Kung fu movies are a little slice of heaven. Once you’ve seen some dude with bad hair in silk pajamas standing around playing patty cake with another dude in silk pajamas with equally bad, but somehow different hair, you’re pretty much spoiled for any other genre of cinema. Is there any other kind of movie that would get you so involved that you would try some drunken mantis kung fu on your bewildered dog during the talky parts?
There are certain things to expect from a kung fu movie. First of all you need to have a master. This seems a bit obvious because all the young studs who go around kicking the crap out of each other need some training and reason to do all that. The master gets the plot going, usually by making some kind of dying declaration like, “you lazy punks need to go out and avenge me” or “please go beat up some of my former students – even though I taught them well, they may have gone bad.” That latter request is the crux of this movie.
Old Master is almost ready to croak. It doesn’t really matter because his kung fu school only has one student, Yang Tieh. That’s another thing about these movies. China must have kung fu schools run by mysterious old geezers about like the United States has Subways run by cranky, pimply-faced kids.
His student spends his time filling up Old Master’s bath with boiling water and listening to the oldster drone on and on about the really cool students he used to have. This is our introduction to the Five Deadly Venoms.
Each Venom has been trained in a specific school of kung fu. They all have catchy insect and animal names. You’ve got centipede, snake, scorpion, lizard, and toad. Can you imagine drawing the short straw and being saddled with the toad gimmick?
Old Master tells us about each Venom’s specific skills and some of it makes sense (the snake guy tries to grab you with his fang-like grip) and some of it doesn’t (the toad has invulnerable skin – I would’ve just thought it would have been real bumpy or something).
Then we see in flashback each person doing a demonstration of their particular brand of kung fu. All the while they do this, they are wearing their special animal or insect mask.
Old Master explains that number 1 and 2 were trained together and that three, four and five came afterwards. The last three don’t know the first two, but no one knows the third and they never used real names so the Old Master doesn’t know what they look like or who they are and I began to break out into a cold sweat because I was sure that this was the problem solving question on the ACT that kept me out of Yale.
With these clues, Old Master tells Yang that he must go to the city and find all the Venoms. Why? Because even though Old Master taught them well, they have left the Poison Clan and they may be trying to steal money from another Old Master who used to teach at Kung Fu Community College before the curriculum was changed from learning martial arts to bathing old men.
Once Yang figures out who the Venoms are, he must defeat the bad ones. Since he is trained in all the schools of kung fu, his knowledge is a mile wide and an inch deep and he can only defeat the Venoms by teaming up with another Venom.
After a fair amount of intrigue, Toad is framed for the murder of a family that occurred when some Venoms botched the robbery of the second Old Master. A prolonged fight sequence with Yang and the Venoms thankfully ensues.
The fighting is pretty good (I can’t claim to be the biggest fan of kung fu fights in these Old School movies – too much standing around with your arms outstretched while the other guy tries to slap you) and they even work in some wire work, with people bending over way too far, walking on walls and hanging up in the corners of ceilings.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the depth of the story once everyone was in the city and looking for each other. It became one of these movies about the corruption of the ruling class as well as one of those “who do you trust” type affairs. And a movie about guy named Centipede parading around town in a red vest.
The weakest part of the movie was Yang. Unlike all the Venoms who were easily memorable and believable (well as believable as anyone can be when they do centipede kung fu), he barely registered.
He also didn’t have a lot to do. He sort of hung around, periodically appearing in scenes for no real reason other than to eat something or flip his hair around. Did I also mention that he was really ugly? It doesn’t matter much, but I didn’t want to give you the impression that this is one of those times when a guy flipping his long, silky hair is a good thing.
One aspect where the movie excelled was that when the Venoms fought in their particular style of kung fu, it actually mattered in the outcome of things. This variety of techniques kept the fight scenes from being the monotonous bore that you suspect can occur in these types of movies.
So you had moments like when Snake was trying to kill Toad, but he couldn’t penetrate the skin until Scorpion sliced him with some thrown blades. A good way to keep the audience intrigued for the final battles.
Kung fu fans don’t have to be told to see this movie, but for the rest of us, this is as good an entry into 70s kung fu as you’re likely to find.
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