“Hey kid, it ain’t that kind of movie. If people are looking at your hair, we’re all in big trouble.”
– Harrison Ford to Mark Hamill on the set of Star Wars (1977), as recalled by Hamill
Released in 1973, director Mario Caiano’s Il mio nome è Shanghai Joe is also known as The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe, My Name is Shanghai Joe, Karate Jack, and many others. The title attached to the 2K restoration released by Cauldron Films is simply Shanghai Joe, a much simpler title, though the others offer a bit more insight into what to expect from this Italian-made martial arts western. Written by Caiano, Fabrizio Trifone Trecca (Gamma), and Carlo Alberto Alfieri (Nosferatu in Venice), the film stars Chen Lee (real name Myoshin Hayakawa) as a Chinese immigrant looking to start a new life in 1882 America, but finds little more than violence and racism at every turn. It mashes up genres as often as there are fights, unevenly presenting slapstick with more intense drama and bloodier violence. There’s certainly an audience for the wild swings of Shanghai Joe and those folks will be delighted to know that this restoration includes two audio tracks, feature commentary, two featurettes, and more.
Arriving in San Francisco, the man dubbed Shanghai Joe (Lee) by the driver of a carriage, seeks to head East to Texas so he can become a cowboy. He doesn’t care where in the state, as long as he can make a living riding horses and working the range. However, at every turn, rather than the land of possibilities he was promised, he only meets sour faces and more pungent dispositions to immigrants. After dispatching a few braggarts, a bounty is put on Joe’s head, attracting the attention of those in need of such a talent for protection, but what Joe doesn’t realize until it’s too late is that his new boss, Stanley Spencer (Piero Lulli), is a human trafficker, putting Joe in a position where his principles force him to take a stand.
This film inspires two distinct reactions. On one side, the film is rife with racial stereotypes, yet that presentation isn’t just a marker of the period in which Shanghai Joe was made but that of the time period it’s set within. The carriage driver who denigrates Joe, giving him the name that sticks through the film? This is exactly how Asian immigrants were treated, not just in San Francisco, but in all parts of the country in that period, even though calls went out from the U.S. government looking for able-bodied individuals from the East to help build the railroad and much of the Western part of the United States. The promise of citizenship and a new start was held before them like bait and then snatched away, leaving many to be ridiculed, denigrated, and abused by their neighbors. So when Joe beats down a mouthy racist over and over, it’s both entertaining and cathartic. Doesn’t matter if it’s a simple punch or kick or a display of strength so profound it nearly severs hand from wrist. On the other hand, continuity is a thing that the film doesn’t care much for and, after a while, it’s all that can be seen. Look, one can forgive the prosthetics and applications for looking less impressive and realistic than they do today. I can even run with the editing that makes the audience think Joe has ripped an eye from its socket like a viper striking its prey. But when we watch a hired killer take off someone’s glasses and then they reappear on the person’s face during a close-up reaction shot of their pain, I struggle. When I can see the scuff marks of battle on furniture appear and disappear based on the shot, I struggle. When I can see the glint of the wires on the actors, I struggle. Not because they’re cheap, but because it breaks the reality of the world and reminds me that this is all make believe. And once I notice that the film itself doesn’t care if I notice, then I no longer care at what happens in the narrative itself, even if there’s some truly tense moments. This is, as with all things, personal preference, and where someone draws the line between good schlock and bad schlock is subjective. For me, it has to do with intentionality and there doesn’t appear to be anything about the production of Shanghai Joe that’s insincere in its intent to create an engaging martial arts drama, thereby making the continuity errors and other foibles hard to ignore.
The review copy provided by MVD Entertainment Group is the standard edition of Shanghai Joe and includes no materials that indicate how the restoration was created. All that’s included is a clear plastic Blu-ray case and the reversible liner that includes the original art for Shanghai Joe, along with the home release information. Because of this, I cannot speak to the transfer creation, but I can say that both the Italian and English audio tracks are clear and well-synced and the video is, for the most part, quite clean. There are a few instances where shots (primarily when the sky is the most prevalent part of the scene) contains a great deal of visible grain that distorts the otherwise smooth appearance of the footage. The bulk of the film takes place in natural spaces (plains, desert-like areas) so there’s not much range of color, but the bits of green in the shrubbery, the blue in Joe’s outfit, and the painting of the sets to convey the opulence of a few of the bars and joints the characters frequent are neither tamped down nor overblown. Overall, it’s a very clean restoration.
As for the bonus materials, there are three primary items to help audiences explore the film more deeply. There’s a feature-length commentary track from film historian Mike Hauss, a visual essay from film historian Eric Zaldivar titled “East Meets West: Italian Style” which delves into the Italian perspective of martial arts cinema (itself trying to jump in on the martial arts Hong Kong boom of the ‘60s, and an interview with Master Katsutoshi Mikuriya, who plays opposite Lee as the final villain to defeat. Considering the very narrow niche that Shanghai Joe attracts, these bonus features should delight any fan who explores them.
As mentioned, this review is based off the standard edition, available from MVD Entertainment Group, not the limited edition, available from Cauldron. In that edition, you get everything mentioned above, as well as a folded poster, slipcase, and a CD soundtrack containing Bruno Nicolai’s (Caligula) score. Cauldron’s site indicates that their edition is limited to 1,500 copies, so you should move quickly if any of this entices you.
Shanghai Joe is a part of a long tradition of countries putting their own spin on genres made popular elsewhere. The notion that a western is going to be instantly bad because it’s made in Italy versus America can be disproven by the Man with No Name Trilogy from director Sergio Leone or that a martial arts film made in America versus Hong Kong (for instance) can be disproved by the John Wick series started by co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. These are, of course, outliers as for every John Wick or Man with No Name, there’s also a Death Has Blue Eyes (1976), the Greek take on sexploitation and Italian giallo. In the end, it’s up to you to decide if this, perhaps off the beaten path, title is for you to explore or to pass on. Just know what you’re getting into before you do.
Shanghai Joe Special Features:
- 2K restoration from the negative / 1080p presentation
- English audio with Optional English SDH subtitles
- Italian audio w/ English subtitles
- Commentary with film historian Mike Hauss from The Spaghetti Western digest
- East Meets West: Italian Style – visual essay by film historian Eric Zaldivar
- Samurai Spirit: Interview with Master Katsutoshi Mikuriya
- Image gallery
Available on Blu-ray from Cauldron Films May 16th, 2023.
To purchase, head to the official MVD Entertainment Group Shanghai Joe webpage.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.