It's a pity, but it's probably mandatory for modern film fans to know a little history before watching King Boxer (better known in the US as 5 Fingers of Death) for the first time. Otherwise, you might watch it and think: "Fun little movie with great kick-butt action, but what's all the fuss about? Why do some people think this particular kung fu movie is so great?"
Bruce Lee had given US television viewers a taste of martial arts in his sidekick role as Kato in The Green Hornet (1966-1967) and David Carradine further whetted appetites with the TV show Kung Fu, which debuted in February 1972. Of course, Hong Kong had already produced dozens of martial arts films, many of which played on the Chinatown movie theater circuit in the US, but even for a seasoned viewer, Korean director Chang-Hwa Jeong (AKA Chang Chang Ho) worked several new twists into the familiar fabric. For moviegoers in general, King Boxer was a sucker punch to the gut, featuring fighting styles never before seen on screen, surprising in its extreme violence, and filled to the brim with socko brutality and in-your-face action. No wonder its theatrical release kick-started the kung fu craze in America.
I was a big fan of Kung Fu, but there was no way my parents would ever let me see an R-rated movie in the spring of 1973, much less one that was already fabled for its bloody violence. So I sulked and listened jealously while school friends raved about how "cool" the movie was -- especially when the guy got his eyeballs gouged out! More than 30 years later, the violence has long been surpassed, which allows the strength of the storytelling, characterizations, and action choreography to come to the fore.