Sonny Chiba made his mark on international film with this movie and its sequels, Return of the Street Fighter and The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge, all of which were released in 1974. Chiba plays Terry Tsurugi, a martial arts mercenary for hire, which doesn’t mean he’s just a duelist or an assassin; we see him rescuing people from prison, and brawling against a veritable horde of gangsters. But don’t mistake his rescuing of people and brawling against criminals as a signal that he’s some sort of good guy; he fights an entire dojo of innocents and threatens to kill bystanders to ensure his escape. He’s brutal, short-tempered, conniving, and unafraid to rip off body parts unless he’s given what is owed. His self-serving impulses lead to some slightly nonsensical switches in allegiance, but the character always feels like his own man, that he’s making the decisions that he wants, rather than being influenced by money or coercion.
The plot eventually settles on the daughter of a recently deceased billionaire; both the corporate controllers of the billionaire’s fortune and the Yakuza target her for their own aims, and Tsurugi is called in to deal with both sides before deciding to protect the girl for his own reasons, and the blood pours. The fighting consistently remains gritty and realistic, without the flourishes of wirework, speed-ramping, or intricate camerawork, but, interestingly enough, there are still some fantastical parts that feel like they’re taken from a different movie. Tsurugi’s aforementioned ability to rip off body parts doesn’t seem unusual in this type of movie, but it sticks out that he’s the only one who can do something like that. A little further out on the limb is a blind swordsman assassin and a villain boss dressed in traditional Chinese clothes and armed with a short scimitar in a movie set in contemporary times. What are these two remnants from more traditional kung-fu movies doing here?
Kill Bill and having Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette sit through a Sonny Chiba marathon in True Romance. His affection for the movie, including naming it one of his top 20 grindhouse classics, has kept it on the map for a contemporary audience, which is a place it fully deserves for its badass star turn of Sonny Chiba and its highly entertaining grindhouse aesthetic.