"What's great about Shaw Brothers movies is how fast time flies, literally. We see a few minutes of training, and then the teacher says: You've been here for three years."
Mortal Combat (1978)
AKA: Crippled Avengers, Crippled Heroes, Return of the 5 Deadly Venoms
Director: Chang Cheh
Writer: Chang Cheh
Cast: Kuan Tai Chen, Philip Kwok, Meng Lo, Chien Sun, Sheng Chiang, Feng Lu, Lung Wei Wang
Running Time: 100 min.
Plot: Four crippled kung fu masters out for vengeance. Legless, blind, deaf and brain damaged, the heroes learn superhuman techniques to battle an evil warlord and his army of wushu warriors.
Availability: This title is available at HKflix.com
JOE909'S REVIEW: This is often considered the Venoms' best movie, though I prefer a few others to it. It has action, cool characters, crazy special effects, and intricate choreography, but it just seems to be missing something, if you'll pardon the pun. Or maybe it's just that I don't like movies where the main characters are maimed and crippled within the first twenty minutes. But then again, if they weren't, then this would be a very different movie.
The plot is the usual Shaw Brothers simple, which is to say, perfect. When I'm watching a kung-fu movie, I don't want Shakespeare. I want blood and vengeance, and no one delivered it better than the Shaws. The opening of the movie lets you know what you're in for: directly after the credits, Chen Kuan-Tai's wife gets her legs cut off (and immediately dies, no doubt, of shock) and his young son gets his hands lopped off. This would make you think that Chen and his son are the heroes of the movie, and they'll get revenge. But no, it turns out that Chen goes bad, and he raises his son to become a heartless machine with really cool metal hands. Lu Feng (portraying Chen's grown up son) is the coolest thing about this movie. He's like a kung-fu Darth Vader, with his Mazinger hands that shoot darts. Chen and Feng rule their village with an (wait for it) iron grip. First Feng cold-bloodedly cripples the sons of the men who cut off his arms. Then father and son go on to blind a journeyman (Kuo Choi), render a blacksmith (Lo Meng) deaf and mute, cut off the legs of some guy who just got fired from his job (Sun Chien), and crush a kung-fu warrior's skull until he becomes an idiot (Chiang Sheng).
The crippled guys become friends, and decide to take Chiang Sheng back to his teacher, as they feel it's their fault that he was made into an idiot; Chang had went to Chen's place to get revenge for the way he treated our crippled heroes. So they haul themselves off to the old man's secluded school, where he teaches them forms of kung-fu that improve their lot in life: Kuo Choi learns how to use his ears better than he ever used his eyes; Sun Chien is given iron feet with which he can shatter anything; Lo Meng learns how to use his sight to compensate for his lack of hearing; and Chiang Sheng basically becomes a better martial artist than ever: he just has the mental capacity of a two year-old.
What's great about Shaw Brothers movies is how fast time flies, literally. We see a few minutes of training, and then the teacher says "You've been here for three years." The teacher's done his work; in a cool shot, we see Sun Chien, Kuo Choi, and Lo Meng walk proudly out of his school, complete men once again. What follows is fight scene after fight scene, most of which are unnecessary, but nevertheless amazing. Kuo Choi or Lo Meng will corner Chen Kuan-Tai's first lieutenant, beat his ass around, and then he'll run away. What it all boils down to is that Chen's birthday is coming up, and this guy doesn't want Kuo Choi et al to interfere with the festivities. So he hires a few thugs to take them down, and we get to watch the Crippled Avengers handle them, biding their time until they can get to Chen Kuan-Tai and Lu Feng.
And when they do, we get a phenomenal final battle that incorporates pole fighting, sword fighting, lots of flips, some incredible hoop work, and the usual martial arts fortitude displayed by the Venoms, with Chen Kuan-Tai proving their equal. If I had to level one criticism, it would be that this fight is a bit too choreographed; many times as Kuo Choi, Lu Feng, and Chiang Sheng are flipping and leaping around, it doesn't even look like they're trying to hit each other, more like they're just showing off. The finale features the usual sacrifice as favored by Chang Cheh, but, shockingly enough, the heroes actually live through this movie (save for one, of course). In fact, this is one of the few movies in which Lo Meng survives.
It's really hard for me to pick a favorite Venoms movie. Five Venoms had the tighter story, but didn't give the Venoms a chance to strut their stuff. Crippled Avengers does for sure, but the story loses focuses in the last half, so that the action may prevail. That being said, the fight scenes are great, as is the costuming and set design. And Lu Feng's just too cool in this one, giving us one of the greatest villains in old school kung-fu. So even though it might not be my favorite Venoms movie, I can see why it is for so many others. And as a final enticement, the DVD release is actually uncut and letterboxed, but supposedly Celestial will release a remastered version on DVD in Fall 2004.
JOE909'S RATING: 9.5/10
NUMSKULL'S REVIEW: I quote Kool-Aid Man: "Oh yeeeaaahhhhh!!!"
This is a very solid old school martial arts movie that entertains on a very visceral level but also boasts a fair amount of ingenuity. It's about four guys who run afoul of a local tyrant (Chen Kuan-Tai) and his equally heavy-handed (terrible joke) son (Lu Feng). For daring to stand against them and their bullying servants, each of them is violently maimed or handicapped in some way; one is blinded (Kuo Choi/Philip Kwok), another is rendered both deaf and mute (Lo Meng), another's legs are severed below the knee (Sun Chien), and the noble-hearted wandering warrior (Cheng Shiang) who tries to set things right gets brain damaged thanks to a head-squeezing torture device. This last one is returned to his martial arts teacher by the other three, and they begin training with him to overcome their physical limitations and get some much-deserved payback. Kuo Choi learns to rely on his ears far more than a normal man, Lo Meng develops heightened awareness of his surroundings (and a habit of carrying mirrors) to compensate for his deafness, and Sun Chien gets fitted with a pair of iron feet.
After some very spiffy training sequences, it's time for some equally spiffy fight scenes. The skill and physical prowess of the performers will make you curse the day that "martial arts" movies decided to depend more on pretty faces, wires, and camera tricks than on genuine talent. After we've seen our heroes develop great chemistry together, helping one another overcome their respective disabilities, we see them fight together in much the same manner, especially Kuo Choi and Lo Meng, who receive more spotlight than their companions in the film's second half. This, to me, is the most irritating aspect of Crippled Avengers; I wanted to see all four of them fighting side by side and in more equal measure.
Though "Crippled Avengers" is the most sensible of this film's numerous titles, the version I watched was the "Return of the Five Deadly Venoms" DVD from Crash Cinema; English dubbed (of course) and letterboxed. That title is rather misleading since this is in no way a sequel to Five Deadly Venoms; it merely uses the same actors in the leading roles. Such is the case with other films proudly bearing the "Venoms" label. And, once again, no female characters of any significance (unless you count Chen Kuan-Tai's wife, who dies about two minutes into the film...so we won't).
NUMSKULL'S RATING: 8/10