Five Deadly Venoms (1978)

The martial arts genre sounds like a fun action genre. Instead of surly Commando-type action heroes shooting with pistols or machine guns (which isn’t that bad if I’ll be totally honest), you’re treated to masterfully choreographed scenes of hand-to-hand combat. Kung-fu films tend to either awesome or ridiculous, or a hilarious combination of both. Five Deadly Venoms, meanwhile, falls into the the awesome category. Produced by the celebrated Shaw Brothers, the film is a classic hero versus villain scenario livened up with skilful choreography, with the ingredients of a finely made cult classic.

The film revolves around a young man named Yang Tieh, the last pupil of the dying master of the Poison Clan. The master dispatches him on a mission to find five other students who are masters of powerful martial arts styles, worrying that they are being used for evil ends, and to track down the master’s retired colleague Yun and warn him that his fortune may be stolen by his former pupils. Eventually, Yun is killed by the master’s former pupils, and Yang is left to fight the pupils who have used their skills for evil, and fighting alongside the only one who hasn’t.

It’s a nice and simple story with a straightforward narrative, and it works. You don’t really need a heavily drawn-out plot for this sort of film. This is something the Shaw Brothers seem to have known quite well, and that was part of their general business model back in the day. Everything you need to know plot-wise is very well explained at the beginning of the film, which is good because it meets that the action is all that matters. That said, there’s also a bit of backstabbing and suspense to spice up the narrative.

The acting isn’t great, at least in the English dub, but it’s alright despite the general cheesiness. I know action films aren’t generally praised for the acting, so I tend not to care about it in this regard. The characters themselves are pretty good, and in spite of the not so great acting, you generally get a wide range of emotions out of them (confidence, anger, fear, desire for revenge, etc.).

The film presents itself in a not too serious manner, which is ideal for this sort of film, but let’s not lose site of the most important aspect of the film – the fighting. The characters in the film are willing to fight at just the drop of the fight, and when that happens, you get treated to some stylish, high-speed fight choreography with almost superhuman fighting styles. The film isn’t all kung fu fighting though. There are scenes were the film briefly becomes a horror film, when one of the Poison Clan members kills people using gruesome techniques without leaving a mark. Despite how commonly people fight each other, thanks to scenes like these death is not a trivial matter in the film, and it’s actually satisfying to watch the fighters who used their skills for evil get their just deserts.

If I must recommend any kung fu film, it will have to be Five Deadly Venoms, arguably one of the greatest films of the genre. Of course, it doesn’t beat Enter the Dragon, but what does? This film is still a classic of the genre, and a prime example of how martial arts films should be made.

  • Score: 85%
  • Grade: A
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