Red Hawk: Weapon of Death (2002)

As a recovering academic, let me give you a piece of advice. When you encounter a graduate student in the wild — you will know the beast by its distinctive markings, haunted eyes, and caffeine-induced twitching — make no sudden moves, back away slowly, and whatever you do, do not ask it the topic of its dissertation. I cannot emphasize this last point strongly enough, unless you are prepared to spend the next hour or so nodding politely while you’re deluged by esoterica and Academese. Trust me on this. I myself shudder at the number of friends I subjected to such torments and who, even today, will not return my calls.

What does this have to do with the latest release from Manga Entertainment, Red Hawk: Weapon of Death? Well, were it a few years ago, I would have spent days telling you how the hero Red Hawk, champion of the downtrodden people of Chungwon, fits the motif-complex of my proposed semi-Jungian, Joseph Campbellesque archetype of the dystopian avenger who resonates throughout the popular literature of the socio-economically disadvantaged, from Robin Hood ballads to the pulp heroes of the Great Depression, and then shoved a copy of my 200-page thesis at you and demanded you read it while I stood by, mumbling to myself, clenching and unclenching my sweaty fists.

I’m much better now. So I can simply say that Red Hawk is a beautifully executed martial-arts/superhero saga that rocks. Based on a popular Korean comic book, this anime — is it anime if it’s not Japanese but done in the same style? We’ll say yes — would appear to be the first installment of a continuing franchise, the origin issue, if you will.

The once peaceful countryside of feudal Chungwon has been under assault for years by a gang called the Camellia Blossoms, whose mastermind, the evil Dan-ju, seeks to overthrow benign Emperor Won-woo and seize power. His chief lieutenants are the Five Dragons, a cadre of martial arts masters who mercilessly wield arcane destructive powers, until two of them, the brothers Danlyong and Muklyong, have an attack of remorse and decide to defect.

Muklyong, the elder, helps his brother to escape but pays for his betrayal by being forced to drink an evil potion that turns him into a monster, the episode’s eponymous “Weapon of Death.” Danlyong vows to avenge his brother’s fate and assumes the identity of the mysterious Red Hawk, a masked warrior for justice who appears out of nowhere, heralded by his distinctive avian companion, whenever the good people of Chungwon are threatened. It’s all just so wonderfully corny.

Passing through a village while seeking the elusive Red Hawk, a lone female warrior named Ryung-Ryung pauses for a few moments to kick the town bully’s ass in a local eatery, when the tavern’s waitress Hong-ryun discovers that her long-missing father has been murdered. The girls discover that the victim was working as an artisan in the service of the feudal lord Seobong in a village to the north, the same village Ryung-ryung wants Red Hawk to clean up. They decide to strike out for the village to find the father’s killers, accompanied by Hong-ryun’s would-be boyfriend Jung-chun, a vain, bumbling, and fairly useless sort who nonetheless insists on coming. Anyone who has ever seen a Zorro picture or read The Scarlet Pimpernel will recognize Jung-chun for who he really is, and the animators don’t expend much effort in maintaining the illusion. This film is fully aware of the archetype it’s tweaking.

In fact, the homages (or clichés, if you want to be unkind) run thick throughout Red Hawk, which rips off bits from countless lowbrow entertainments. Besides Zorro and the Pimpernel, there’s snatches of The Shadow, the Phantom, Robin Hood, Superman… Lord Seobong’s number one lackey Lyu is a fey maniac with chalk-white skin, red lips, and green hair, and Jack Nicholson would no doubt play him in the live-action version.

But while playing Spot-the-Influence is interesting, the true purpose of the flick is the violence, and there’s a ton of it. The travelers are repeatedly ambushed by Lord Seobong’s sub-lieutenants and foot soldiers, with both Red Hawk and Ryung-ryung (refreshingly) sharing villain-thrashing duties, and a long climactic series of battles as the heroes assault the villains’ fortress. While all the fighting, with loud noises and blinding pyrotechnics, at times resembles the mayhem-for-its-own-sake excess of Dragonball Z, for anime it is curiously bloodless. By that, I mean that while countless people die here, the only person who actually bleeds onscreen is Red Hawk. This too is a necessary component of the conventions of this hero’s archetype because, let’s face it, while generations of us have sat in movie theaters and cheered the derring-do of Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power (or Kevin Costner and Antonio Banderas among the younger crowd), were Prince John’s or the Alcalde’s men actually to suffer the bodily insult of zinging arrows and flashing blades, Robin Hood and Zorro would look like homicidal loonies in a charnel house. It would seem that Red Hawk‘s creators know this as well and carry on the tradition of depicting wholesale slaughter in the name of justice as good clean fun.

And fun it is, even for kids, if you don’t mind them being exposed to extensive chop-socky violence and the occasional profanity, and if they don’t mind hokey proclamations like “Whenever there is injustice, Red Hawk will be there!” For those of us who’ve whiled away many a joyful hour in Sherwood Forest, old California, or Gotham City, hearing such pronouncements is like coming home.