Widely regarded as the best of the films that 'The Venoms' made, Cheng Cheh's follow up to The Five Deadly Venoms is really just a sequel in name only and was actually released under the more appropriate alternate title of Crippled Avengers. The film has nothing to do with the first one outside of the fact that the principal cast members who made that picture so memorable and so dynamic return - but let's not nitpick, as this picture delivers everything fans of period martial arts films could want in a fight film.
The movie starts off with a bang as a man named Tian-du Dao (Chan Kuan Tai) arrives home just in time to see a gang called the Tinan Tigers cutting off his wife's legs and chopping off his young son's hands. The wife dies, but the son grows up to be a deadly martial artists, trained by his father in the Tiger Style he wields with deadly precision. To compensate for the fact that he doesn't have any hands, the elder Dao builds his son, Chang (Lu Feng), some bad ass iron hands that not only smash through anything and everything but also shoot darts out of their finger tips. Together, father and son roam the town and basically boss everyone around, which causes some understandable resentment with a few of the locals.
Philip Kwok, Lo Meng, Sun Chien and Chiang Sheng each play one of these locals who get on the wrong side of Chang and his iron fists. One of them has his eyes gouged out, another is made mute and deaf, a third has his legs chopped off and the fourth has his head clamped in iron so tightly that he's made into 'an idiot.' Thankfully, these four are able to work together to compensate for their individual disabilities and once they're trained by a kindly old teacher, they decide that their collective fighting abilities might just be enough to stop those who handicapped them from wreaking further havoc on an undeserving population.
Like so many kung-fu movies, a lot of this picture's running time is made up of training sequences, but here they have a fair bit more originality than most as they show us how each of the four heroes learns to use his disability to his advantage. Our blind fighter, for example, almost instantly learns how to train his ear to hear so well that he can throw knives through falling leaves before they even touch the ground. Our legless combatant gets some iron boots, courtesy of our deaf mute (who was a blacksmith before he was rendered handicapped), which you know will come in handy later - good stuff like that, which is a fair bit more interesting than the standard 'carrying buckets of water with outstretched arms' training sequences that are used so often.
This also allows director Cheh, who co-wrote the script, to work in his seemingly omnipresent theme of brotherhood and manly loyalty into the story. While this theme pops up in almost all of his work, here it's very prominent as we learn how our four heroes form a bond. There's a good mix of humor here, though it's not so over the top that you can call this a kung-fu comedy in the mold made famous by Jackie Chan, and the action scenes are outstanding in terms of their choreography and their execution. Not only do we get plenty of solid hand-to-hand combat scenes but we get a few rock solid weapons fights as well, all shot and cut to a natural rhythm and shot in such a way as to accentuate each of the main performer's abilities.
With heroes you can cheer for and bad guys evil enough to hiss at, The Return Of The 5 Deadly Venoms is top tier old school martial arts mayhem at its best. There's a reason that this film is so beloved in martial arts circles, and that's because it's really well made and that on top of that it's also deliriously entertaining. Great fights, a fun storyline, exciting martial arts displays and just the right amount of humor combined with some top notch camera work, fun and flamboyant costumes and those instantly recognizable Shaw Brothers sets make this one a true classic.
Dragon Dynasty presents The Return Of The 5 Deadly Venoms in a good 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen progressive scan transfer that looks very nice indeed. There's a little bit of natural looking film grain in some spots, though other spots show what looks like some minor digital scrubbing which results in some moderately waxy looking skin tones in spots. There isn't any serious print damage worth noting, however, and the color reproduction looks very strong. Black levels are consistent and deep enough and shadow detail remains decent throughout. There's some minor aliasing in some spots but not noticeable compression artifacts. All in all, they've done a very nice job here and the movie looks good.
You've got the option of watching the film in its original Mandarin or in its English dubbed version with optional subtitles offered up in English, English SDH, and Spanish. As far as older mono tracks go, there's nothing to complain about here. The limitations inherent in the format are there, but you can't fault the DVD for that. Levels are properly balanced, there are no problems with hiss or distortion to note and the subtitles are easy to read and free of any obvious typos, even if there are a few awkward phrases here and there.
Aside from a few promos for other Dragon Dynasty titles that play before you get to the main menu screen, there's an animated menu screen and chapter selection options - that's it, this is pretty much a barebones release.
Some extras would have been a nice touch but the transfer and audio are pretty solid. As to the movie itself? Chang Cheh made a lot of great movies but very few of them are as good as this one. A perfect mix of action, humor, excitement and tension, The Return Of The 5 Deadly Venoms is a high point in the careers of all involved and a stand out film in the huge Shaw Brothers catalogue.
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.