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.