FIST OF THE CONDOR (El Puño del Cóndor), available now on the Hi-YAH! streaming network,* is the long-awaited (by me at least) reunion of Chilean martial arts star Marko Zaror (UNDISPUTED III, SAVAGE DOG, JOHN WICK CHAPTER 4) and writer/director Ernesto Díaz Espinoza. They came up together making KILTRO, MIRAGEMAN and MANDRILL, but this is their first together since REDEEMER in 2014. From the looks of it they spent that time training, meditating, and learning powerful secret techniques.
I loved this movie, and I think it follows the established Zaror/Diaz Espinoza pattern of being even better than the last one, but I have exactly one (1) caveat: I wish I’d remembered that the first trailer called it FIST OF THE CONDOR: PART ONE. It felt kinda like if I’d watched KILL BILL VOLUME 1 thinking it was the whole thing and expecting her to cross all the names off her list. When it ended I had to do a double take, rewind and watch the last scene again to get my bearings. But I understand it now.
Speaking of KILL BILL, that seems like a likely influence on FIST OF THE CONDOR’s titled chapters and flashback structure, and it has a line that has got be an homage to VOLUME 2. But mostly this is Shaw Brothers style old school kung fu mythmaking, now in a Latin context. The title refers to a deadly fighting style we’re told was invented by Incan rebels to fight off Spanish invaders. There’s only one manual explaining the style, hidden so it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, and passed down through generations to “whoever had an honest heart.” According to drawings on the pages we see, it includes kicks that will knock somebody’s intestines out.
In the grand tradition of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Zaror plays twin brothers. They are not given names or backgrounds. The credits call them “GUERRERO / GEMELO” – Warrior and Twin. I’m gonna assume Guerrero is the protagonist, who’s bald in the present day, Gemelo is the one with long hair. Though this is a quick, exciting movie with a bunch of outstanding fights, it has an odd poetry to it, and a little bit of the weird mythical mysticism of EL TOPO, or at least CIRCLE OF IRON. It takes place mostly isolated from civilization, on a beach and on a mountain by an ancient temple, where life is mainly about training and duels. GHOST DOG-esque voiceovers impart bits of martial arts philosophy, and imply metaphors. Questions are raised, but not answered.
In the opening scene the bald Zaror is on the beach, attacked by a young man in an orange gi (Jose Manuel), who we learn from flashbacks is a newer student of Guerrero’s mentor Wook (Man Soo Yoon, KILTRO). Against his teacher’s warnings this guy has tried to track down and challenge the Master of the Fist of the Condor who stole the book. After Guerrero defeats him he tells him he’s got the wrong guy. “No, it’s not me. It is my twin brother. And I want to kill him too.”
I thought at first it might be a period piece, but then this warrior zips up his leather jacket and drives off on his motorcycle, searching for his twin. Later, there’s a bar with some bikers. There’s one scene with a gun. But mostly it’s people wearing robes, fighting with their hands and feet. There are many beautiful shots of slow motion waves, and meditative moments on rocks and mountains. It makes it seem appealing and peaceful to be out there alone with no responsibilities except perfecting your martial arts and meditating. (In this hypothetical we would have martial arts to perfect.) I later read in this great interview by Matthew Essary that Zaror came up with the idea while stranded on the coast of Chile by the pandemic and doing that kind of stuff.
After completing his training with Wook, he learns of this temple on the mountain, where they teach a gravity-defying style “out of any martial arts fantasy.” He goes there with his brother, but only he is accepted. The current teacher is referred to once by Wook as “The Condor Woman,” and otherwise just as Master or “the old lady.” She’s played by Gina Aguad, and I never would’ve guessed this but she’s Zaror’s mother, also a martial artist. It’s gotta be one of the coolest roles anybody gave their mom in their movie. It’s also interesting because how many movies are there where a female sifu teaches a male student to fight?
Like any well-rounded art-enjoyer I love a good training montage, and this has many. You have variations on old favorites like resistance ropes, the rhythmic battering of modified wing chun dummies, having things thrown at him, and carrying giant logs, but also less orthodox ideas like running on all fours, or something the Master calls “The Season Without Legs,” but that I have to call Sebulba Technique. They have their legs bound and learn to balance and walk up a hill on their hands, then have heavy chains wrapped around their necks and try to leap over a limbo stick. It’s one of a couple things that are kinda awesome but also really silly but therefore made considerably more awesome because it’s so clear that Zaror and Diaz Espinoza could not give less of a fuck if somebody laughs at it. If you want to deprive yourself of awesomeness by pretending to above it then you don’t deserve the Sebulba Technique, chump.
Another example of this dynamic is in the first fight when Guerrero’s opponent knocks him into the water. He completely submerges but then suddenly rises in this dramatic bird pose:
I mean, how would you react if a dude did that pose to threaten you? Here’s how this guy does it:
The best thing about all this training is seeing how he applies it in his fights. The Sebulba Technique seems so random so when it becomes useful it’s kind of like an adult suddenly realizing they have a reason to use algebra.
He gets in plenty of fights. A few guys attack him – he believes they’re sent by his brother. Also he goes into a bar to get water and ends up having to beat up a bunch of bikers – an action movie cliche that’s always welcome. You know that thing where a character imagines themselves beating someone up, but then it cuts back to reality and they don’t really have the guts to do anything? For Guerrero the fantasy is calling the guy insecure. But he doesn’t do that. Instead he dumps a beer on his head and sends him flying across the room into a table with one punch.
Zaror (who’s only two years younger than his UNDISPUTED III opponent Scott Adkins) is an even more impressive specimen than in his previous movies, absolutely chiseled, often shirtless, his fists looking enormous, the unique condor-inspired fighting style he created for the movie really giving him chances to fly through the air and do outrageous poses. The framing and editing is elegantly simple and smooth, there’s plenty of slow motion to emphasize movement and power, but also classic touches like dramatic Shaw Brothers/Bruce Lee zoom-ins to faces.
His primary opponent for PART ONE is a student of his brother, played by Eyal Meyer (TOO LATE TO DIE YOUNG) whose wild eyes, raccoon makeup and contortionist movies make him seem like an anime character. He’s credited as Kalari, which I think might be his martial art, not his name. He wears a poncho, spies on Guerrero, reports news about him to his twin, before getting permission to try to kill him.
This is where some ambiguity comes in. Kalari says he’s heard that Guerrero used the Fist of the Condor, prompting Gemelo to believe for the first time that there’s a second copy of the book. Kalari asks if he’s sure he has the book. It’s an odd thing to question. Later, when Kalari confronts Guerrero he mentions that some people say he doesn’t have a twin, they’re the same person.
I’m not saying they are, literally. Gemelo obviously represents the worst parts of him, the ego, devil or demon Guerrero’s Master said he had to kill. But with all the weirdness you have to wonder. The guy on the beach expecting him to have the book, Gemelo thinking he has the book, the fact that he does seem to know the Fist of the Condor, and they both have the same weakness, described in the subtitles as “photophobia.” If someone reflects light in their eyes it blinds them and gives them terrible pain. LONE WOLF AND CUB meets BLACKJACK. I guess that could be hereditary.
But also there’s the weird circumstances of their schooling, with Guerrero inside and Gemelo clandestinly copying from outside. (In the movie’s goofiest scene, he’s spotted spying from the bushes and then scurries off walking on his hands.) But the suspicious part is that when Guerrero asks the Master “Who are you training? Him or me?” and she just smiles and doesn’t answer.
Maybe I wouldn’t think about this stuff too deeply if it didn’t already feel like a bit of a riddle. Since he has hair in the flashbacks I sometimes questioned which twin I was looking at, expecting a trick, like the guy we’ve been watching actually isn’t the good one, or the one who was accepted as the student was actually the brother, or that sort of thing.
Guerrero says that Wook told him to forgive his brother, even though he did something unforgivable, and I’m not talking about beating up Guerrero and peeing on his head, although he did that too. Yeah, there’s a little bit where Zaror is fighting Zaror. It’s possible that he’s such a good fighter he’s able to divide into two bodies and have them fight each other, but most likely he had a double for some shots. Since Zaror himself played the double for the younger Will Smith that fought regular Will Smith in GEMINI MAN, it is my opinion that for sure his double here is Academy Award and Grammy winner Will Smith (SEVEN POUNDS). Citation needed, but screw your citation.
Kalari is just as despicable, but he doesn’t just attack him, he challenges him to a duel, with a day to prepare. There’s a great part where Guerrero is standing on a mountain doing his crane kick type poses. He looks over and there just happens to be an identical mountain right across the ravine, and there’s the motherfucker balancing on one foot. I’m sure he’s preparing too, but I think mostly he’s fucking with him.
And still, when they meet for the duel they don’t just start fighting. Without having to say anything, they both start doing their warm up rituals. Sitting on the ground to take off his motorcycle boots and put on his kung fu shoes, both doing their weird stretches, moves, shadowboxing. They don’t seem suspicious of each other, they feel safe turning their backs. There is some amount of honor here, or at least pride in trying to win without cheating. For three minutes we hear the real sounds of breath, feet sliding, clothes shuffling, skin slapping.
The fight is great, displaying great prowess, some imagination, the best finishing move I’ve seen in a while, and also one of the best fight aftermaths. (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER: A condor flies and lands near him, in narration he muses about how unusual that is and what it might mean, then it goes over and starts slurping up pieces of splattered brains from the floor.)
FIST OF THE CONDOR is not gonna be for everyone, but only because not everyone is ready. This is a great Marko Zaror movie because it shows off his martial arts skills even more than before, it gives him yet another kind of character to play (two, in fact), it’s clearly based in his actual philosophies, and most of all it’s unlike anything the other action stars are making, could make, or would make. I always celebrate a true original, and this true original happens to have giant fists and does flips and talks about mystical kung fu shit. If I could I would throw him a parade, with the marching band walking around on their hands.
*When I read that WellGo USA had picked up the distribution rights I thought I’d be able to see it in a theater, but they made it exclusive to the Alamo Drafthouse chain, and it’s hard for me to travel more than 800 miles to see a movie, even if it’s FIST OF THE CONDOR. So I finally signed up for the free 7-day trial of Hi-YAH!, which I should’ve signed up for a long time ago anyway. It’s all stuff that’s on disc, and this will be too, but I’m gonna keep the subscription for a while, because I scrolled through and found so many things that look good or that I had forgotten about and was happy to be reminded of. I really wish they would list the year, director and stars on the titles as you’re browsing, but we can’t have everything.
April 11th, 2023 at 5:23 pm
That looks awesome. I loved Mandrill and enjoyed all the other Espinoza/Zaror colabs. Will have to keep an eye out for this one.