The Venoms. Chang Cheh's "Third Team," starting with Five Venoms in 1978 and ending with House of Traps in 1981, these guys produced the most entertaining kung-fu movies of all time. They weren't the greatest actors, their movies didn't have the most intricate storylines, and you were lucky to even glimpse a woman in most of their films (that was Chang's doing, not theirs), but regardless, the Venoms hold a special place in every old-schooler's heart, and for reason.
After studying their movies, performing lots of research, writing to my congressman, and consulting the Bible, I've come up with this ranking of the Venoms movies, from best to worst. I'm sure just about everyone will disagree, but at least for right now, these are my feelings on each of the Venoms movies.
Several films featuring the Venoms are not included in this feature, such as Chinatown Kid, Heaven and Hell, the Brave Archer series, and Ten Tigers from Kwantung. The reason being that these movies were either vehicles for other actors (i.e. Fu Sheng in Chinatown Kid), or they were films with multiple lead actors (i.e. Ten Tigers from Kwantung).
Only movies with Chang Cheh as director and the Shaw Brothers as producers are included, as well, which is why Ninja in the Deadly Trap isn't listed here. Also, per tradition, at least three Venoms must star in the film, to be considered a "true" Venoms movie.
Enough chit-chat. Let's meet the Venoms!
Unmatched when it came to weapons, Lu was usually stuck with the villainous roles. This means that since he was always the main bad guy, you could expect him to die in the finale. In fact, there's only one Venoms movie in which Lu doesn't die in the end! Also from Taiwan, Lu Feng was part of the same Peking Opera school as Kuo Choi and Chiang Sheng; hence, the three of them had perfect timing when performing together. This is why the Venoms movies usually ended with only these three still standing, battling it out. Lu's apparently dropped off the face of the earth, though reportedly he does the occasional work behind the scenes.
The scampy Venom, Chiang Sheng is mistakenly referred to occasionally as the "unofficial Venom," because he didn't portray one of the titular characters in Five Venoms. In fact, it is Wei Pai who's the unofficial Venom. Chiang was probably the most important of them all, serving as assistant director on all of the Venoms films, as well as co-fight choreographer. His acrobatic skills were breath-taking, and along with Lo Meng he provided the group with some comedy. Unfortunately, Chiang died of a heart attack in Taiwan in 1991, after some hard times and, according to Kuo Choi, a broken heart, after his wife left him.
Born in Hong Kong, Lo didn't have a Peking Opera background. Instead, he specialized in Mantis Fist, which is why he very rarely used any weapons in the Venoms movies. Lo possessed a natural on-screen charisma as well as a flawless physique, so it's strange that Chang Cheh never gave him Kuo Choi's roles. In fact, Lo usually was Chang's mark, dying early in films, or being killed at the end in various, ignoble ways. This is probably what lead Lo to leave the Venoms crew in 1980, although he still appeared in Shaw Brothers movies. After the company's film half folded, he moved on to TV, where he still appears.
Another non-Peking Opera performer, Sun was a kicker who had won a few martial arts tournaments. Sources conflict on where he was from. Early internet reports stated he was Korean, and couldn't speak Mandarin, which is supposedly why Chang Cheh never gave him big roles. But according to his bio on the Five Venoms DVD released by Celestial, Sun is from Taiwan. To make things even more perplexing, Celestial refers to him as "a Korean kicker" on the back cover of their Five Venoms disc! Where he is now is anyone's guess.
Wei Pai only appeared in three official Venoms movies: Five Venoms, Kid with the Golden Arm, and Invincible Shaolin, and one "unofficial" (at least by my regulations) Venoms flick: Ten Tigers from Kwantung. Not nearly as martial arts-skilled as the others, he was pretty good at swordplay, and generally played sniveling pricks. Even his Invincible Shaolin character was pretty unlikable. It's a discredit to the crew that he's considered a "real Venom," and Chiang Sheng's considered the "sixth Venom." Wei appeared in John Woo's Last Hurrah for Chivalry, and then slipped into a parallel universe or something.
Ranking The Venoms Films:
1. Crippled Avengers -- I'm caving in to popular opinion. I have problems with Crippled Avengers (for example, how the film devolves into a fight-fest in the last half), but it still remains the greatest display of the Venoms' phenomenal skills. Each of them gets a chance to shine, the characters are memorable, the villains are despicable, and the violence is brutal.
2. Five Venoms -- The coolest Venoms movie. They don't get to show off as in later movies, but the story more than makes up for that. It's a kung-fu mystery of the highest order. Chang Cheh's direction is top-notch, and the characters are more mythic than any others in the Venoms catalog. A classic for a reason, and one all old-school fans are required to see.
3. Masked Avengers -- Even without Sun Chien or Lo Meng, and with Chiang Sheng in a straight-laced role, this is one great movie. Similar to Five Venoms in that it's a mystery, but the action's more constant, and the villains more evil. The movie's so violent it borders on dark comedy.
4. Invincible Shaolin -- A great tragedy with lots of drama, and much more of a "traditional" kung-fu flick than other Venoms movies. Kind of a saggy middle half, with training scenes going on too long, but redeems itself with a top-notch, emotional ending.
5. Flag of Iron -- Another one without Sun Chien or Lo Meng. Mostly a Kuo Choi vehicle, but features loads of impressive weaponry, cool costumes, and memorable characters. The violence is almost up there with Masked Avengers. Avoid the edited NS release; find a bootleg copy of the uncut print, which is 114 minutes long, as opposed to the 89-minute NS version.
6. Two Champions of Shaolin -- Despite Kuo Choi's absence, this movie is great. Unusual for a Chang Cheh flick in that there are no evil characters. Lots of action and carnage. Only marred by a plodding middle half, and the fact that the script wasn't fixed up after Kuo's departure.
7. Rebel Intruders -- Could've been one of their best, but for the unfortunate de-evolution into a fight-fest in the second half, and the fact that the characters aren't very memorable. Still, this movie probably has the best choreography of all the Venoms movies, even if bloodshed is minimal.
8. Kid with the Golden Arm -- A bizarro trip into swordplay, this movie suffers because it's all action and little else. Just about every print available is cut in some form, so wait for Celestial to release it. Kuo Choi's character is great, but Lo Meng's underused and the ending is underwhelming.
9. Magnificent Ruffians -- Similar to Rebel Intruders in that the first half is mostly comedy, before turning into a grim action spectacle. Loads of good choreography, and Lu Feng is very impressive with his Golden Spear technique. As with most of their releases, the NS DVD is heavily cut.
10. Shaolin Rescuers -- A kung-fu comedy, but it still features lots of bloodshed and fighting. In fact, the choreography in this one is more than a match for Crippled Avengers, and the finale is the best the Venoms ever did. But the inane bouts between Kuo, Sun, and Lo can grate your nerves.
11. House of Traps -- Difficult to find, at least until Celestial releases it, but worth seeking out. Never released in the West, this movie is a plot and dialog-heavy flick that nevertheless features lots of gore, with guys getting torn up by the titular house. Not very much kung-fu action, though.
12. Daredevils -- Another film in which Lo Meng is sadly underused, this flick suffers from poor direction and an unbelievable plot. Wang Li is deadly as the main villain, and it's a nice change of pace to see Lu Feng as a hero. But still, this is more of an acrobatics showcase than action movie.
13. Sword Stained with Royal Blood -- A Kuo Choi showcase, pure and simple. Fortunately Celestial plans to release this in late 2004. An adaptation of a swordplay novel, this movie is plot heavy, contains little action until the amazing finale, and only features Lu and Chiang in minor roles.
14. Legend of the Fox -- Another swordplay adaptation, but instead of being a Kuo Choi vehicle, it's a vehicle for Baby Venom Chien Hsao-Hao. Chiang Sheng's uncomfortable as the main villain, Lu Feng basically makes a cameo as a hero, and Kuo Choi's underused. Even the finale kinda sucks.
15. Ode to Gallantry -- The only Venoms movie I haven't seen, so it's listed in last place by default. It's another swordplay adaptation; all I know is that Kuo Choi stars in two roles, as a beggar and a clan chief. Lu Feng's absent, and the film was never brought over to the West.
Top Five Venoms Fight Scenes:
1. Shaolin Rescuers finale -- Hands-down the best Venoms finale. There are more unusual weapons than you can count, and the actors get a chance to truly show their stuff. Lu Feng's so believable as an unstoppable assassin that he won an award for the role.
2. Masked Avengers finale -- Would be better than Shaolin Rescuers if only Lo Meng and Sun Chien were in it. But even as it is, you couldn't ask for more in a climactic battle. Tons of masked cultists armed with tridents, deadly traps, gore to the max, and phenomenal martial arts.
3. Crippled Avengers finale -- A great movie with a legendary finale. Each of the Venoms gets a moment to shine, in particular Chiang Sheng, who seems to have nearly-inhuman acrobatic skills. Chen Kuan-Tai proves he can hold his own with the guys, and Lu Feng's pure evil.
4. Flag of Iron running battle -- The sequence in which Kuo Choi takes on the dreaded 10 Killers is top-notch entertainment. Instead of drawing this bit out, Chang makes it into a back-to-back fight scene that features awesome kung-fu, great weapons, and bloody deaths.
5. Rebel Intruders casino fight -- The kung-fu choreography never got better. Not only are the Venoms spot-on, but Chang Cheh spices things up with a touch of stop motion (a la Avenging Eagle, no doubt), as well as poking fun at Wei Pai and his Five Venoms "Snake" style.
Top Five Most Violent Venoms Films:
1. Masked Avengers -- Hardcore violence equal to Five Element Ninja (aka Super Ninjas). Some disturbing imagery, from masked cultists drinking human blood to intestines dangling from tridents. Then there are the traps in the cultists' lair, which gouge, crush, and eviscerate.
2. Flag of Iron -- In its uncut state, this film is not only more fleshed out, but also more violent. Again, seek the uncut 114-minute print, and avoid the 89-minute NS release. In addition to blood sprays, hackings, and unusual deaths, there's also a flag thrown all the way through a victim.
3. House of Traps -- Not much carnage via weaponry; instead, most of the violence comes from the traps themselves. Feet get cut in half, men are impaled and torn asunder. Plus, a live chicken buys it in a moment of pure exploitation.
4. Two Champions of Shaolin -- Lo Meng basically vomits blood in the best display of "spitting out blood when injured" since Fu Sheng in Heroes Two. In addition, Chiang Sheng rips some guy's balls off, and later bashes someone's brains out. Look close, you'll see them.
5. Kid with the Golden Arm -- Features a memorable scene in which someone off-screen is stabbed, and his blood literally jets across the set. Samurai film-level bloodshed, with multiple hackings, slicings, and cleavings.