"It seems that Chang Cheh was inspired by the high-octane martial arts displayed in Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung's movies of the period, and wanted to prove that the Venoms were just as capable."
Killer Army (1980)
AKA: The Rebel Intruders; The Guerillas
Director: Chang Cheh
Producer: The Shaw Brothers
Cast: Phillip Kwok, Wong Lik, Sun Chien, Chiang Sheng, Lo Meng, Lu Feng, Choh Seung Wan
Running Time: 104 min.
Plot: Refugees swarm into a town that's run with an iron fist by Chen (Lu Feng). Chen plans to murder a rival general, and pin the blame on a group of refugees (Kuo Choi, Lo Meng, Chiang Sheng).
Availability: This title is available at HKflix.com
JOE909'S REVIEW: Made towards the end of their run with the Shaw Brothers, Killer Army features the Venoms at the peak of their martial arts excellence. Each and every one of them gets a chance to shine in this action-packed epic, save for Sun Chien, who only gets one fight scene. But even in that quick glimpse, we see that his legendary kicking ability has gone from great to amazing. It seems that Chang Cheh was inspired by the high-octane martial arts displayed in Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung's movies of the period, and wanted to prove that the Venoms were just as capable.
I'm not sure what time period this movie takes place in, but I'm guessing it's the early 1900s. None of the characters have the pigtails or long hair normally associated with historical epics, so it's not set during the Ching empire or the distant past. The Venoms do however wear costumes as usually seen in movies set during the 1800s (such as "Two Champions of Shaolin"). For once we get to see their real hair, as the Venoms go without wigs or ponytails. But unfortunately, the film being made in the late Œ70s, they all have those hockey-player mullet Œdos that were the style of the time.
Whatever the time period, China's having some problems: war's ravaging the country, and refugees flood from one city to the next. Lu Feng's placed in charge of one town, and beneath him he has three men who are responsible for various sections of it. Sun Chien's one of these guys, and he seems the most good-hearted, refusing to allow his men to beat the starving refugees. Another of Lu Feng's co-bosses, Chang, is a big guy (he played the character who carried the big hammer in "Shaolin Rescuers") who employs a legion of fighters who carry, for some reason, metal fists to fight with. Another of the co-bosses has a group of sword-carriers, and finally, Lu Feng's men carry spears, as does the man himself. Lu Feng sends these guys out to rule the city and generally terrorize and murder the refugees.
Kuo Choi's one of the refugees, and he gets into a scuffle when he's caught stealing food to stifle his hunger. Kuo escapes into a brothel, sneaking into the owner's room. She flirts with him and gives him a job as doorman. In a weird moment, the woman asks Kuo to brush her hair. He thrusts his fist in her face and says "Listen, I'm a male chauvinist pig. Do it yourself." The two trade a series of bizarre flirtations/threats through the rest of the film. I guess we're supposed to believe that this lady pines for Kuo Choi, but there's never any reason why, or any follow-through.
Meanwhile, Lo Meng, another refugee, stumbles through a downpour and seeks shelter outside of Chang's (the big guy) school. Chang's students pick a fight, and of course Lo trounces them. Chang invites Lo inside for a spar. Here Chang pulls on an immense pair of boxing gloves, which are apparently made of metal. He spars with Lo Meng, then offers him a job.
In another part of the city, Chiang Sheng steals food and feeds fellow refugees. He's spotted by some men, and after a quick fight Sun Chien comes onto the scene. He offers Chiang a job on the spot, in a casino Sun Chien owns. Both Lo and Kuo end up in the casino, and soon discover how Chiang works players against each other, hoping to score a tip from winners. This leads to an epic brawl, with Lo, Kuo, and Chiang taking each other on. Lo and Kuo realize they're from the same town and know each others' kung-fu teachers, so they call off the fight and go out with Chiang to get drunk. I should mention that during this brawl, Chang Cheh pokes some fun at his past films, having Lo Meng easily knock down a practitioner of the snake style, as popularized in "Five Deadly Venoms."
The three decide to become blood brothers, biting their thumbs (their skin must be paper-thin, they draw blood so easily) and pouring their blood into tea, which they drink. After this, the three go through a few misadventures, until an hour into the movie the plot kicks in, and Lu Feng's subordinates kill the ambassador of a rival general, and peg the three blood brothers as the fall men. Our three heroes learn of their plan, however, and so begins one protracted fight sequence that sees the three heroes go from one end of the city to the next, looking for safe harbor.
I'd say the problem with Killer Army is that it has a leisurely pace throughout the first half, then overcompensates by featuring too many fight scenes in the last forty minutes. If more time had been spent on getting to know the characters, instead of just setting up the various scenes, then perhaps the fights would have more dramatic value. But as it is, they're just punch-ups, however punch-ups of a certain magnitude. In this way the movie reminds me of "Crippled Avengers," another Venoms movie that starts off with promise, but has too many pointless fights in the last thirty minutes for its own good.
An interesting note is that Chiang Sheng, usually the light skill expert, takes more lives than anyone else in the movie. Armed with a wooden shield and a sword, Chiang flips to and fro as he slices his sword into and through his opponents. Lo Meng, as usual, relies on his own brawn and Mantis Fist technique. Kuo Choi employs a three-section staff and a small table; Chang Cheh was no doubt trying to up the bar as set by Sammo Hung in his Golden Harvest films of the period. Sun Chien's only weapon is a dagger hidden in his boot, and Lu Feng takes everyone on with a massive spear. He really doesn't do much until the very end, when he takes on our heroes in a protracted, bloody battle.
Killer Army isn't the best Venoms movie, as it falls beneath such greats as "Invincible Shaolin" and even "Five Deadly Venoms." However it's better than a lot of their more popular films, such as "Crippled Avengers." I should mention that the version I watched was purportedly uncut, which is more than can be said for the NS DVD release, which, even though it's widescreen, has supposedly been edited severely. Since I haven't seen that version, I'm not sure what NS cut out of the movie. They probably didn't cut out much violence, as Killer Army isn't the goriest of the Venoms movies. What blood is shown is mostly just guys getting impaled by swords and spears; there certainly isn't any carnage on the scale of "Super Ninjas" or "Two Champions of Shaolin."
JOE909'S RATING: 8/10