Chang Cheh's 1978 film, Invincible Shaolin, is interesting not just because it features some great fight scenes, some impressive choreography but also because it stars the men who would go on to become better known as The Five Deadly Venoms - Lu Feng, Sun Chien, Chiang Sheng, Wei Pai, Kuo Chue and of course, Lo Meng. Full of athletic martial arts displays and plenty of heroic bloodshed, it might not be the late iconic director's best film but it's certainly up there.
When the movie begins, a high ranking general (Wang Lung-wei) from Manchuria is forced to have to do something about Shaolin's ever increasing influence as it has quickly become a serious impedance to the reach of their power. He decides that if he sets things up so that the Northern area school's warriors square off against the Southern area school's warriors that this will be a good starting point. As such, he invites the best of the best from each side of the dispute to take part in a martial arts competition to settle not only who is the best but who will be in charge of teaching kung fu to the Ching soldiers.
Once the contest begins, it becomes obvious that the Northern area's students Bao (Lu Feng), Xu (Sun Chien), and Yang (Chiang Sheng) are going to come out on top as their skills are noticeably superior to those shown by their Southern brethren (lead by Dick Wei). What neither side realizes, however, is that the general is going to murder the Southern men and make it look to master Mai (Chan Shen) that the Northern fighters did it. Mai wants revenge and sends three of his students out to get it, but Mai soon learns the hard way that his students aren't quite ready to take care of this for him. He instead decides to send his son to find three martial arts masters to train his students (Lo Mang, Wei Pai, and Phillip Kwok Tsui) in three distinct styles. With their training complete, things are about to get ugly...
A really good mix of traditional martial arts training sequences and deliriously great scenes of balls out kung fu action, Invincible Shaolin features noble warriors, dastardly villains, and the director's penchant for centering his films around the importance of honor and heroism. The Venoms are in fine form here, each one showing some expert moves and getting a fair share of the spotlight, while the set design and costume design offers up all of the pomp and circumstance you'd expect from a Shaw Brothers period martial arts film. The movie doesn't always move at a break neck pace and there are times where the training scenes feel extended for the sole purpose of padding the picture to feature length but thankfully the good very much outweighs the bad here. There's enough backstabbing and conniving betrayal going on in the storyline to keep things interesting and Chang Cheh's flair for bombastic fight scenes ensures that the movie is consistently, if not quite perpetually, exciting and ripe with adventure.
The finale, in which the Northern warriors head to the Manchu palace to throw down with the Southern warriors is pretty dynamic stuff but of course, you know that the slippery Manchurian general just has to get his comeuppance and that things just have to be set right in Shaolin before the end credits roll... right? It's all very nicely shot and acted in that slightly over the top fashion that makes so many Shaw titles so much fun. While you can't really say that there's much here you haven't seen in other Chang Cheh Shaw Brothers productions, you can accurately state that it's uncommon for them to gel as well as this one does. It's a film where everything comes together quite nicely, hanging stand out action set pieces off of an interesting and reasonably intelligent story of betrayal, revenge, and justifiable vindication.
Invincible Shaolin 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.
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).
Invincible Shaolin is pretty impressive stuff, allowing for the different performers to show off their different styles with some inspired choreography while simultaneously telling a reasonably gripping story of intrigue and betrayal. Funimation's DVD looks quite good and sounds just fine and although it's light on extras, it's still a very worthy addition to any martial arts film fan's collection and 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.