If you’ve read me before, it’s no finding of the lost ark that I specialize in the obscure, the bullshit, the altogether foolish. I’m fine with that, and if you’re reading this, then you are too. Today’s subject is the prime spectacle of 1980’s “Kung Fu Theater,” the television venue that not only led to my obsession with kung fu movies, but the Venom Mob in particular. They were a talented group of players for Shaw Brothers Productions, and their most revered film is entitled “The Five Deadly Venoms.” I worshiped this movie when I was a kid, but subsequent viewings have led me to wonder about all the plot problems within.
Let’s go back. The Shaw Brothers (note the absence of an actual Chinese name there) date back to 1925, dabbled in distribution, but then eventually became gods in the Hong Kong kung fu movie game. The backstory on that is huge, but let’s just say that their heyday was between the 1960’s and the late 1980’s. During that time, the films showcased five breakout stars (among several others) that worked so well together that fans came to know them as well as Westerners knew Jack Nicolson and Dustin Hoffman.
In particular, these guys were…
Lu Feng…(the Centipede)…the bad guy in almost all of their films. Beady-eyed and mean, he routinely had a weapon to eviscerate you with. Basically, if you saw him, you knew you couldn’t trust him.
Lo Mang…(The Toad, and)…the built one. Although he claims to have had no weight training in his lifetime, he was always the strong one with the most impressive body. I considered his style to be the most pure of the group, so his habit of commonly getting killed first annoyed me to no end. He still works in Hong Kong, combining comedy with fighting.
Kuo Chui…(the Lizard)…say hello to the constant hero. You can still see him showing up around Hollywood in bit parts, if you care to. He can also be found using the name Phillip Kwok. This guy’s skills were, in my opinion, second to none on the team, combining good acting with excellent fighting skills and acrobatics on par with their primary flipper. Which leads me to…
Chiang Sheng…(we’ll discuss his role in the movie in a minute)…whom they called “babyface,” for obvious reasons. Good kid with awesome agility, but alcohol eventually proved his doom.
Sun Chien…(the Scorpion)…was a master of kicks. Every movie you saw him in, he was kicking the shit out of somebody, literally. Often a double agent of sorts, you also couldn’t trust this dude when he showed up onscreen either.
You must be asking by now “Where’s the fifth Deadly Venom if Chiang Sheng gets a byline?” Simple. Sheng was a full-fledged member of the Mob, but not one of the Venoms per se in this movie. The 5th player was an actor who took on honorary membership, though he was sparingly used in other Venoms films. He is Wei Pai, employed here as the Snake. Though he did well, fighting films were never his forte.
Most often (see “always”) directed by brother Run Run Shaw, the Venom Mob movies were fun, predictable, and varied between good choreography-to-freakin’ awesome. The end of “House Of Traps” is just as amazing as the end of “Magnificent Ruffians.” But “Flag Of Iron,” though good, can’t get that same love. Either way you slice it, “The Five Deadly Venoms” still stands as the quintessential opus of The Venom Mob. The “sequel,” “Return Of The Five Deadly Venoms” isn’t a sequel at all – just a name change to capitalize on their fame, since it starred the same actors with a completely different story. Keep that in mind when you’re shopping, but still consider the original commercial name “Crippled Avengers” to be a great film on its own.
The early days of the Mob.
Okay, here we go. Now that we have our LOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG backstory (sorry) let’s go get to that review.
This shit starts off smart enough, with young Chiang Sheng working feverishly to stave off his master’s deadly disease via boiling him – an act which would scare the shit out of just about anyone else. That tells you right off the bat what kind of badass this master is. “Boil me so that I may live!” whereas I’d be like “OMG DON’T BOIL ME ALIVE, I’M A PUSSY!!”
It comes out immediately. The master knows he’s a dead man (because Sheng can’t boil for shit?) and admits to Yang (Sheng) that teaching the five pupils before him was a bad idea. Because some of them had hard hearts and would act on some immoral means if they saw opportunity. He admits, while boiling, to teaching Yang close to everything he knew, while also admitting that the clan had a history of being murderous assholes. Then, he proceeded to explain to Yang what the Poison Clan techniques were, which is something I naturally figured Yang knew from the goddam beginning, having learned them pre-boil.
It is then revealed that Yang was learning there for a whole 3 years, and still had to hear more about stuff he didn’t know. It’s also explained that Yang was taught all the Poison Clan powers, but we later only see him knowing the Lizard style, and I’m scratching my head just typing it all.
See where I’m going with this? The beginning is muddled as hell, makes little sense, but still looks cool. Mostly because the master explains, in flashback, how badass his first pupils were before they left – and that they probably turned out to be jerks. We see the Centipede being super fast and swiping with killer efficiency, as if he’d had 100 limbs. The Snake had his fanged fingers on one hand and striking forefinger on the other. The Toad took crazy physical punishment and came out unharmed. The Lizard sported the skills of climbing walls and attacking from a vantage point. And, of course, the Scorpion, kicking like a boss. This is cool but, do not doubt, it’s a horrible set-up for a great movie with tons of flaws.
It’s important to note that they all wore masks while they trained under the master. So, they didn’t know each other’s identities, nor did they know where to find each other for whatever reason. Presumably. But, sadly, if you’re a fan of the Venom Mob, you already know who was who from the outset, because of their defining skill sets! But, I guess that meant little difference back in the day, because I clearly remember my little mind being fucking blown by the end when I first saw this.
Here’s the kicker – OUT OF NOWHERE, master tells Yang that his former partner is rich and that the former students might try to find him and kill him for his money. That’s how we’ll see them all together and tell them apart. Yang’s job is to stop that from happening.
See how many paragraphs it took just to explain an 8 minute intro? And how I threw in an arbitrary photo to liven things up? Holy shit. I promise not to let the rest of the story do that. I think we get the point.
Yang leaves while master keeps on boiling. I guess.
Yang goes into town as a vagabond, thinking to make friends with the first pupil he might deduce. FROM THE START, it’s obvious that two patrol cops are former members of the clan. They are Captain Ma (Scorpion) and Constable Yu (Lizard.) In a complete stroke of genius, Yang figures that out the same time we do. Keep in mind – this is supposed to be unknown info. But, like I said before, if you know the styles, you know the characters.
The cops stroll around making nice with the marketplace vendors. We know that one is nice and the other night not be because he’s Sun.
It’s weird how Yang just bums out like this. I totally didn’t expect him to be a homeless guy acting weird in the neighborhood. Was that his lot? You’d think the master would’ve given him some cash to help with the mission. Or maybe he did.
Yes, I am watching the movie as I write this.
Yang conveniently sees Lo Mang sitting in a restaurant being physically intimidating. He is Li Hao and invites Yang inside to eat, as long as he doesn’t EAT WITH HIM. Nice guy/dick move by Lo Mang all at the same time.
Then, Li Hao (Lo Mang) sees Constable Yu and tells him to drink with him. It’s obvious that they have met a long time ago and know each other as Poison Clan Members. There’s a lot of that going around.
I’m fine with it. Like, How exactly are we supposed to expect these guys were fools? Cool. That’s out of the way. They both know of the rich old guy and want to protect him. Now we know the good guys.
On the other side of the coin, Centipede visits Snake in his posh home. He’s so rich, he doesn’t even need to kill the old guy for his money, but obviously will for the fuck of it. Same goes for these dudes. I am fine with them knowing that they were former Poison Clan students. And now we know the bad guys. Damn, that was quick.
The movie is therefore rock solid in its flow. Good guys gotta stop the bad guys, with Yang somewhere in between. Got it!
Okay, moving right along, the bad guys find the teacher’s partner PRONTO! They threaten to kill him for his cash and the old dude goes down so fast that it’s obvious he’d never stand two minutes in a boiling pot. Between the two of them, the strong master we met at the beginning clearly carried their old school team.
This movie zips right along.
Snake and Centipede didn’t get him to talk so now they’re arguing back at the posh house. Centipede pulls a rank move that I didn’t expect (since he was the Number 1 student) and can therefore talk more shit than Snake. If there’s more to being Number 1, we never see howso in this film.
Intrigue! A scene of a masked Scorpion investigating the dead laid waste by his “brothers” shows that he has found the secret location of the money. We know exactly who Scorpion is, but the movie acts like we don’t. This film is no “The Usual Suspects.”
Look, more of the same happens, and I’m gonna fly through the bullshit. While the movie acts like we’re stupid, I won’t.
Yang is still begging, but manages to infiltrate the underworld long enough to hear some intel about the teacher being killed. Meanwhile, his old master is probably well, healthy and gingerly stepping out of a 350 degree hot tub. We never find out and should probably accept that he’s dead by now.
The asshole judge tells his officials that they have ten days to figure out what happened or THEY’LL BE WHIPPED!! Holy shit! And they wonder why cops go bad!! I’d sell out a junkie fast as shit to keep myself from being beaten down for nothing.
Cool scene here. Lizard uses his detective skills to check the dead bodies. He figures out that the broken ribs were a Centipede hallmark. The stomach burst being the sign of the Snake. He and Toad find Yang listening in the shadows and befriend him, and it’s on. Telling you, this movie moves fast.
If you know the movie, you’re aware that I’m flashing by a LOT of stuff. That’s what this movie makes you do. I have a lot to cover here.
To reinterate, Toad and Lizard are the good ones. Centipede and Snake are the opposite. Yang was lucky, and made friends with the good guys. Scorpion seems to only be on his own shit. That’s where the movie succeeds. We know who Scorpion is, but we don’t know what side he’s on.
Here’s the important part. Centipede walks calmly down the street and ends up fighting Toad. They recognize each other and battle. Of course, it’s awesome.
This is where we first see the masters in action. Lo Mang (Toad) has the most amazing strikes and parries, always on point with his long movements, his Southern Mantis defenses. And Lu Feng is the type of guy who never lets you know when he is coming or going. It’s great to see the two square off here, with Feng being the far more agile of the two.
But, in the end, you can’t hurt the Toad unless you know his weakness. My favorite line:
Scorpion: Thanks a lot, come to court!
Toad: No need. (walks off smiling.)
When Centipede goes to court, it’s obvious that the judge is bought, and he lets him go. That sucks, because Toad rocked that fight and now it’s for nothing. But whatever because Toad would die somehow anyway because that’s what Lo Mang does in these movies. (like i said, it’s tough to be a fan because you know what’s coming)
There are some points when it’s a showcase for their art direction. Sometimes when you look in the deep background, the scene is well lit and the atmosphere is perfect. I feel that these beauties often get lost in the main fighting focus. These guys were expert filmmakers.
Look at the jail scenes and the set designs therein. Perfect lighting and strong shadows when needed. Wong Fa gets his ass beat in the best light setting of the film. Not the best writers, but there’s a reason why history’s best cinematographers don’t come from America.
Just like in “Magnificent Ruffians,” Lo Mang’s character gets suckered into putting himself out there and he gets killed in the process because he listened to his friend. They had no idea how to find Toad’s weakness so they experimented and he was killed instantly.
This is what we were left with – the remaining good guys vs. the remaining bad guys and it was all about the gold. And the initial master’s concept was not only kind of an afterthought (while still being the main focus) but also lost in the commanding plot device of good killing evil. The whole beginning of the movie is gone and it’s all about how awesome the last fight scene will be.
In the end, it’s Snake and Centipede vs. Lizard and Yang, who is Lizard. It is shown that Yang knows Lizard style, but I wouldn’t imagined that he would also know Toad style and therefore be immune to harm. But I guess that’s why I’m an idiot. So, with the help of the true Lizard, Yang uses Lizard style to help bring down his wayward “brothers.” It is alluded that he only knows that style, which boggles the mind!
Not the smartest plot and the writing is haphazard despite the possible losses in translation. There’s the obligatory “but still” and “you bastard” nods to the dialogue, but as far as the real story goes, absolutely nothing makes any real sense until Toad dies. And that’s stretching it.
I will always be amused at how the filmmakers thought Scorpion’s identity would be a secret until the end. His affiliation is pretty set in stone halfway through the movie. And why was Yang such a wildcard the whole time, only to end up being Lizard #2? To capitalize on his agility, that’s why. And that hurt the plot. If the old master had just said “I only taught you Lizard style” for whatever reason, that would’ve made all the difference.
A movie I would’ve once ranked 100% gets a generous 59% simply because I fucking love these guys; but I have no problem telling the truth here. It’s a marginal story. But it’s one you all better watch, because it’s awesome nonetheless.