Director: Ernesto Diaz Espinoza
Cast: Marko Zaror, Eyal Meyer, Gina Aguad, Fernanda Urrejola, Man Soo Yoon, Jose Manuel, Cristian Garin, Francisco Castro, Andrés Cid, Joaquin Puig
Duration: 80 mins.
By Paul Bramhall
Chile is not the country that comes to mind first when thinking about martial arts cinema, however since their debut in 2006 Kilter, the duo of director and star Ernesto Díaz Espinoza and the “Latin dragon” Marko Zaror made sure that their home country was at least mentioned. Friends from high school, together they created a steady stream of DTV action movies from the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s, including those from 2007 Mirage2009 Mandrilland 2014 Redeemer. At one point Zaror would even star in an English-language remake of Mirage called 3D defender, which was supposed to be directed by Andy Cheng, but unfortunately never made it beyond a trailer. While it seemed like we’d seen the end of Espinoza and Zaror’s collaborations together, in 2023 they finally reunited to Fist of the Condoralmost 10 years after their last collaboration.
Over the next several years Zaror took on a number of supporting turns in big-budget Hollywood productions such as Alita: Battle Angel AND John Wick Chapter 4as well as taking on villainous roles in DTV action films such as Wild dog (who offered a rematch against Scott Adkins from Undisputed 3: Redemption) AND Invincible. Espinoza, on the other hand, has been largely quiet, directing only the comedy sequel Special Forces 2: Unfinished business in 2015 and disappearing to the point where I thought he had retired from the film industry.
When I learned that he would be teaming up with Zaror once again for Fist of the Condor, my feelings were a mixture of hope and dread. Hope because whenever they collaborate, the results are always interesting, offering everything from 007 parodies to lo-fi vigilante superheroes. Terror because in 2020 we got Seized, a regrettable effort from director and star Isaac Florentine and Scott Adkins, whose collaborations follow a remarkably similar trajectory to that of Espinoza and Zaror. Both Zaror and Adkins landed their breakout roles in 2006 (for the latter she played Boyka in Undisputed II: Last Man Standing) with directors they would continue to work with over the next decade, and both pairs reunited in 2020 having not collaborated for an extended period of time (for Florentine and Adkins, before Seized their last film was in 2015 Close range). At least for Adkins and Florentine, time hasn’t been kind.
Thankfully, when it comes to Fist of the Condor my hope was rewarded and terror put aside. Excluding the opening and closing credits, it runs a little over 75 minutes, making for an impossibly lean little slice of martial arts goodness. Espinoza uses the rich history of Latin America to provide the background to the story, as we learn that during the Spanish invasion in 16th century, a kung-fu manual detailing the deadly condor punch was hidden by the Incas and has been passed down from generation to generation for safe keeping. In the present day we meet a mysterious pair of twins, both played by Zaror, one of whom is believed to be the current keeper of the manual. Long separated, both have a desire to find each other and take revenge, though the reasons why are only gradually discovered as the narrative progresses, revealing the consequences of mastering the condor punch to their fullest extent.
What is clear from the first minute of Fist of the Condor is that together, Espinoza and Zaror pay homage to the classic kung-fu films of the past. There are callbacks to many of the old school classics both directly and indirectly, from Zaror’s character suffering from photophobia (signal to opponents who break handheld mirrors to reflect the sun into his eyes!), to the use of crash zooms. Kung-fu movie buffs will no doubt appreciate the references to the likes of Crippled Avengers, Master of the flying guillotineAND Dragon serpent fist, all of which are subtly incorporated into the narrative. The condor style itself is very reminiscent of Charlie Chan’s eagle style from the 1982s The legend of a fighter, stretching his arms behind his back to represent the wings of an eagle, and over 40 years later he still creates an aesthetically appealing style of kung-fu. In short, if you’re a fan of old-school kung-fu movies, there’s a lot to enjoy.
Of course any kung-fu film worth its salt must give its protagonist worthy opponents to face, and to that end Espinoza brought quality talent on board. Collaboration with regular choreographer Wernher Schurmann (The green hell), the proceeding opens with a duel on the beach between Zaror and the Puerto Rican importer Jose Manuel, fresh from his starring role in 2019 Kathmandu manhowever the real revelation is Eyal Meyer (Martini dry). Playing the student of the Zaror twin believed to possess the manual of the condor, Meyer is a master of the South Indian martial art of Kalarippayattu, considered to be the oldest martial art in the world. While the style has already been shown on screen in Tollywood productions such as the 2011 ones 7 Aum Arrivethis is the first time it’s featured in a production outside of India, and it’s a highlight to see Meyer and Zaror go for it.
Fist of the Condor he also sees a reunion with Korean Hapkido master Man Soo Yoon, who has lived in Chile for over 20 years and runs a school there. Espinoza and Zaror originally met Soo Yoon when they were scouting locations in Santiago’s Korea Town for Kilter back in 2006, and having found his school on the street they planned to shoot on, the opportunity to bring a Hapkido master into the story was not to be wasted. This is only his 2na time to appear on the screen since then Kilterso there’s a nostalgia to seeing it again for those of us who watched Espinoza and Zaror’s debut upon its release, and I certainly didn’t expect to hear Korean in a Chilean film!
Zaror himself gives arguably his best performance in a dual role. He plays both twins in an understated manner, intended to reveal the tortured soul behind the characters, not unlike what was seen in Redeemer. However, while in that film her portrayal seemed somewhat stilted and dull, here her measured portrayal works effectively in embodying the reflective nature of the narrative. Her shaven-headed twin takes the pace of the action, while her long-haired twin remains a passive observer, looking like a Latino cross between Michael Wincott’s villain in Highlanders and Dan Chupong’s Crow Ghost from Young back 2. The audience may feel cheated Fist of the Condor it doesn’t offer a Zaror vs. Zaror fight a la Jet Li The only onedespite the storyline appearing to lead to one, but on a larger consideration of the themes explored, the lack of a final confrontation between the two actually makes sense.
Espinoza has delivered what feels like his most introspective work with his latest, as the themes of sacrifice, forgiveness and perseverance are present throughout, without losing his sense of humor (what I called) poker. While for the most part Fist of the Condor remains a blunt affair, there are moments of dry humor throughout, such as when the pages of the manual are revealed, and show absurdly graphic drawings of someone’s intestines bursting out of their chest from a kick in the back.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a kung-fu movie where everyone is looking for a secret manual that teaches a deadly technique, but Fist of the Condor it excels at both updating the concept for a modern audience, and paying homage to those old-school slices of goodness that came before it. With gasp-inducing workout sequences, an eyeliner-wearing villain, and a narrative that relies almost entirely on the physical talents of its cast to sell the action, Espinoza and Zaror have created arguably the closest movie to a pure kung- it was 2023, and who would have thought it would come out of Chile? Admittedly not me, but I’m glad it happened.
Paul Bramhall’s assessment: 7.5/10