Writer and director Lam Ngai Kai’s films combine comedy, action, adventure and horror, often less concerned with narrative. Despite a long career, starting with films for the Shaw Brothers all the way to several standouts in the 80’s and 90’s such as The Ghost Snatchers and The Cat, he’s best known in the west for this film.
Riki-Oh started as a manga, or Japanese comic book, and ran for three years in the magazine Business Jump. Created by Masahiko Takajo and Tetsuya Saruwatari, it tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world where prisons have become privatized and their populations used for slave labor. One of the prisoners is Riki-Oh, who is there for killing the Yakuza boss who was responsible for the death of his girlfriend. He’s the one man that can’t be broken, as he’s learned Qigong from one of Chiang Kai-shek’s bodyguards. Now, he’s so strong that he can punch holes through literally anything and everyone.
Qigong is “a holistic system of coordinated body posture and movement, breathing and meditation” that is all about cultivating life energy, known as chi. I don’t know if it can be used to punch a man’s head clean off, but who am I to go against Hong Kong cinema by the way of Japan?
Ricky starts the film by earning the ire of the gangs within the jail by stopping Wildcat, the captain of the cells, from abusing an older inmate named Omar. This all leads to Omar killing himself, realizing he’ll never leave the prison, and the gang sending the obese Zorro after our hero, only to be absolutely obliterated. That’s when we learn through flashbacks why Ricky is in jail and how he learned exactly how to become pretty much invincible. Seriously — he still has five bullets inside his heart and he can even restitch the veins in his arm in the midst of combat.
This brings Ricky into conflict with the Gang of Four, the leaders of each of the cells, and Warden Dan, who has one eye. The other has all of his drugs inside it. The first battle between Ricky and Oscar ends up Oscar trying to commit seppuku and slicing into his own stomach before choking Ricky with his intestines. Oh yeah — this is when I should warn you that this movie has absolutely no restrictions. If something can explode in a shower of blood and gore, it will, over and over and over again.
Ricky spends the rest of the film battling the other leaders — Rogan, Brandon and Tarzan — as well as the brutal warden. Everyone that tries to help our hero is killed and he must survive being buried alive and covered in concrete to rise up and finally kill the warden and punch his way through the wall of the prison to discover freedom.
There are so many strange moments and characters in this film that it’s almost impossible to list them all. This is simply a movie that must be experienced, as it’s literally a comic book come to life. It also has a dub so poor that most giallo is a step up in quality.
My favorite character — other than Ricky — is the warden’s spoiled son. He eats candy constantly and his clumsy nature leads to numerous deaths. This is a film in love with slapstick as much as violent death.
Star Fan Siu-Wong would return for Dint King, Inside King, a spiritual sequel of sorts that is set in the distant future. He wears the same camouflage poncho in this film, but has a different name and the film isn’t an official Riki-Oh movie.
There’s also an anime of this story, but what’s amazing is just how much this movie is a real-life cartoon. It’s like Cool Hand Luke mixed with Dead Alive, a film that shows you how Luke could have really done better if he just knocked people’s jaws off instead of eating all of those hard-boiled eggs.
You can watch it for free on Tubi.