about the world we were watching, no matter the ceremony and ornate decoration that surrounded it.
No, it was a place of violence, and much as Clint Eastwood's antiheroes had demonstrated, that kind of world needs a man of action to tackle it, a man who was not averse to taking no prisoners and matching every savagery with a comparable action. Chen was not one of the more visible Hong Kong stars in the West, but he was a hard worker who continued to be employed in various capacities for decades, and though he is dour here, he did bring to bear a certain forceful quality that made his character all the more formidable. Various setpieces included the constables ambushed by the gang of thieves who trap them in a ring of fire that they have no qualms about dragging them through to burn them alive, or the sequence where Leng confronts a criminal whose blind daughter knows nothing of her father's activities, leading to a tense stand-off where the officer tries to allow the girl to keep her illusions. In light of that mean, brutal tone, the ending was no surprise, and neither was the extent of the double-crossing that had been revealed; this wasn't pretty, but it was impressive. Music by Eddie Wang.
Shaw Bros. had made some pretty bloody movies before this. 1972's The Devil's Mirror is among the most outrageously violent movies the studio ever produced. And Chang Cheh was for famed for spilling intestines and spraying blood in numerous films in the decade prior. After all, ripping a guy's heart out then showing it to him as he died was David Chiang's signature move. By the Eighties though Shaw movies did take a turn for the lurid and Kuei Chi-Hung had a very lurid and nihilistic directorial style.
19 May 2017
I suppose Sonny Chiba was at it in the 70s in Japan too. But there was a move towards bloodier movie violence around this time across the world as the effects improved.