The mistake some people make (and by some people I must confess that I mean myself), is that they often think that just because they love a certain genre, they will love all films in that genre. I've made that mistake in the past, and continue you to do so frequently, especially as I seek out different genre entries that may net some gem waiting to be "discovered." This is especially true for me when it comes to kung fu movies, which I love, but ranks among the genres where my knowledge is most limited. And as a result, I find myself, from time to time, watching stuff that does very little other than rob me of my time.
As someone who has long loved martial arts action movies, especially those produced by Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers, I have, in recent years, found myself eagerly rushing towards any and every DVD release that comes out of their massive catalog. Of course, among these films are such undisputed classics as 36th Chamber of Shaolin and The One-Armed Swordsman, which have both been among the titles recently re-issued on home video. But then there are the other films from Shaw Brothers--of which there are more than most people could ever imagine--that range between being entertaining distractions and mind-numbing forms of torture. The four-disc Shaw Brothers Collection serves as an excellent example of all that is good and bad about the Hong Kong martial arts epics.
The Heroic Ones--We might as well start with the best of this four-disc collection, and that would be this 1970 entry from legendary director Chang Cheh, the man responsible for such classics as The One-Armed Swordsman, Five Deadly Venoms and Crippled Avengers. Two of Cheh's best films were Vengeance (1970) and Blood Brothers (1973), which both co-starred David Chiang and Ti Lung, who became known as two of the director's favorite leading men. Chiang and Lung co-star in this ensemble as two of the thirteen sons of Li- Ke-yung (Feng Ku), a powerful warlord out to stop a rebel army bent on overthrowing the ruling government. Ke-yung's most trusted and powerful son is Li Tsun-hsiao (Chiang), who finds himself caught between a rock and hard place when the petty jealously and greed of two of his brothers threatens to destroy the family dynasty. Filled with great action sequences, this is not only an epic film, it is also incredibly easy to follow, despite the duplicity and shady dealings, which makes it a rarity among kung fu movies.
Two Champions of Shaolin--Another film from director Chang Cheh fails to live up to the promise of The Heroic Ones (not to mention many of the director's other movies either). A massive ensemble of Shaw Brothers' contract actors--recognizable only to the most devout fans--fill out this tale of anti-Ching government Shaolin rebels squaring off against the sinister Wutang clan. This is pretty much standard stuff, as Shaolin fighters join forces to avenge their masters and loved ones against the Wutang, who in turn seek their own vengeance in an unending cycle of violence in an equally unending jumble of sub par mess of chop sockey filmmaking. Aside from the tired and uninspired script that eagerly embraces and exploits every convention and cliché the genre has to offer, this film is stuck with a cast of stock actors that can't really carry the film. I mean it's not like these movies need the most talented actors in the world, but if you're watching a Hong Kong martial arts movie, and you find yourself noticing how bad the acting is, there is something seriously wrong. First of all, the action should be a distraction. Second of all...well...the action should be a distraction. Unfortunately, the action can't distract from the bad performances, which are made all the more terrible by an exceptionally bad dubbing job. It sounds like every part in the film was dubbed by the same three actors.
The Duel of the Century--Of the four films in this collection, this is the only one I simply could not watch all the way through. It starts out slow, with not enough action or interesting characters to be even remotely engaging, and at least within the first thirty minutes, it never gets better. To make matters worse, the story is confusing, even by Hong Kong standards, which says a lot, because HK flicks often border on incomprehensible. But this one seems especially confusing, maybe because it is the only one that is not dubbed in English, and the subtitles seem to fly by rather fast. That wouldn't be a problem, however, if there was more action to keep things interesting, but when confusing is mixed in with boring and slow it is a recipe for "turn this movie off."
The Battle Wizard--Not exactly a great film, this bizarre mix of martial arts and magic deserves points simply for sheer nuttiness. Describing the plot is almost pointless, because this really has to be seen in order to be believed. Danny Lee stars as Tuan Yu, a would-be martial arts master more concerned with amassing knowledge than fighting. Yu's quest for enlightenment is interrupted by a fire-breathing wizard with retractable iron chicken legs that is bent on revenge. The evil wizard also runs around with a crazy looking monster, while Yu befriends a female fighter who uses snakes as a weapon, and then falls in love with a deadly killer who happens to be his half sister. And then there's the fight with the kung fu gorilla, played by a guy in a ridiculous ape suite with a plainly visible zipper up the back. Not exactly a great movie--in fact, you might be hard pressed to call it "good"--this one is entertaining simply by virtue of how crazy it is.
With only one truly good film in the bunch, it's a bit difficult to recommend the Shaw Brothers Collection, especially when you can get The Heroic Ones on its own, and skip the other three discs. The Battle Wizard is worth watching, but only for fans of outrageous Asian cinema, and even then, I can't in good faith fully endorse the film, because aside from being weird, it's just not that good. Perhaps if you're the most loyal, diehard fan of Shaw Brothers productions, then you might feel like you need to own this box set, and if that's how you want to waste your money, its fine by me.