Also known as The Five Venoms – which sounds suspiciously like Spider-Man’s symbiote empowered villians teamed up to form a barbershop quintet – this film marks the first time I’ve ever actually gotten round to sampling any of the rich output of the legendary Hong Kong studio, Shaw Brothers. Shaw Brothers was instrumental in the world of martial arts cinema which churned out their particular brand of kung-fu epics at almost a industrial level for them to land in the West in the various sticky floored flea pits of American Grindhouse cinemas throughout the 70’s and early 80’s. It was here in these ropey shit holes – and later on thanks to grainy versions on home video – that a fair bunch of them would influence people as diverse as Quentin Tarantino and the Wu Tang Clan despite being dubbed and re-edited with all the loving care of a short sighted butcher with nerve damage – witness the non-Shaw Brothers Lone Wolf & Cub series be shredded and put back together as the endearingly crass, yet completely bizarre gorefest, Shogun Assassin, if you need a more extreme example…
However, despite the awesomely lurid ad campaigns and goofy voice overs, most of these movies boasted great performances and suprisingly delicate plots and possibly of all of these, Five Deadly Venoms is a great example.
A dying master gathers his final student to send him on one final mission and tells him of the deadly Poison Clan, five men he trained to each imbue them with five separate animal based fighting styles like a mass murdering branch of the Power Rangers. The Centipede student can punch and kick at great speed as if he has 100 limbs, the Snake can cause great damage with the strikes of his fingers, the Scorpion has a powerful grip and a lashing kick, the Lizard can defy gravity and attack from sheer surfaces and the Toad style gives it’s user iron strong skin and augmented strength. The student is tasked to head out into the world and so see if the poor reputation of the Poison Clan is as bad as reported and if so, clean up any loose ends to that the master can die with a Jean conscience, but here is where things get complicated: the student may have been trained in all five styles but actually isn’t a master of any so he can’t possibly fight a single Venom on his own and hope to win – also, the five men were all trained at different times and so some their identities are mysteries even to each other. If the student is to succeed he’ll have to hope that at least one of the Poison Clan isn’t a self obsessed piece of shit.
As he scopes out a local town acting as a beggar a suprising complicated game of cat and mouse (or centipede and snake and scorpion and lizard and toad) ensues starting with the murder of an entire family by two of the Venoms in order to locate some hidden fortune. Thus a disparate group of townsfolk that range from the constables to wealthy businessmen to mysterious strangers managed to get ensnared in this jumbled web of murder and hidden identities; all five members of the clan are involved, that’s for certain, but who’s who in this strange case of “guess the poison”?
The first thing that separates Five Deadly Venoms from your usual Kung Fu fare is that it’s legitimately devious plot feels like Agatha Christie’s had a few glasses of sherry too many and settled down to watch a midnight showing of Enter The Dragon on Netflix – either that or Christopher Nolan and Samo Hung had a filmmaking baby and unleashed it into the 70’s via a time machine. Seriously, there’s modern, phonebook sized, crime novels out there that doesn’t have as many moving parts as this and it even has nasty murder implements that leave no outward trace and brings in the spectre of police corruption as one of the Venoms tries to manipulate a crooked magistrate to turn the eye of the murder investigation away from an ally and onto a rival Venom – it’s genuinely engrossing stuff and certainly not what I expected from the movie at all.
However, when the movie did deliver what I was expecting, the whooshing whirlwind of high kicks and impacting knuckles have more effect thanks to the multi-layered plot it packs behind it’s punch. Those more used to a more modern, “fluid” style of martial arts such as the lighting blows of Bruce Lee or the frantic clowning of Jackie Chan may be initially put off by the jerky, more deliberate fighting style that the studio endorsed, but what it sacrifices in realism (aside from having a guy stick to walls) it makes up for it in clean, easy to follow scraps that still require consummate skill from it’s actors.
The cast are all great (I guess, purists will be horrified to learn that I saw a dubbed version) but I was utterly stunned to find out that Phillip Kwok, (who plays the wall walking practitioner of the Lizard style) was also Mad Dog in John Woo’s barnstorming bullet spitter Hard Boiled and that the five leads formed The Venom Mob, group who regularly teamed in several more Shaw Brothers productions.
As an entry into the world of this renowned Studio, Five Deadly Venoms is a sumptuously shot mystery with a impressively complcated plot that instantly challenged my initial views on what I thought a Shaw Brothers movie would be and leaves me legitimately thirsty for more.
Definitely worth experiencing if you fancy an engrossing Kung Fu-dunnit.