"This is what Shaw Brothers movies are all about. If you've ever wondered why some of us are stuck on old-school flicks, then you need to check out Invincible Shaolin to understand why."
Invincible Shaolin (1978)
AKA: Unbeatable Dragon; North Shaolin Versus South Shaolin; North Shaolin vs. South Shaolin
Director: Chang Cheh
Producer: Shaw Brothers
Cast: Kuo Choi, Lu Feng, Chiang Sheng, Sun Chien, Lo Meng, Wei Pai, Wang Lung-Wei
Running Time: 88 min.
Plot: A conniving Ching general pits North Shaolin against South Shaolin, in a bid to destroy them both.
Availability: This title is available at HKflix.com
MIGHTY PEKING MAN'S REVIEW: An evil Ching warlord (Wang Lung-Wei) has a secret vendetta against the North and South Shaolin masters. Instead of going through the trouble of killing both groups with his own army, he decides to set up the perfect swindle: make them kill each other. He invites a few members from both parties to demonstrate their skill, then persuades them to fight each other in a tame match. The Northern fighters (Kuo Choi, Lo Meng, and Wei Pai) are victorious over the Southern fighters. The two groups depart and nobody is left hurt - that is - until the Ching warlord decides to secretly murder the Southern fighters. He then spreads false information to other Southern students (Lu Feng, Sun Chien, and Chiang Sheng), claiming they were killed by the Northern fighters. Now the Southern clan wants revenge. This erupts an all-out kung fu war between the North and South, who have no clue who the real enemy is.
Invincible Shaolin is a 90-minutes spectacle of deceit, annihilation and kung fu; and talk about a climax where all bloody hell breaks loose. In between the crisp choreography lies some great interaction between the fighters and their social surroundings. Unlike most kung fu movies, the characters are gleaming with personality. They're smooth with women, honest to their friends, but naive when it comes to their enemies.
To simply put it, Invincible Shaolin is one slick flick. You can thank Chang Cheh for this. Chang Cheh is the man Lo Wei wanted to be. While Bruce Lee was perfecting his one-on-one bout with Sammo Hung in Enter The Dragon, Chang Cheh was doing some pre-John Woo/Ringo Lam crime shit with Police Force. While a drunken Jackie Chan was farting in people's faces and sticking frogs down his underpants, Chang Cheh was gathering up the "Venoms" and forcing the North and South Shaolin masters to a false state of martial combat. Chang Cheh didn't want to make kung fu movies, he wanted to make movies with kung fu in them. It's just something we took for granted, because the action was always as solid as the plot.
The new FUNimation release features the rare English-dubb soundtrack.
MIGHTY PEKING MAN'S REVIEW: 10/10
NUMSKULL'S REVIEW: If you will be good enough to read Mighty Peking Man's review, located directly beneath mine, you will note that he has an unusual moment of clarity near the end. He writes: "Chang Cheh didn't want to make kung fu movies, he wanted to make movies with kung fu in them." An eloquent and accurate statement. Unfortunately, the rest of the review consists entirely of Mr. Man's usual inane babble and verbal diarrhea. (Don't worry MPM, we still love you. Well, LIKE you, anyway. Actually, we're kind of lukewarm on you. Okay, so we barely tolerate you. Oh, let's be honest here...we fucking hate you and we wish you were dead. But we respect you enough to pretend otherwise, so be thankful.)
Anyway. My knowledge of the genre and the filmmaker in question is somewhat limited, but it seems to me that Invincible Shaolin is about as much of a "kung fu movie" as you can get, rather than "a movie with kung fu in it." This is in no way intended to be a derogatory statement; it's just that I see very little going on here other than a straightforward, revenge-driven plot, extensive training sequences, and a great big fight at the end. For a while, it looks like there's going to be more to it, but once the three southern ass-kickers-in-development (Feng, Zhangcheng, and He Yingwu) begin their harsh and seemingly endless training, the film becomes about as pure a martial arts spectacle as you could hope for, heavier on the "arts" than the "martial." The battle in which all of this culminates is long and bloody with a good number of combatants, but I, for one, didn't have a whole lot of fun getting there. I can only watch Lo Meng accidentally breaking eggs so many times before I get snippy and unpleasant. The painfully abrupt and inconclusive ending didn't help, though I suppose a more elaborate finish wouldn't have been a big improvement.
Depending on your point of view, file this under "Highly Praised Martial Arts Movies That Numskull Doesn't Particularly Care For" or "Classic Martial Arts Movies That Numskull The Drooling Brain-Dead Halfwit Doesn't Get", next to The Prodigal Son and 36th Chamber of Shaolin.
NUMSKULL'S RATING: 6/10
JOE909'S REVIEW: This is what Shaw Brothers movies are all about. If you've ever wondered why some of us are stuck on old-school flicks, then you need to check out Invincible Shaolin to understand why. I've never seen a "New Wave" kung-fu movie that could hold a candle to a good Shaw Brothers movie, and this is one of their best. It's got a great story, great acting, drama, comedy, action, bloodshed, and marvelous kung-fu.
Years ago, back when kung-fu movies were hard as hell to find, I would order videos from Far East Flix. At the time (early '90s) I thought it was a great deal: $20 for a dubbed, bootleg tape. Hey, it's all we had. I used to call the owner and talk with him for long sessions over what movies he thought were good. He always told me Invincible Shaolin was "awesome," but I'd read online that it was one of those movies that's mostly made up of training sequences. I've always more been into movies where the heroes already know kung-fu, so I passed on Invincible Shaolin. My loss.
But after reading some positive reviews online, I decided recently to pick up the dvd, which is put out by NS video. Surprise surprise, it's actually uncut, letterboxed, and of above average picture quality. I have read, though, that Celestial Pictures (which now owns all of the Shaw Brothers movies) has slated Invincible Shaolin for their first wave of releases, so sooner or later a better print will be on the market. But for now, the NS release will do just fine.
The guy from Far East Flix was right, the movie is about training. But it's training for guys who already know kung-fu. And it's also entertaining training, of the type seen in "Master Killer." But beyond that, the training scenes are benchmarked by life-or-death battles. The end battle in particular is one of the bloodiest fights in Venoms history. Not of "Super Ninjas" caliber, but still pretty bloody. For example, one guy gets his chest torn open, and several characters are impaled by spears.
What sets Invincible Shaolin above the usual, old-school theme of good-versus-evil, where some characters are clear-cut good, and others are clear-cut evil, is that every Venom in the movie is a hero. Yes, even Lu Feng, the constant villain in just about every other Venoms movie. But still, these men find themselves in a battle to the death, as the South Shaolin fighters (Kuo Choi, Lo Meng, and Wei Pai) are tricked into believing that the North Shaolin fighters (Lu Feng, Sun Chien, and Chiang Sheng) have killed their classmates. So while the North Shaolin fighters obliviously go about their lives, courting fiancés and upholding virtuousness, the South Shaolin fighters train to kill them.
The training sequences are entertaining, but do slow down the movie. This is the only thing that keeps the film from being perfect, as the pace plods in the middle half. Lo Meng has the best training sequences, learning Mantis Fist. He proves again that he's as equally funny as Chiang Sheng, the Venom normally referred to as "the funny one."
The end fight is both exhilarating and tragic. Driven by their teacher's dying words, Kuo Choi, Wei Pai, and Lo Meng confront the Northern Shaolin masters on Sun Chien's wedding day. As their shocked fiancés watch on, Lu Feng, Sun Chien, and Chang Shieng grudgingly accept the South Shaolin masters' challenge. To make matters worse, a cadre of Ching soldiers show up, making this final battle one of the best in both Venoms and Shaws history.
Though it doesn't feature the outrageous costumes or exotic weapons that are normally associated with Shaw Brothers films, Invincible Shaolin is one of the best movies Chang Cheh and the Venoms were ever part of. For once, the craziness is toned down and the characterization is turned up, way past the usual Shaw Brothers movie. Invincible Shaolin has real heart and soul, and I recommend it entirely.
JOE909'S RATING: 9.5/10