It’s February and everything sucks right now, so it’s time to unwind with February Fisticuffs – a punchy look at some of the best, worst and most average boxing, kung fu and martial arts movies.
Chang Cheh’s Five Deadly Venoms has achieved legendary status as a kung fu movie. The 1978 motion picture features a screenplay by Cheh and Ni Kuang and features the infamous Venom Mob, with Leung Ting’s martial arts choreography.
There’s a lot to like about this Shaw Brothers outing, but a lot of the movie’s fabled standing has to do with the iconography surrounding it. The Venom Mob’s presence is dynamic, what with the blending of animalistic styles accounting for some enthralling matchups. And the influence of Five Deadly Venoms is clear, even if the plot leaves a lot to be desired.
Yang Tieh (Chiang Sheng) is the last pupil of the Poison Clan and his master (Dick Wei) sends him on a dangerous mission to find the other members of the school. It turns out the master’s other students may or may not have reprehensible plans to steal a fortune.
This plan is complicated by the fact that the master of the Poison Clan isn’t sure which of his students is up to no good. It could be the Scorpion (Sun Chien) or the Lizard (Kuo Chui) or the Toad (Lo Mang) or the Snake (Wei Pei) or even the Centipede (Lu Feng). Yang Tieh must go undercover to find the potential culprit before the Poison Clan’s reputation is blown.
The plot of Five Deadly Venoms has more in common with a whodunit than a standard martial arts movie and that’s okay, but it does make Cheh’s picture a little heavy on the conversation and surprisingly light on the action. This is especially disappointing given the celebrated styles.
But the innovative code names and the aforementioned styles do make Five Deadly Venoms a special picture. Feng’s Centipede is noted for his speed and Cho Wai Kei and Kung Mu To’s cinematography settles back to watch his movements erupt.
Pei’s Snake style is captivating, with sound effects giving more clout to his shooting strikes. He adjusts his fingers to produce fangs. And Toad’s defensive style is serious business, as he can endure a boatload of punishment and bends metal with his commanding punches.
The animal stylings of Five Deadly Venoms have influenced many martial arts movies. And there’s a lot of innovation at work, especially as Tieh is pressed to the task of finding out just who in the hell the Poison Clan is. Even the master isn’t sure, which complicates matters.
Much of the film is spent delving into court intrigue after two members of the Poison Clan murder a family. Tieh floats on the margins, while the police work to solve the crime. There are some interesting disclosures as clues emerge, but the mystery can be on the tedious side.
Luckily, the late showdown presents unique opportunities to show off the martial arts styles. Centipede’s rapid attacks clash with Lizard’s wall-walking capability, while Snake’s striking is stunning. And the introduction of the Venom Mob may be the best part of the picture, by the way, as the slow-motion demonstrations really work.
In terms of character innovation and setup, Five Deadly Venoms has a lot going for it. But in terms of actual martial arts, it falls short. It lacks the breath-taking fights of other genre movies and doesn’t make the most of its iconic Venom Mob, leaving behind an overly-plotted picture that nevertheless still entertains.