Respected elder Chin Fei Yun is gunned down after organising a militia to defend his town from bandits. Local police captain Wu Ching Li (Jimmy Wang Yu) arrives at the scene of the crime along with Fei Yun’s kung fu kicking daughter, Chin Chi (Judy Lee). Together they make short work of the bandits but take their chief alive. Wealthy philanthropist and military leader Mr. Pai (Chang Yi) demands the captive be handed into his custody, but en route to his headquarters the villain is slain by slimy Su Ping Chu (Chen Hung-Lieh), an assassin acting on the orders of enigmatic hotelier Miss Fan (Hsu Feng). The loss brings great disgrace to Pai, whose son was in charge of safeguarding the prisoner, but Captain Wu suspects the old man is hiding something. While he investigates, the impetuous Chin Chi takes matters into her own lethal hands.
Choppy editing does a disservice to the dense plot in Great Hunter which, for all its flaws, proves more ambitious than your average chop-socky fare. Larry Tu Chong-Hsun previously directed the atrocious Zatoichi vs. the Flying Guillotine (1974) but does a fair job here juggling multiple sub-plots and balancing simmering suspense sequences with breakneck action. It is sort of a turn-of-the-century Chinese whodunnit-cum-buddy-cop action movie, except in this instance the male half of the detective duo is the rigid, by-the-book type while the female is the loose cannon. In one scene fiery Chin Chi literally shoots first and asks questions later. This marks a rare instance where uber-macho action star Jimmy Wang Yu was paired with a leading lady who could match him punch for punch, kick for kick. In fact, Judy Lee was among the most notable martial arts divas of the Seventies, appearing in over sixty films including The Escape (1973) for which she won Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Horse award as best actress. She apparently now lives in Los Angeles and runs a travel agency.
The film contrasts two intriguing male-female pairings: Wu Ching Li struggles to contain the fiery Chin Chi while sleazy lothario Su Ping Chu shares a strained relationship with his dragon lady boss, Miss Fan. Chen Hung-Lieh proves memorable as the smirking villain hilariously obsessed with maintaining his hairdo while Hsu Feng enjoys the meatiest role as the self-loathing ex-whore-cum-co-conspirator, in spite of the role marking something of a step down for the actress who once headlined the seminal A Touch of Zen (1969), Dragon Gate Inn (1967) and The Fate of Lee Khan (1973) for master director King Hu. In later years, she became a huge figure in the Asian film industry as the producer of acclaimed art-house fare such as Farewell, My Concubine (1993).
Constantly changing course, the plot lacks consistency but is hard to second guess and quite compelling while focused on Pai’s efforts to uphold his image of integrity whilst consolidating his power. Oddly, while the film establishes he is the secret mastermind from the get-go, the third act still treats this revelation as a big surprise. It has to be said that the sad, conflicted villains emerge more interesting than the one-dimensional heroes. At one point, Pai actually tears up when his most trusted servant finally glimpses his true villainy. If Wang Yu and Judy Lee occasionally seem somewhat removed from the machinations of the tangled plot, they do at least shoulder some impressive fight scenes. For a change, guns feature heavily in a period martial arts movie with Jimmy showing off some sharpshooting skills alongside his usual incredible feats of kung fu. The tragic climax, where our heroes face off against Pai as he wields a cool gadget laden cane, is taut and surprisingly affecting though a lack of consistency stops this being a top tier martial arts film.