Monday, April 30, 2012
Starring: Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins, Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Connolly, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams
Before I went to see Cabin in the Woods, I read only one review that I knew to be spoiler free. So now that I'm writing my own review, I have no idea whether to include spoilers or to remain vague. I've decided to go for both.
Without spoilers I can say what most people have already said. This is an entertaining, meta-theatrical, self-reflexive film that pokes fun at the American horror genre and its many tired tropes. There are chuckles and blood spray in equal measures. A somewhat contradictory issue with the film is that it is likely to be the most entertaining for lifetime genre fans, which writer Joss Whedon and writer/director Goddard both obviously are. There are many references that will be lost on non-horror fans. On the other hand, the plot twist will probably be wildly irritating for seasoned cinema fans. It is the sort of film that anyone with a wider, more classical cinema base will not be impressed by. In other words, if you like stupid shit, this is the film for you.
A group of five college friends drive out to the middle of nowhere to spend some time in a, you guessed it, cabin in the woods. There's a blonde hottie and her muscled boyfriend, a nerdy virgin, a stoner, and a new member of the group who is supposed to be some sort of nerd/jock combo. Because this is a horror film, predictably nasty things happen to them. And then some things that are not so predictable.
AND NOW FOR THE SPOILERS.
I really thought the twist was going to be something along the lines of the Anna Paquin story in Trick'R Treat, where an innocent, cute girl is stalked by a sadistic masked killer wielding a large knife. When he manages to get a hold of her, she turns out to be a werewolf. The joke is on him.
I am usually disgusted with twists. They're indicative of poor writing and generally anyone who thinks they need one has a weak plot and no idea what to do with the ending of their story. Cabin in the Woods presents its subterfuge to you from the very first scenes of the film. The group of college kids are not just going to the woods. They're being monitored by a secret, underground lab full of wacky scientists. Like a gruesome reality TV show, they are manipulated to have the most horrific, painful deaths imaginable in order to fulfill a yearly sacrifice to the Old Ones, so they don't rise and destroy the world. The two surviving teens eventually figure this out and become the type of strong characters that populate Whedon's writing. Did he have to use zombies, though?
I liked the film and thought it was mindlessly entertaining. I probably won't ever see it again, because I think the meta-theatricality is something that only packs a punch once, if that. There are some nice scares, a fair amount of gore, and Cabin should be seen in the theater if possible to appreciate the full visual spectacle. As I said earlier, there's really nothing to be intellectually wowed by. The "twist" has been done before to varying degrees, but that doesn't mean it can't be entertaining another time around for viewers looking to have fun rather than be impressed by much.
Thursday, April 26, 2012
Peter Greenaway, 1988
Starring: Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, Joely Richardson, Bernard Hill, Jason Edwards
Though this begins as one of Greenaway's most whimsical films, it surprisingly ends as one of his most misanthropic. Drowning by Numbers opens with a girl jumping rope and counting the names of stars up to number 100. It quickly moves to the elder Cissie Colpitts (Plowright), who drowns her drunk, adulterous husband in the bath while he is having a tryst with a younger woman in their home. She informs her daughter, also named Cissie Colpitts (Stevenson), and another younger Cissie Colpitts (Richardson), who may be her granddaughter or niece. They enlist the aid of Madgett (Hill), the love-starved coroner, to help them cover up the murder and ensure an accidental death certificate.
Things begin to spiral out of hand when Cissie #2 drowns her distracted, sexually-unfulfilling husband in the ocean when she realizes he has gotten too fat to swim properly. Madgett is forced to help them again, but makes it clear he expects a sexual exchange as part of the bargain. After the youngest Cissie marries her boyfriend and he threatens to reveal their crimes, she drowns him in the local pool while giving him swimming lessons. Madgett helps them again, but grows more demanding. Meanwhile, his eccentric son Smut, who alternates between making up elaborate games and obsessively counting everything, is growing more out of touch with reality.
Drowning by Numbers is a blackly comic, surreal blend of Greenaway's other films The Draughtsman's Contract and A Zed and Two Noughts. Like Draughtsman, this film returns to the quaint, countryside murder mystery and is populated by some thoroughly British characters. Like Zed, it is bursting with a barrage of lush, colorful visuals and a haunting, if repetitive score by Michael Nyman, which is based on Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E flat, earlier used in Greenaway's The Falls. This enjoyable and endearing film is also Greenaway's most direct confrontation between the sexes, though many of his works visit the concept of women rising up against their oppressive male counterparts. Part fairy tale, part encyclopedia, and part game, Drowning by Numbers is a good place to start for anyone interested in Greenaway's works but unfamiliar with his overall experimental style.
This is also the most pastoral of Greenaway's films. Though several of his other movies concern gardens, the Suffolk countryside is shot with dizzying beauty by the great Sacha Vierny. Though it lacks the grandiose set pieces and elaborate costumes of earlier films, the lush countryside and elaborate games more than make up for this. The opening scene is shot at a house that borders an apple orchard and the detail is overwhelming. Like A Zed and Two Noughts, the rich color and obsessive detail is enhanced by careful lighting techniques. Greenaway states that he and Vierny used multiple sources of artificial light, so that very few shadows appear in the film and that "this often produced a surreal effect of trying to compete with God on his own lighting scheme." The usual careful framing is also present, borrowing visuals from Fellini's group shots, Lewis Carroll's game sequences, and Greenaway's usual nods to Dutch masters. Keep an eye out for Bruegel's "Children's Games," which makes an appearance.
Like Greenaway's other works, this is a film rife with themes. Numbers are of primary importance. This is introduced in the bizarre, anxious opening scene with the girl in the starred dressed counting to one hundred while she jumps rope. Smut counts and numbers everything with obsessive detail. This seems to stem from his father Madgett, who puts particular importance on the rules and numbering systems of his made up games and keeps a herd of sheep around because counting them brings him pleasure. If you pay close attention, numbers 1 to 100 are included on props throughout the film, though some are easier to spot than others. Three is of primary importance to both myth and fairytale and the three Colpitt women easily correspond to the three fates. The larger framework with its imaginative childhood games is also reminiscent of the "Three Billy Goats Gruff" story told in reverse. The three goats taunting the bridge troll are the three Colpitt women distracting the hairy, satyr-like Madgett from sexual conquest until they trick him to get what they want.
Sex is a major component of the film. In this film it is mercenary, manipulative, and un-erotic, but can also be an act of love and intimacy. In either case the frequent nudity feels normal and not exploitative, though it is usually quite graphic. As in The Draughtsman's Contract, there are references to fruit and gardens, but instead of Greenaway's frequent references to pregnancy and inheritance in some of his other works, there is the frequent mention of necrophilia. Water is almost constantly present and is symbolic of women, namely the three Colpitts, and constantly separates them from the men in the film.
Though there is almost nothing about Drowning by Numbers that I personally dislike, several things might be jarring for unseasoned Greenaway viewers. For instance, there are many moments that seem to be absurd for the sake of it and make no connection to the larger narrative or symbolism of the film. There is also rampant misanthropy at work, which is unsettling in a film that begins full of childhood imagination, whimsy, and fairy tale leanings. It is clear that there is a distinctly derogatory view of men, who are all either fat, lazy, selfish, aimless dreamers, sex-crazed, or outright cruel. As a whole their stupidity saves none of them from the Colpitt women who first seemed pleasant but eventually allow their manipulative, sociopathic, and casually murderous intentions to be revealed. Regardless of this, like so many of Greenaway's other films, multiple viewings are both necessary and pleasurable.
This film comes recommended, though it is an acquired taste. It won an award for Best Artistic Contribution at Cannes in 1988. Drowning by Numbers is unfortunately unavailable on DVD. As far as I can tell, there has never been a region 1 DVD, only a VHS tape. There is a very out of print FilmFour region 0 DVD, which I am reviewing. It has a dark, somewhat muddy print and no extras other than a trailer. I believe this print is from an Australian source, like several other unavailable Greenaway films. There's an available region 2 Danish DVD, but it has the same dark print as the FilmFour release. For the desperate, there's also an 8-disc Australian region 0 boxset from Umbrella than contains 7 of Greenaway's early films, including this one, and a special features disc.
Sunday, April 8, 2012
Peter Greenaway, 1987
Starring: Brian Dennehy, Chloe Webb, Lambert Wilson, Sergio Fantoni, Stefania Casini
Though this is one of Greenaway's most acclaimed films, it is not one of my favorites. Ironically, the first time I saw it I suffered from a nasty bout of food poisoning and watched it three times in a row, because I simply could not do anything else. Chicago-based Architect Stourley Kracklite travels to Rome to build an exhibition for forgotten French architect Etienne-Louis Boullée. He brings his wife Louisa, whom he neglects due to his obsession with the project and his increasing stomach troubles. He suspects she is poisoning him with figs, like Augustus's wife Livia was believed to have done so many centuries before. In reality, he has a terminal case of stomach cancer that comes to ruin his professional and domestic life. Louisa, who is newly pregnant, leaves him for his Italian exhibit partner, Caspasian Speckler. Speckler's charm and financial success allows him to eventually gain control of the exhibit, though he is stealing funds to rebuild a monument to Mussolini. As Kracklite's health deteriorates, he begins to write postcards to Boullée and sinks further into madness.
This wildly alienating film is worth watching for two reasons. First, there is an unexpectedly powerful, sympathetic performance from Brian Dennehy, whose character has a touch of Lear about him and struggles futilely against age, illness, and a sort of symbolic impotence. He fails at reproduction, creatively, professionally, domestically, and biologically. His wife's previous pregnancies have resulted in miscarriage and the current, healthy child will be raised by another man. He is left alone to constantly reproduce images of stomachs and statues on a photocopier.
The second reason to see this is for the always stunningly lovely cinematography by Sacha Vierny. The film is full of the traditional painterly tableau-inspired long shots Greenaway favors, as well as many scenes carefully framed by windows, doorways and impressive architecture. The rich colors and textures are balanced by constant images of photocopies, architectural plans and drawings. In much of the film the actors are crushed by claustrophobic shots of massive Roman buildings made of sepulchral white marble. As always, the colors and schematics recall Renaissance painters, but instead of being distractingly beautiful, the landscape feels cold and oppressive. There is also an odd biological symbolism with constant shots of stomachs, antiquated statues and smooth domed buildings that juxtapose Kracklite's sick stomach and his wife's pregnant one.
The Belly of an Architect shares some similar themes with earlier Greenaway films. There is a focus on food and the stomach, though this time the latter is in the forefront. There are many scenes framed around important meals and some are organized to resemble Da Vinci's Last Supper. There is the continuing importance of sex, death, pregnancy, legacy, art, ownership, and obsession. As in all of his films thus far, permanence and mortality play an important role in the plot. Visually, there is a barrage of still shots of photographs, letters, drawings, and architectural plans, representing the need to control and organize. Regardless of the setting, Greenaway's films are obsessed with order and symmetry and there is no exception here despite the beautiful Roman statuary and architecture. And as in all Greenaway's films, the soundtrack is lovely and fitting. Glenn Branca and Wim Mertens provide minimal, repetitive themes that cut back and forth between rich piano compositions and anxiety-inducing string pieces.
My biggest complaint are the performances. Aside from Dennehy, the other actors pale in comparison, particularly the insufferable Chloë Webb (Sid and Nancy). Between her awful accent, monotone style of speaking and limited dialogue, she simply cannot carry the role of Louisa. She has barely any scenes in the second half of the film, which is a relief. The other actors are given little screen time and few individualizing qualities. All of them are filmed in long shots, so it is occasionally hard to discern one black-suited, aged Italian from another. The pace can be plodding, with frequent repetitive blocks of xeroxed stomachs and Roman architecture. This is also one occasion in Greenaway's work where the long shots do not do him any favors dramatically.
Regardless of its flaws, The Belly of an Architect is still worth seeing, if only for Dennehy's surprising performance and, after all, was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes that year. There is a serviceable MGM DVD that sadly doesn't hold a candle to the recent Zeitgeist releases. Shame they couldn't get the rights. The transfer does not seem cleaned up at all, which makes it difficult to get a close look at actors other than Dennehy and in darker scenes there is an unfortunate lack of detail. The sound is poorly mixed with the score drowning everything out on occasion. Luckily there is a BFI region 2 Blu-ray/DVD on the horizon and I would recommend waiting until this print is released in June, especially if you have a region free Blu-ray player.
Saturday, April 7, 2012
Peter Greenaway, 1980
Starring: Peter Westley, Aad Wirtz, Michael Murray
“I’d rather be pecked to death by penguins.”
Greenaway's first feature film lacks a typical narrative structure and is instead a three and a half hour satirical documentary made up of 92 parts of varying length. After suffering the worldwide VUE, "Violent Unknown Event," many survivors developed common symptoms resulting in internal and external ailments, mutations, obsessions with birds and flight, persistent dreams of water, knowledge of new languages, agelessness and immortality, though they are still susceptible to injury and certain diseases.The Falls is a small section of a fictional directory compiled of biographical information from all the survivors of the VUE and the 92 entries correspond to persons with last names beginning with "F-A-L-L." Some of the entries are cross references, refer to organizations like the VUE Commission, discuss the role of birds or flight in the VUE, or relate fictional stories by the author Tulse Luper, a character who would show up again later in Greenaway's multimedia multi-film series The Tulse Luper Suitcases.
The Falls is truly a breathtaking, inspired experiment and I'm surprised to find that it is quickly becoming one of my favorite Greenaway films. You don't have to watch it in any particular order, nor do you have to endure all three and a half hours in one sitting, an endeavor that is painful and rewarding in equal parts. Fans of Pynchon, Nabokov, Vonnegut, Borges, Marquez, Kafka, and Lewis Carroll will no doubt enjoy it, though The Falls bears a particular resemblance to some of the more absurd humor found in Monty Python. There are large doses of surrealism, social satire, and magic realism. Those who love experimental cinema should keep an eye out for an appearance from the Brothers Quay, who star as twins Ipson and Pulat Fallari in one of my favorite reoccurring story lines.
Thematically, The Falls is most concerned with birds and flight. There are multiple layers of references to Hitchcock's The Birds, ornithology, and bird mythology from around the word, namely the story of Icarus and Daedalus. Communication and language also has primary importance and the film is full of made up languages that resulted from the VUE. As in Greenaway's later works, he is concerned with list making, collecting, organizing, anecdotes and story telling and the blurring of fact and fiction. The incredibly inventive, well written vignettes help the lengthy running time speed by and allow viewers to remember characters and plot details and develop a connection to a story that only emerges through the brie, scattered fragments. The film is put together with still photographs, stock footage, documents, drawings and graphs. Like the later Tulse Luper Suitcases, it feels more like a multimedia adventure than a feature length film.
Though it is humorous and satirical, the film is also concerned with a cosmic, chaotic kind of terror that waits around the corner in the guise of war, disease and unexpected violent events. Communication breaks down on every level, leading to both the tragic and the comic. In a thoroughly British way, it mocks bureaucracies and the futile attempt to organize information and reality.
There is an excellent score comprised of music by Michael Nyman, Greenaway's regular collaborator, as well as songs from Brian Eno, John Hyde, and jazz musician Keith Pendlebury, who appears in the film. "Golden Hours" from Eno's excellent album Another Green World is featured repeatedly, as is "Jugband Blues" from Pink Floyd's final Syd Barrett album, Saucerful of Secrets. There is also a reoccurring adaptation of the second movement of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E Flat Major, which is used again in the later Drowning by Numbers.
The Falls received a British Film Institute Award and is a dazzlingly creative, rewarding work that will be particularly beloved by those who enjoy lists, word games, puns, literary jokes, and absurd humor with deadpan delivery. The Falls is available on DVD from Zeitgeist as part of their Early Greenaway collection. There is a single disc DVD that contains The Falls and Vertical Features Remake, as well as the two disc set with a second disc featuring several of Greenaway's experimental shorts and a number of special features. Though The Falls is surely an acquired taste it comes with the highest recommendation.
Thursday, April 5, 2012
Lau Kar Leung, 1978
Starring: Gordon Liu, Lo Lieh, Yung Liu Chia, Norman Chu
Shao lin san shi Liu Fang aka Shaolin Master Killer is one of the most beloved martial arts films of all time and helped launch the careers of star Gordon Liu and director Lau Kar Leung. San Te, a student, is swept up in the rebellion against the evil Manchus. When his friends and family are killed during an uprising, San Te heads for the closest Shaolin temple, determined to learn kung fu and avenge his father. Though the monks forbid revenge, he is accepted into the temple only because he almost died getting there and one of the elders takes pity. Eventually he begins his training through the thirty five chambers of the Shaolin temple, each teaching and honing a different skill. After five years, when he graduates, he is expelled for wanting to create a 36th chamber where he will teach common people to defend themselves. After accidentally defeating the evil Manchu leader, he begins his school and is accepted back into the temple.
With excellent direction by Lau Kar-Leung and lovely if functional cinematography by Huang Yeh-tai, this helped kick off Lau's long career for Shaw Brothers. Though initially fight choreographer for the great Chang Cheh and other non-Shaw works like Master of the Flying Guillotine, this is where Lau really came into his own. The film became so popular that it resulted in a trilogy and was followed by Return to the 36th Chamber, where Liu appears again in a new role. This was followed by Disciples of the 36th Chamber. All these films deal with the fictionalized character of real historical monk San Te, who was supposedly the first to teach kung fu outside the temple. Though the synopsis is not new and borrows from some of Chang Cheh films such as Shaolin Temple, this is likely due to Lau's long involvement as Chang's choreographer until he was promoted to director by Run Run Shaw. 36th Chamber includes themes that Lau would pursue throughout his career, namely the history of kung fu, the intellectualism and spirituality of fighting, and redemption rather than revenge.
There is one reason and one reason only to watch the film and that is Gordon Liu. Also known as Lau Kar-Fai or Liu Chia-Hui (though born Xian Jinxi), he trained at Lau Cham's Hung Ga school until he rose to fame. Lau Cham was a student of the famous Wong Fei-hung and is also father to Lau Kar-Leung, making Lau and Liu adopted brothers in a loose sense. In one of Liu's earliest films, he actually starred as Wong Fei-hung in Challenge of the Masters. Liu's lean, bare-chested form complete with a monk's mandatory shaven head became a Shaw Brother's trademark image and guaranteed his future fame. Though his acting isn't the most mind blowing I've ever seen in a kung fu film, his naive, yet stubborn charm and ability to kick ass without actually kicking anyone's ass is one of a kind.
The film is innovative because it departs from the standard revenge plot in that it loosely follows this formula for the first third of the film, but completely discards this halfway through in favor of a more philosophical approach. San Te makes good on becoming a monk and though he does create the 36th chamber, he never becomes a killer. Because of this lofty intellectualism, at times this feels like a serious, humorless training film with little actual fighting and nary a drop of blood, but don't be misled. There is some excellent kung fu, particularly where weapons are concerned. Though Liu is the shining star, there are also some nice cameos. Lee Hoi San appears as a Shaolin Officer who effortlessly wields double blades and Wilson Tong is barely given a chance to show his skills as the ruthless leader of the Manchus. Lo Lieh is aged, but excellent as the evil General and manages to hold his own for most of the fighting scenes.
Be wary of which version you purchase or view on DVD. There's an earlier Crash Cinema DVD titled Shaolin Master Killer that is absolutely horrible. It has a terribly aged print and some of the worst English dubbing I have ever heard. It's the version I grew up watching, but please avoid it at all costs. The excellent Dragon Dynasty DVD is far superior with a beautifully restored transfer and Mandarin and Cantonese language tracks in addition to the English dub. There are some nice special features, namely an interesting -- if rambling and not particularly well-researched -- commentary by RZA and Andy Klein, a film critic. There's also a Dragon Dynasty Blu-ray disc that is similar to the DVD release, but allegedly this Blu-ray transfer does ShawScope little favors. Either way, the film is mandatory viewing for all fans of martial arts cinema.
Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Chor Yuen, 1976
Cast: Ti Lung, Lo Lieh, Tim Lei, Cheng Lee, Ha Ping, Guk Fung
Swordsmen Fu Hung Hsueh (Ti Lung) and Yen Nan-Fei (Lo Lieh) meet a year after their first fight for a final duel to the death. The stoic, lone wolf Fu and the showier, more boastful Yen put aside their differences mid-fight when Yen is attacked by a group of warriors. Fu is determined that he is the only one who will kill Yen, so they band together to hunt down and destroy the mysterious Yu, who is behind the attack. It seems Yu is an evil sorcerer in search of the legendary peacock dart, which will give him power over the underworld.
Fu and Yen race to find the peacock dart, which Fu takes in order to protect. Yu has the Peacock Mansion destroyed and one of the dart's young, beautiful protectors, Chiu Yu-Cheng (Cheng Lee) is forced to accompany the two swordsmen. Soon they are separated in order to protect the dart, Chiu gets kidnapped and Yen goes missing and is presumed dead. Fu fights Yu's bizarre and dangerous warriors to reclaim the dart and rescue Chiu, whom he has fallen in love with.
Though The Magic Blade is not in the upper tier of my favorite Shaw Brothers films, it is still well worth watching because of the odd, imaginative characters and twist-filled plot, which is based on a book by popular novelist Gu Long. I am at least partially biased against it because I prefer kung fu based Shaw Brothers films. My favorite swordplay epics are all Japanese chanbara, though Chang Cheh's One-Armed Swordsman, Tsui Hark's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, and Wong Kar-Wai's later Ashes of Time. Originally known as Tien ya ming yue dao, The Magic Blade is part swordplay film and part standard wuxia revenge plot, though it oddly has elements of Sergio Leone's spaghetti western films. There is a ghost town, a sandstorm, a stoic, lone hero wearing a poncho and a sympathetic prostitute, among other things. What's so odd about this influence is that Leone was directly inspired by Akira Kurosawa, master of the chanbara.
Though is a sword fighting epic, there is nothing typical about the excellent choreography from Tang Chia. Though Fu is a swordsmen, he carries an interesting weapon that appears to be a machete-like sword that unlocks and spins with devastating affect. The fight scenes usually result from bizarre situations or involve Fu and Yen interacting with the oddest of villains. While all of Yu's top five killers have a specific theme and matching weapon, the best and most horrifying is an old woman known as Devil's Grandma (Ha Ping). She is witch-like, drinks blood, eats human flesh, hopes to bake our heroes into a pie and her food cart is stocked with exploding Thunder Bullets and hidden warriors. There is a surprisingly high number of female fighters in The Magic Blade, all of them evil. We even get a nice appearance from Lily Li, who has the best death scene in the film. There is also a backstabbing, transgendered assassin and the remaining villains are all outrageously costumed and brightly colored. The level of violence is surprisingly high as is the completely unexpected nudity.
Another strong point for The Magic Blade is that it is colorful and lovely to look. The cinematography is imaginative and there are a number of beautiful set pieces including a ghost town, a human-sized chess board, a tea-house full of dead patrons, the lovely Peacock Mansion and many other fantastical locales.
My least favorite part of the film were the two leads, Ti Lung as Fu and Lo Lieh as Yen. Though both actors appeared in a number of well-acclaimed Shaw films, I found Ti Lung flat and Lo Lieh unlikable. Part of the fault undoubtedly lies with the writing, which also makes Fu and Yen near invincible during the increasingly ridiculous fight scenes. The love story between Chiu and Fu is a also trite and annoying, but serves the plot. The odd erotic flavor to the film is jarring, probably because it is infrequently used. Fu's evil ex-girlfriend tries to seduce him to the dark side, there is a poor, sick girl willing to prostitute herself and a nonsensical lesbian shot that is completely disjointed from the rest of the film. Aside from this, the other plot-related non-sequitors and absurd twists felt surprisingly natural, due to the fantastic and eccentric elements that kick off the film.
Overall I recommend The Magic Blade as a worthy, entertaining installment in their long line of successful wuxia films. Image released it on region 1 DVD and did a wonderful job with the transfer, which looks too perfect to be from the '70s. There is fortunately a Mandarin language track and English subtitles, as well as a good number of trailers.
See this for Devil Grandma alone.
Chang Cheh, 1978
Starring: Kuo Chui, Lu Feng, Lo Meng, Chiang Sheng, Sun Chien, Wang Lung Wei
I've been on a huge Shaw Brothers kick lately and despite some of the truly great films I've seen, Crippled Avengers might just be my favorite. Released in the U.S. as Return of the 5 Deadly Venoms, this is not a sequel to Five Deadly Venoms; rather it is the return of the Venom Mob actors, comprised of hero Kuo Chui, acrobat Chiang Sheng, Tae Kawn Do expert Sun Chien, strongman Lo Meng, and weapons expert/villain Lu Feng. There are over 20 Venom Mob films produced by the Shaw Brothers including Invincible Shaolin and The Kid with the Golden Arm. This group of actors trained together at the Peking Opera School as children and were eventually discovered by Chang Cheh and hired by the Shaw Brothers. They represent some of the best choreography, acrobatics, and acting in the Shaw Brothers martial arts films.
When the Tinan Tigers kill kung fu master Dao Tian-du's wife and maim his son (Lu Feng), he becomes bitter and vengeful. He trains his son in martial arts and has a pair of iron hands made for him that can extend and shoot knives. After the two complete their vengeance on the Tigers, killing them and their children, Dao and his son rule the local town with cruelty and violence. A traveler (Kuo Chui) speaks out against them and is blinded for his efforts. A blacksmith (Lo Meng) also curses Dao and is forced to drink a potion that makes him mute, then has his ear drums ruptured when he continues to rebel. Another man (Sun Chien) has his legs cut off when he bumps into Dao's son accidentally. The three crippled men join together in an attempt to survive. Dao foils this plan when he declares that the townspeople cannot go to the blacksmith and all three men are pariahs.
A passing kung fu student, Wang (Chiang Sheng), attempts to get vengeance for the three men, but is tortured to idiocy by Dao. He still knows kung fu, but is incapable of thinking or caring for himself. The three crippled men learn that he is the student of a local kung fu master. The four travel to the school and Wang's master takes pity on them and promises to teach them enough kung fu to avenge themselves against Dao. After three years of difficult training, the four men return to town, determined to defeat Dao and his son once and for all. The blind traveler and deaf blacksmith have fine-tuned their other senses and the blacksmith has made iron legs for the third man. They best Dao's second-in-command, Wei, and his nearly invincible brother Chu, then prepare for the final showdown at Dao's obstacle course-like mansion.
Also known as Mortal Combat, the real reason to watch this film is because of the excellent choreography by Robert Tai, Lu Feng, and Chiang Sheng. Though Lu Feng isn't used very much as Dao's handicapped, vicious son with iron hands, Chiang Sheng steals the film as both the comic relief and the most graceful and acrobatic of all the actors. He is also surprisingly good as the idiot Wang, adding an element of chaos into an otherwise traditional revenge narrative. The final battle with Chiang Sheng, Kuo Chui, a handful of metal rings, and Lu Feng is truly a sight to behold.
The other Venoms are also worth watching, particularly the pair of Kuo Chui and Lo Meng, blind and deaf fighters who team up to support one another in a hostile world and to kick some serious ass. The usually deadpan Lo Meng has an almost comic role, as he is forced to pantomime or write out all his dialogue, and continues to curse Dao even when he can no longer speak. "Everyone is cursing you!" The relationship between Lo Meng's deaf blacksmith and Kuo Chui's blind traveler is also an interesting example of male bonding in action cinema, as the two hold hands to communicate or guide one another throughout most of the film. Sun Chien is unfortunately left out in the cold and only appears a handful of times to deliver some truly brutal kicks with his iron legs. The villains are utterly ridiculous, but there are a few nice fight sequences with Wang Lung-Wei, who appears as Dao's second-in-command and fights with one of my favorite weapons, the meteor hammer.
The idea of disabled fighters began with Japanese chanbara films, which are samurai-themed period pieces usually set during the Tokugawa period. They deal with violent action and frequently troubled heroes. The Zatoichi films and their titular blind samurai were an obvious influence on Chang Cheh, who has several films with disabled martial artists, such as The One-Armed Swordsman series. The inclusion of four disabled heroes gives Crippled Avengers a blackly comic, bizarre, and almost exploitative feel. Though there is a clever script by Chang Cheh, a lot of the dialogue comes across as outrageous, but somehow works for the film and not against it. Partly this is bolstered by the non-stop action and pacing that increasingly speeds up towards the film's inevitable conclusion.
Though there are constant fisticuffs, a lot of mutilation, and much maiming, there is little bloodshed in the film. The kung fu feels more balletic that in slower, more inferior films and carries Crippled Avengers past occasionally funny dialogue and questionable special effects. I highly recommend Can Que (Incomplete), which is its original title. The Weinstein Brothers/Celestial Pictures DVD released for region 1 as Return of the 5 Deadly Venoms is excellent. There is finally a Mandarin audio track with English subtitles, though the English dubbed track is also available. The picture has been beautifully restored and given a true NTSC transfer.
A note: Please don't mistake this for Crippled Masters, which is a 1979 Joe Law film that includes two actually disabled kung fu warriors fighting against their evil teacher.