As with Smuckers, a name like "The Shaw Brothers" should indicate Hong Kong marital arts quality, right? Well, not really. Run Run and his brother Runme made more than 1000 films during their time as Asia's premiere production company, and for the most part, all are worth watching. From their backlot proclivities and attention to action, to the often scandalous and downright exploitative approach to their subjects, the successful siblings are a fairly safe bet. Besides, many of the directors they nurtured, including King -Hu, Lau Kar-leung and Chang Cheh are considered gods among chop socky geeks. So why does the 1979 period piece Life Gamble (aka Life Combat) feel so...subpar. It's not for a lack of kung fu fighting. There are some terrific scenes here. And it's not for a lack of star power. The Shaws offer no less than a dozen notable names in the cast. Perhaps it's the incredibly complicated plot. By the time you've figured out who's double-crossing who, you've grown weary of all the breakneck backstabbing.
Qui Zi Yu used to be the best weapons maker around. But when a swordsman seriously wounded him with his latest invention, he went into hiding. Now, three years later, master dagger thrower Mo Jun Feng wants some new blades, but the blacksmith won't acquiesce. Even when the beautiful Yun Xiang asks for his help, he refuses. Meanwhile, a rare piece of jade has been stolen from Master Nan. The cunning foursome who took it decides not to split the money they could make from the sale. Instead, they want to take the item to the local casino and gamble for it all. Whoever wins gets to keep the gem, and the resulting windfall. Of course, the local lawman, Chief Constable Xiao Zi Jing, wants to get the item back. So he sends his daughter into the gambling den to try and retrieve the item. There she is met by an orphaned hitman who falls instantly in love. Then Mo Jun Feng shows up. And so does Qui Zi Yu. Soon, the entire town appears ready to fight for the rare stone. Even Master Nan may have unclear motives.
Life Gamble is a lot like Hamlet. No, it is not on the same dramatic level as the Bard's ultimate tragedy. It doesn't deal with a melancholy prince, a royal crime, and the comeuppance of everyone involved (either directly or along the fringes). In fact, the only familiar element linking the two is the fact that, by the end of both, practically everyone is dead. Sorry if that's a spoiler, but it would be impossible to discuss this oddball effort without revealing a bit of the baffling narrative. Life Gamble is so convoluted, so overrun with plot turns, complicated character arcs, and indecipherable alliances and allegiances that when the body count starts to grow, we have no other choice but to stare wide-eyed and let the carnage happen. It's almost impossible to get involved with these individuals. Even with the Shaw's standard title card introductions (offering skill, nickname, and other important traits) we get lost. Indeed, the famed ABC series about a bunch of time traveling plane crash victims probably makes more sense than this merry malarkey...or maybe not.
Clearly, director Chang Cheh believes he is capable of juggling a dozen or more main players in his simple story of a jade treasure, a gambling den, and the desire of many to lie, cheat, steal, kill, maim, murder, and otherwise physical harm others to have it. At any given moment, the story focuses on our dagger throwing hero, a smiling lethal lady, a blacksmith who used to be the greatest martial arts weapon manufacturer in all of China, and a casino owner who rigs his games of chance...and no one really seems to care. Toss in a guy with a metallic hand, a group of thieves with various ways of offing their targets, and a mandatory maudlin romance between an orphaned hitman and a policeman's daughter, and all that's missing is the chúfáng xĭdíchí (translation - kitchen sink). Cheh does give it a valiant effort. We don't lose interest until towards the end, when corpses are piling up like cord wood and we aren't quite sure why Character A wants to challenge Character B to an automatic duel.
Luckily, a movie like Life Gamble stops the intricacies long enough to present some expertly choreographed ass kicking. Since there are swords, daggers, whips, spears, hairpins, arrows, and the occasional oddball blade involved, we don't get a lot of hand-to-hand butt waxing. But when our blacksmithing hero has to step up and set things right, we get that recognizable dance of death that makes Hong Kong action so gosh darn addictive. The finale is especially good, with that classic one man vs. an army dynamic that keeps fans foaming for more. Certainly, Cheh could have expanded the running time and exercised a little restraint when it came to creating the story (he had a hand in the screenplay). And we really don't need the numerous scenes of wicked women luring men to their own predetermined demise. Still, with an "anyone can die at anytime" ideal and a plethora of various plot strings to hang onto, most will enjoy this effort. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin it's not. One of the lesser if still effective offerings from the Shaw Studios? You bet.
BCI and Celestial Pictures offer this 1979 epic in a near pristine 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The colors are electric, the scope and clarity of the image almost reference quality. Even after 30 years, the remastering job removes most of the dirt and analog clutter. There is nary an age spot of dated facet to be seen. The wonderful visual element provided makes the movie's many convolutions that much more tolerable.
The only mix provided is a standard Dolby Digital Mono mix, and even with such tinny, shrill soundscapes, the aural aspects of this release are excellent. The Mandarin language track is preserved (no crappy Western dubs here) and it seems like some of the harshness of said old technology has been tweaked a little. Of course, many will giggle at the obvious lift from Cecil B. DeMille in the scoring department. As the final act begins, the familiar strains of either The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur come pouring out of the speakers. Talk about random sampling!
Perhaps the best aspect of this release is the bonus features. While the liner notes by Ric Meyers are excellent, they can't beat the interviews with several of the important players. Sun Shu-Pe, Ku Feng, Li Yi-Min, Lo Meng, and Robert Tai all sit down for over 50 minutes of behind the scenes insight. We learn about their individual training, working for the Shaws, and the various injuries and close calls they experienced while on set. Along with a few trailers, it makes for a wonderful DVD presentation.
As someone who generally enjoys the Shaw Brothers efforts, Life Gamble poses a real quandary. On the one hand, it's truly a minor masterwork. There is just too damn much stuff going on to get a real grip on the action. But when said stuntwork hits the screen, almost all is forgiven. As a result, the title sits somewhere between a Rent It and a Highly Recommended. This means that the only logical rating would be Recommended. But there is a caveat that comes with such a score. If you go in expecting one of the genre's defining films, you'll be a bit disappointed. The material here is good, it's just not great. On the other hand, if you take the overstuffed storyline in stride, accept the fact that you won't be able to follow exactly what is happening, and marvel over the brilliant battle ballet that occurs every few minutes, you won't walk away upset. The Shaw Brothers almost always stands for quality. In the case of Life Gamble, the value is there, if not the stereotypical superiority.
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