Bruce Lee died in 1973 just before the premiere of Enter the Dragon - the highest grossing movie of that year. Lee's sudden and mysterious death left a huge void that studios scrambled to fill. Some shady Hong Kong producers started cranking out kung fu flicks starring deceptively named actors like Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Lai or, combining two ‘70s tough guys in one name, Bronson Lee. American studios started making movies like Black Belt Jones starring Enter the Dragon co-star Jim Kelly. It was in this context that American producers acquired the Japanese karate thriller Gekitotsu! Satsujin Ken starring Shinichi Chiba and renamed it The Street Fighter. The movie became notorious for earning an X-rating solely for violence, and it turned its lead, rechristened Sonny Chiba, into a cult idol. You can watch The Street Fighter above, poorly dubbed and in the wrong aspect ratio. Just as it was probably screened at your local grindhouse theater back during the Ford administration. (The film, by the way, is in the public domain.)
The movie’s story is a typical tale of manly honor, revenge and betrayal, where men settle their differences with their fists and women -- the “good” women, anyway – simper on the sidelines. Chiba plays Terry Tsurugi, a badass street thug. Sure, he might be a world-class jerk, especially after he sells one deadbeat client into prostitution, but he’s a jerk with a code of honor. Of course, you don’t watch martial arts movies – or almost any Japanese movie from the 1970s, really – for its progressive stance on gender relations. You watch them for the ass kicking. And on that front, The Street Fighter delivers. So when Tsuguri gets hired to protect the beautiful daughter of a dead oil tycoon from a nefarious band of gangsters, you know he will do just that, even if it involves throwing punches, delivering gory eye gouges and, in one memorable scene, ripping the testicles clean off of a rapist. The movie's relentless violence and general nihilism made The Street Fighter a hit, spawning a handful of sequels – Return of the Street Fighter, Sister Street Fighter and Street Fighter’s Last Revenge. The movie also made at least one major fan: Quentin Tarantino.
Tarantino loved the movie in a way that only the reigning uber-nerd of '70s exploitation movies could: he made references to it in his works. Clarence and Alabama watched The Street Fighter and its sequels in True Romance. Tarantino even cast Chiba as Hanzo, the ace katana maker in Kill Bill. In the run up to his 2007 double bill with Robert Rodriguez, Grindhouse, Tarantino placed The Street Fighter 13th on his list of favorite exploitation flicks, above Dario Argento’s giallo classic Suspiria but below the absolutely bonkers Master of the Flying Guillotine.
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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring one new drawing of a vice president with an octopus on his head daily.