The Five Deadly Venoms
Director: Chang Cheh
Stars: Suen Gin, Phillip Kwok, Lo Meng, Lu Feng, Wai Pak, Dick Wei
In the world of old-school kung fu movies, where revenge pictures came a dime a dozen, it took a lot for a film to stand out -- and even more to make it a fan favorite after all these years. What is arguably Chang Cheh's finest movie continues to hold influence over the Hong Kong movie industry, from the themes of loyalty, brotherhood and revenge as explored by John Woo (who got his start in the HK movie industry working for Chang) during the heyday of heroic bloodshed during the late 1980's, to more modern movies like A Man Called Hero, which sports a character in a costume inspired by this film. The influence has also carried into other areas as well, from music such as the Wu-Tang Clan, TV commercials for Sprite and video games such as "Mortal Kombat."
So what makes this movie so special? The plot -- on the surface -- is pretty simple. It deals with members of a rogue group known as the "Poison Clan" who are searching for a treasure hidden by their sifu. All of the members of the clan have extraordinary kung fu abilities, denoted by their animal styles, or "venoms" (the lizard can climb walls, the scorpion has a deadly strike, etc.). The twist is that since the clan always wears masks, not all of them known who the others are. Thus a simple plot becomes almost a suspense thriller. We're not talking The Usual Suspects here, but it's far above many other kung fu movies of the time. Supposedly, Golden Harvest was not too happy with Chang's script -- like most of his movies, they felt it was too dark and violent -- and they actually wanted him to add broad comic relief to it. Thankfully, Chang stuck to his guns and stayed with his original script, which has since has become revered as one of the best for the films of its time, if not ever, completing an almost perfect dramatic arc and providing the perfect backbone for the extraordinary action sequences.
But what really solidifies the movie are the venoms themselves. Chang Cheh hit upon a magical formula with the cast -- not only did he gain talented martial artists (whose moves, competed without the aid of wires or other special effects, put most modern martial artists to shame) but great actors as well. The formula proved so popular that Chang usually had one or more of the venoms in his later movies. Getting back to matters at hand, in most old-school movies, the actors seem to playing out cardboard cutouts, but here the actors actually create characters. It seems that everyone has a favorite venom (mine is Philip Kwok -- best known to many as Mad Dog from Hard-Boiled -- as Lizard) and it is this personal connection to the characters that The Five Deadly Venoms generates which makes it a true classic of the genre. Even if you're normally not a fan of old-school movies, you need to check The Five Deadly Venoms out, if for nothing else to see where modern movies got their inspiration from.
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