Takuma Tsurugi is a karate fist for hire with flexible morals. In the opening sequence of the film, he rescues a condemned martial artist from the scaffold, but when the fighter’s siblings can’t cough up their fee Tsurugi kills the brother and sells the sister into prostitution.
But Tsurugi has some lines he won’t cross. When a prospective job means working for the mafia he refuses, and becomes a marked man. Insulted by an attempt to kill him, Takuma decides to protect the billionaire’s daughter he had been expected to kidnap. This puts him at odds with a Hong Kong based mercenary crew, the members of which wouldn’t be out of place in Streetfighter the game. (One of them, in a clear nod to Zatoichi, is a blind swordsman, another a knife wielding crazy with painted on cheekbones. They all wear ostentatious outfits from another era.) After rescuing and then losing the heiress a couple of times, it all comes full circle for the final showdown.
This isn’t graceful martial arts. It’s all bone-crunching punches, kicks and barges, often in confined spaces, with interesting camera angles and a fair amount of fake blood. A signature Tsurugi move is to tear chunks of flesh from his opponents bodies. Most often it’s the throat that suffers, but in one memorable finishing move it’s the tackle of a would-be rapist that becomes a squelchy mess.
Chiba doesn’t play his character as invincible. You know he can easily pulverise most of the goons that come after him, but there are moments of vulnerability, most obviously when the martial arts teacher who may have known Tsurugi’s father demonstrates his superior technique.
Logic and character motivation- particularly that of the Hong Kong leader- go out of the window in the last scene, but that is the way of most action movies, particularly in this genre. All in all, this is a respectable addition to the martial arts canon.