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Friday, September 4, 2009

THE 5 DEADLY VENOMS -- DVD review by porfle

A genuine cult classic among Shaw Brothers devotees in particular and martial arts fans in general, the influential THE 5 DEADLY VENOMS (1978) is a colorful tale that, while a little slow at times, is a lot of fun thanks to cool characters, rich atmosphere, and some wild and fanciful fight sequences.

Five martial arts masters whose identities are unknown have emerged from the Five Venoms house, each proficient in a particular animal-related fighting style. Now, a former disciple in possession of the school's vast fortune is in danger from the less scrupulous of the five. The House's founder, who is dying, sends his final student Yang De on a quest to discover which of his predecessors can be trusted and enlist them to help him fight the bad ones. Since Yang De has been partially trained in all five skills but is a master of none, he must always battle the enemy in conjuction with one of the masters.

Yang De (Sheng Chiang) is one of those likably humorous characters whose natural skill and cunning are mixed with a flippant attitude and somewhat childlike naivete. He's just about the only lighthearted element in this somber story in which two evil Venoms, Centipede (Feng Lu) and Snake (Pai Wei), murder the old disciple and his family in search of the treasure, while one of the good Venoms, Toad (Meng Lo), is found guilty of the crime by a corrupt court that's been paid off.

Yang De eventually learns the secret identity of Gecko (Philip Kwok), who can walk on walls, and teams up with him against Centipede and Snake, while the mysterious Scorpion remains a wild card until the very end. While often exhilarating thanks to the action scenes, the film is also dishearteningly tragic and downbeat at times.

This was one of the first Hong Kong kung fu movies to feature the furious over-the-top fight scenes that we've become accustomed to over the years. While watching it, it's easy to recognize elements that would show up in both Asian films and homages such as BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA and, of course, Tarantino's KILL BILL movies.

Here, the choreography is so well-planned that shots go on for several moments without a cut. It may look a little unrefined compared to today's fight scenes, but one can see how awesome this stuff must've looked to viewers yet to grow jaded by such things. Combining meticulously choreographed combat moves with gymnastics and some wirework, not to mention a few endearingly cheesy special effects, these scenes are especially fun to watch--especially the climactic showdown involving Yang De and the four remaining Venoms in a frenetic free-for-all.

Chang Cheh's direction is lean and unobtrusive with occasional flashes of style and fluid camerawork, and gives the action plenty of breathing room without a lot of fancy angles or rapid-fire editing. While the budget is relatively modest, the period set design and costumes look great. The library music fits the action well, and Monty Python fans will recognize one particular passage as the main titles theme from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL.

The Dragon Dynasty DVD is a single disc in 2.35:1 widesreen format and Dolby Digital sound. Languages are Mandarin mono and English mono with English and Spanish subtitles. The sole bonus feature is a commentary by Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan, who gives his usual enthusiastic and informative analysis.

Admittedly, I found the story to be pretty slow going the first time around, especially while trying to keep all the characters, their various skills and motives, and relationships to one another straight. With a second viewing, however, I was able to forget all that and concentrate on what turned out to be a pretty intriguing and well-acted tale of mystery, corruption, betrayal, and heroism. And considering that THE 5 DEADLY VENOMS is just about the first film of its kind, whose strong influence is still being felt throughout various areas of pop culture, then, overall, it must be regarded as a pretty stunning achievement.

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