Chang Cheh's 1979 Life Gamble begins when a dastardly swordsman attacks a master weapons-smith named Qui Zi Yu (Kuo Choi, better known to some as Philip Kwok), doing serious damage to the craftsman and, adding insult to injury, doing it with his own creation, a special sword. The attacker goes into seclusion for a few years, hiding out from the authorities. Meanwhile, Qui Zi Yu is declining business left, right and center and has essentially sworn off making weapons for good. The local knife thrower, Mo Jun Feng (Meng Lo), wants to acquire some new knifes, but Qui Zi Yu refuses. He does the same to Yun Xiang (Sheng Fu), who would also like to get some new goods, but he's just not going to relent.
While all of this is going on, a wealthy man named Master Nan (Yi-Min Li) finds that he too has been the victim of a crime when a gang of four crooks steal his valuable jade artifact and decide to take it to a nearby casino and gamble for it - one of the four will emerge the winner and get to keep the prize. The town's law man, Xiao Zi Jing (Feng Ku), is intent on bringing these bad guys in and decides, for some reason, that the best course of action would be to send his own daughter to the casino but before you know it, a hitman is hitting on her and Qui Zi Yu, Mo Jun Feng and Master Nan are all on the scene, each with a motive of their own.
Shot just before Chang Cheh's classic The Five Deadly Venoms and featuring many of the same cast members, Life Gamble can be pretty confusing in spots. The film tries to tell the story of a few different characters at the same time and ends up not really covering any one, single character well enough for us to get to know any of these people all that well. While it isn't uncommon for martial arts films (or action films in general) to skimp on character development and instead focus on action, here it feels especially thin. On top of that, the film occasionally gets bogged down with a hokey and completely unnecessary romantic subplot that adds really very little to the main storyline. To the script's credit, there are some interesting surprises and plots twists in the film that work rather well and which you won't see coming, but there are moments where the constant backstabbing and backhanded behavior feels like just a little too much.
Thankfully, Life Gamble makes up for its rather muddy storyline with some excellent and truly memorable action sequences. There are some very impressive weapons combat scenes here and the emphasis definitely lies there rather than with standard hand to hand sequences. Given that one of the main characters is a weapons designer it makes sense that the film would focus on a lot of sword play, and it does, but it uses different kinds of swords and blades rather well and also introduces a character with one of the coolest weapons - a metal glove that fires darts at the wielder's opponents. The fight scenes are all very well shot, edited and performed and we get a nice mix of fairly intense violence along with some more acrobatic moves. All the chaos and carnage does lead up to quite a satisfying and impressively choreographed conclusion, resulting in a film that does pay off before the end credits hit the screen. The film stumbles in spots on its way to the finish line but it doesn't leave a bad taste in your mouth or make you feel like you've wasted your time once it gets there.
Chang Cheh would definitely go on to make much better movies than this one, and Lif e Gamble could be pretty accurately placed somewhere in the middle of the late director's filmography, but as a precursor to the 'Venoms' films that would come it's interesting and the kick ass action sequences do make up for the story's shortcomings.
Life Gamble arrives on DVD in a progressive scan anamorphic 2.35.1 widescreen transfer this is generally a strong effort from Funimation. A little bit of print damage shows up here and there but otherwise the source material used for this disc has been very nicely restored. Colors are bright and bold and garish, just as they should be, and they really bring out the splendor of the various costumes used in the movie. What looks to be some mild edge enhancement pops up here and there but aliasing and compression artifacts are never a problem. Some mild blurring is evident during scenes of very fast motion but aside from that, there's not much worth complaining about here.
The Mandarin language Dolby Digital mono mix is well balanced and easy to follow since the optional English subtitles are easy to read and free of any typographical errors, though there are spots where the sound effects are a bit higher in the mix then they probably needed to be. The score sounds good, never overpowering the performers, while the sound effects are presented at the proper volume as well. It's not a track that will amaze you, but it definitely sounds as good as it needs to. An optional English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo dub is also provided but it's of lesser quality and is a bit fuzzy sounding in spots - still, it's there for those who want it.
Extras are disappointingly light, limited to a few trailers for unrelated Funimation releases and a forced promo spot for their Shaw Brothers line that plays before you can get to the main menu screen (which also offers chapter selection). The previous release, from BCI, included a load of interviews but those haven't been carried over here for whatever reason.
Life Gamble has its share of problems but that doesn't stop it from impressing where it counts, and that's with the fight sequences. The story's a bit of a mess but there's enough action and enough interesting characters that most martial arts buffs will be able to overlook that. Funimation's DVD doesn't include the extras that were on the previous release from BCI but it adds the English dub for those who want it. Since the BCI disc is out of print and tough to find, this still comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.