Your aver­age fan of vin­tage mar­tial arts fare might con­sid­er Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan to be the king of that cin­e­mat­ic style.  Schlock fiends make a dif­fer­ent choice:  the immor­tal Sonny Chiba.  This Japanese star has been an icon to exploita­tion-flick fans every­where for decades thanks to his leg­endary and out­ra­geous series of Street Fighter films.  Even Quentin Tarantino even tipped his hat to the leg­end of Chiba by hav­ing his heroes meet at a Street Fighter screen­ing in True Romance and lat­er cast­ing Chiba as sword­mak­er Hattori Hanzo in Kill Bill.

The Street Fighter films alone are enough to earn him a place of hon­or in any exploita­tion film pan­theon but those three films are just a drop in Chiba-san’s cin­e­mat­ic buck­et — he was pro­lific through­out his 70’s-to-early 80’s hey­day and pro­duced count­less blood-drenched epics. One of the finest is Killing Machine, a stun­ner that blends Chiba’s bone-crunch­ing take on mar­tial arts action with a sub­ject near and dear to his heart.

Killing Machine is a biog­ra­phy of Doshin So, a leg­endary sol­dier-turned-teacher who formed a school to teach his own Shaolin-derived brand of mar­tial arts (Shorinji Kenpo, which was also the film’s Japanese title).  So was Chiba’s sen­sei so this film no doubt had a spe­cial mean­ing for him. That said, view­ers shouldn’t expect a somber, rig­or­ous­ly faith­ful ren­der­ing of the man’s life because a pre-film dis­claimer tells us that despite the real life inspi­ra­tion, the tale and char­ac­ters have been fic­tion­al­ized.  In oth­er words, this film treats view­ers to the rough-and-ready Chiba ver­sion of this sto­ry.

The film begins with Chiba sin­gle-hand­ed­ly tak­ing out a band of Chinese sol­diers dur­ing a World War II skir­mish, only to dis­cov­er Japan has sur­ren­dered to the allies. He returns home and finds a bro­ken land where Koreans prey on the Japanese, the Americans run things in a ill-tem­pered man­ner and Japanese peo­ple of lesser moral fiber get rich via black mar­ket means. After fight­ing the­se ene­mies one too many times, So is ban­ished to anoth­er town. He forms a school to teach his per­son­al­ized blend of mar­tial arts but trou­ble fol­lows as his black mar­ket ene­mies grow in pow­er. They see him as a threat (which is wise) and start pick­ing off his bud­dies (which is the oppo­site of wise). Thus, the stage is inevitably set for a paint-the-dojo-red finale.

The end result is a grit­ty action flick with an unex­pect­ed emo­tion­al edge. Killing Machine is manip­u­la­tive in the extreme — Doshin’s true love ends up becom­ing a pros­ti­tute due to her cir­cum­stances and vir­tu­al­ly any­one else who sides with Doshin is guar­an­teed a grim fate. It also shame­less­ly feeds off the racial ten­sions and morale prob­lems stem­ming from Japan’s defeat in World War II — the sto­ry is almost entire­ly com­posed of sce­nes of for­eign rough­necks (or sell-out locals) rough­ing up inno­cent folk, prompt­ing Chiba to step in and beat them down in total wish-ful­fillment style. The lat­ter aspect is impor­tant, ensur­ing a steady flow of bru­tal­i­ty that includes beat­ings, stab­bings, shoot­ings, extrem­i­ty-hack­ing and even one cas­tra­tion. In oth­er words, this is not a film for those weaned on the com­e­dy kung-fu stylings of Jackie Chan.

That said, Killing Machine is a fine­ly-tuned jug­ger­naut of a movie that ful­fills its brute-force agen­da in an effec­tive and sur­pris­ing­ly art­ful style.  Director Norifumi Suzuki, a sea­soned direc­tor of Japanese exploita­tion fare, wise­ly fig­ured out the only way to han­dle this sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic tale was to go over the top… and he does so, with great gus­to and total fear­less­ness. He gives the film a gor­geous cin­e­mas­cope gloss but keeps the action vis­cer­al, imme­di­ate and free-flowing — there’s a fight or some bru­tal inci­dent vir­tu­al­ly every five min­utes in this film. Even sim­ple dra­ma sce­nes go for the throat — you’ve nev­er seen this many peo­ple burst into tears in a mar­tial arts film. The end result feels like a head-on col­li­sion between Kinji Fukasaku and Douglas Sirk.

Finally — and most impor­tant­ly — there is Sonny Chiba him­self. Whether he is punch­ing his way through a half-dozen black mar­ke­teers or tear­ful­ly wish­ing good­bye to a pack of hero-wor­ship­ping orphans, he car­ries him­self with fer­al grace and self-right­eous inten­si­ty.  He com­mands atten­tion and respect no mat­ter how out-there the sit­u­a­tions get and that is the sign of a true screen hero.  The com­bi­na­tion of his white-hot screen pres­ence and Killing Machine’s crazed but potent sto­ry­line adds up to pure pulp poet­ry.