First, let's get the title genealogy out of the way. Our first feature is known by a number of titles, depending on which part of the world you're in (and when). A lot of books refer to it as Crippled Avengers. Its original title anglicizes out to Can Que, translating as Incomplete. The most popular English title was Mortal Combat. Now it has been released on video by Crash Cinema, as The Return of the Five Deadly Venoms (doubtless fearing a lawsuit by Acclaim, whose lawyers cannot tell the difference between Combat and Kombat). Are we all clear now? Good.
Well, there's one more thing, before we go on. The Five Deadly Venoms do not return in this movie -that would have been tough, given that movie's ending - the actors who play them are the ones who return. This group teamed up with director Chang Cheh to make several movies that have come to be regarded as classics in the kung fu genre, and this is certainly one.
To kick things off (so to speak), three guys from the Tinan Tigers break into the compound of warlord Tu Tin-to, apparently because Tu has been getting too big for his britches, or somesuch excuse to get the story rolling. Tu is not in, they find only his wife and son. The Tigers employ bad guy logic: "So let's cut off his wife's legs...and his son's arms!" No sooner is the heinous deed done, than Tu (Chen Kuan-tai) returns. The warlord demonstrates his famous Tiger style for the ersatz tigers, killing each of the brigands with a single blow. Though his wife dies, his son survives the ordeal.
Flash forward nearly two decades (I guess). Junior (Lu Feng) is on his seventh set of iron hands, and has become a kung fu master in his own right. These hands are a marvel, employing not only James Bond gadgetry (they shoot knives and can extend out a foot), but responding as normal hands would. Apparently, whoever made the hands corresponded with Ash's blacksmith in Army of Darkness. Unfortunately, two decades of living with hatred and grief have turned Tu and his son into sociopaths - Tu's birthday present to his son is the kidnapping of the Tinan Tigers' now-adult children, so he can cripple them.
Tu is also running the nearby town via the typical Reign of Terror - you know, his entourage of thugs pushing people out of the way as he and his son walk down the street. When a traveler (Philip Kwok Tsui) speaks approvingly of the local blacksmith's refusal to back down before the bullies, Junior blinds him with his steel fingers. Later, Tu summons the mouthy blacksmith (Lo Mang) to his compound and forces a potion down his throat that robs him of his voice permanently; when he continues to mouth off via writing on a table, Tu ruptures his eardrums, rendering him deaf as well.
Later, a man in the midst of an argument (Sun Chien) bumps into Junior on the street, and summarily has his legs cut off. The three victims band together, with the plucky blacksmith thinking he can support them all with his work, but Tu's private army, under the command of right hand man Wei (Lung Wei Wang, who made a career out of villainous right-hand men), makes sure that no one will give the blacksmith the time of day. A wandering hero, Mr. Wang (Chiang Sheng, or 'cutey-pie', as he is known), sees this injustice in action and goes to Tu to exact some vengeance. But the combination of Junior and Wei proves too much, and he is captured. As all the obvious means of maiming have been employed, Tu has a metal band slowly tightened around Wang's head until his brain swells, rendering him an imbecile.
The three maimed men find a letter to Wang from his teacher upon his person; eventually they find the teacher, and remand Wang to his care. The Teacher sighs that it is a sad thing when a hero like Tu Tin-to goes bad. He then agrees to teach the three kung fu so they can put things right.
Thereafter follow the usual training scenes, referred to in the trade as "torture" scenes, because the kung fu student must suffer the tortures of the damned to strengthen his body. Some movies, like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Shaolin Master Killer on Crash Cinema) seem entirely composed of these scenes; to a large degree, they were the inspiration for the training scenes in Mask of Zorro. I'm not a big fan of them, but they are a necessary part of the genre. As in 36th Chamber, these training methods are at least interesting, as Blindman and Deafman sharpen their remaining senses. Deafman also employs his skills to make iron legs for Legless, who proceeds to learn first to walk, then to kick up a storm with them, with Wang as a target.
Wang is a constant foil through all this, exhibiting the brains and sense of humor of a three-year-old (push over the man teetering on artificial legs! Hooray!), but he still knows kung fu. In particular, Blindman and Wang seem to like to play an odd acrobatic game with steel rings (yeah, you're right: I only mention this because it's important later).
After three years, they are ready, and journey back to town separately. First, Blindman fights Wei and some of his thugs to a standstill. Wei returns with more thugs, who he tells to be vewy vewy quiet, so they can sneak up on the blind guy. Deafman kicks over a table, however, and he and Blindman again fight them to a standstill. Actually, it's only a standstill because each time, Wei holds up his hand and says, "Let's go," prompting the bad guys to make an orderly exit. Perfectly reasonable response - time to go get bigger guns. But it also makes a nicely understated running gag.
A friend of Tu's, a large specimen named Chu, comes to visit. Chu likes to strut around in his kung fu guy pants and Elvis cape, looking very much like a pro wrestler. He offers to take care of his old friend's enemies for Wei, and gives Blindman and Deafman each three blows and three kicks to knock him down. Alas, he's one of those Iron Skin kung fu guys, and not even the powerful Deafman can take him down. "Now it's my turn!" grunts whoever is doing Chu's dubbing. Ah, but Legless and Wang show up, and Legless wants his turn at bat. "Look out!" says Wang, "He has iron feet!" Sadly for Chu, he thinks this is just more Kung Fu Nomenclature, and so winds up stuffing his guts back into his abdomen, before he dies standing up.
Well, after all this light-hearted slaughter, it's finally time to storm the castle. Wei is prepared, with drums and cymbals to confuse the Blindman, and mirrors to dazzle the Deafman. He doesn't count on Wang, however, who upsets things nicely, knocking over drums and slapping henchmen around cuz it's fun. Blindman and Wang take on Junior, using their steel-ring dancing maneuvers to finally break through Junior's defenses, but only at the cost of Wang's life. It takes the remaining three to take down Tu in a pitched battle. The end (oh, like they were going to lose).
Chang Cheh is generally credited as the Shaw Brothers director who took the kung fu film out of its mannered, Wong Fei Hung days and into the hyper-violent, frenetic form we know today. He made stars out of Jimmy Wang Yu and Alexander Fu Sheng. It's generally easy to spot a Chang film - besides an operatic approach to plotting, the fight scenes are varied, creative, and extended long past any reasonable expectations. The viewer is exhausted after watching even one of his lesser movies. As mentioned earlier, his work with the "second crew" - known in the West as the Venom Gang - define the Shaw Brothers experience for a lot of us.
Crippled Avengers does pretty well by most of the Venoms - Lo Mang, in particular, gets to show a more humorous, jovial side than was his usual lot, and the fact that 90% of his performance is mimed only enhances his performance. He and Philip Kwok form the heart of this film, in more ways than one - their characters constantly clasp hands, to reassure and empower each other. It's a strong, remarkably affecting example of male bonding that would be unthinkable in a Western film, and therefore all the more touching.
Philip Kwok Tsui is my favorite Venom, and he shines here. His fight scenes rely heavily on his acrobatic skills, and always emphasized a more dancerly esthetic. The second half of the lengthy duel between Junior and the combo of Blindman and Wang, in particular, looks like a gymnastics tournament gone ballistic. In The Kid with the Golden Arm (and where is my good copy of this, Crash Cinema?), Kwok played one of those drunken kung fu practitioners, and his ever-present pot of wine was woven into the structure of the fight; trying to prevent the breaking of the precious vessel provided unexpected defensive and offensive moves. Kwok is still working today - he had a bit part in Story of Ricky. Viewers who will only watch the modern HK exports but not the older stuff (why?) will be much more likely to recognize him as the honorable killer Mad Dog in John Woo's ultimate gunplay film, Hard Boiled.
While not the best of the Shaw Brothers catalog, or even the best of Chang's films, Crippled Avengers runs a very close second in each of those categories. A bit too long, it repeats the same setups over and over until it's time for the final fight - but that's a fairly minor quibble, and I make that criticism only because the rest of the movie is so good. A little more cohesion in the second act, and it might have been perfect.
And then we have Crippled Masters.
Crippled Masters is not a sequel - it's more of a low-budget remake. Its major claim to fame is the fact that, unlike its source material, where the filmmakers had to find various creative ways to make it look like Sun Chien had no legs - Crippled Masters employs actual handicapped men as its stars.
The movie gets right down to business with a scene of Corrupt Warlord Ling Chang-kung having a bodyguard's arms whacked off - exactly why is never explained. At first I had a fairly queasy feeling; in John Carpenter's The Thing, a bilateral paraplegic was employed as a body double for Richard Dysart in the scene where his character's arms are bitten off. This was before the days that CGI made such a thing possible with the real actor. Carpenter went through a lot of angst and finally talked with the fellow about the scene, and any bad memories that might be dredged up by the experience. The guy was cool about the whole thing, and was basically glad to be making the money.
I was wondering what sort of flashbacks might be involved for this poor guy; it wasn't until later, when he began using what was supposed to be the remnant of his left arm, that I realized he wasn't the victim of some horrible accident... he was the victim of a birth defect. The truncated limb with two digits was a dead giveaway - no way is it the product of a sword blow.
After a series of misadventures, Armless hits his nadir - starving, he is eating from a pig trough when he is discovered by the farmer. This simple soul puts him to work, and he begins learning to deal with a life without arms. Meantime, the guy who was in charge of his dismembering runs afoul of Warlord Mental Health, who pours acid on his legs, causing them to waste away. You guessed it: another birth defect exploited.
The Warlord himself is quite a piece of work. He has some sort of bizarre burn-like scar under one eye, and he is also a hunchback. Or, judging from his fight scenes, he's wearing a wok under his jacket, since every time somebody lands a blow on it, there's a hollow GONG! sound. And, as Joe Bob Briggs would point out, he employs Hump Fu, repeatedly whacking opponents with his wok. Er, hump.
Well, Armless discovers Legless, and drags his former tormentor away to torture him to death, however you do that without arms. He brings him to an out-of-the-way house, which turns out to be the home of an old master who likes to practice yoga in baskets. The old man convinces them to team up and take on the Warlord; to that end, he will teach them kung fu.
The training scenes for Crippled Masters reflects how much lower the budget was, compared to its inspiration: Instead of the bizarre training apparatuses of other movies, Legless has to hoist himself across numerous parallel bamboo poles. Armless has to walk up a hill strewn with small tubes of bamboo - without arms to balance yourself, it's harder than it sounds. He also gets to show off some work with a bamboo staff that, given he only has two fingers, is pretty impressive.
The master is actually training them to steal back The Eight Jade Horses, an artifact he found but the Warlord stole. Helping them in this (and a couple of other fights) is a mysterious white-clad character named Ah Po, who has his full compliment of arms and legs, but is no match for the Warlord and his hump fu. Armless, Legless and and the Master rescue him, and he confesses that he is a secret agent for the provincial government, come to stop Humpy's villainous hijinks.
The Eight Jade Horses supposedly hold the secret to an invincible kung fu style, and when Ah Po puts two of the figurines back-to-back, he suddenly understands, and begins training the two wronged men in the new, improved style. They finally take on the Warlord, and at the climactic moment, metal bands pop out of Legless' back, and he attaches himself to Armless like a human knapsack. They whirl about, the appropriate fighter countering the Warlord at every turn, until he is hurled into a freeze-framed death. The end.
Crippled Masters' main selling point is, naturally, what the two main characters can accomplish despite their handicaps. It is supposed to be the result of months of rigorous training, but is actually ability honed by a lifetime of dealing with these handicaps. Whether exploiting these is a canny idea on the part of the filmmakers or simply monstrous is a distinction which is, frankly, beyond me; I can't wrap my head around it. My first instinct is to brand it the worst thing since the carnival freak show; but some of the denizens of that particular underworld found a certain kinship, and a sense of belonging there - when everybody's different, nobody's different. There is also no way these two men would have gotten a similar chance anywhere else. Hopefully, they were paid well.
Not that it's a good movie, or anything like. Avengers is cruel, but heavily tempered by melodrama; the first half hour of Masters is simply a litany of the cruel things that can be done to a man with no arms. (apparently, in feudal China, waiters urged men with freshly bleeding, hacked-off arms to come into their teahouse). Besides this whole contrived teahouse segment, the central concept of using bizarre methods like the leg-dissolving acid to explain what occurred to these men by nature only seems to underline the picture's essential thoughtlessness. Then there is the concept of ancient artisans crafting two interlocking jade figurines just in case some day an armless and a legless man need to fight an evil warlord. This impresses me a being as likely as the Founding Fathers somehow encrypting the blueprints for a giant robot into the Constitution, just in case we ever need it*. Even bad dubbing can't be blamed for some very, very bad, fast, sloppy writing.
While we're on the subject of sloppiness, we might as well address the fight scenes, which is the reason we watch these films in the first place. Sadly, many of the fights show a jerky quality, which can only mean the participants performed a few moves, stopped, tried to get back into the same place, then went onto the next few moves. When Chang Cheh had to break in his fight scenes, he substituted some energetic camera moves to keep things flowing smoothly. Here, the only adjective that describes the proceedings is cheap. Tsk.
Crippled Masters used to be available on New Line Home Video, and this tape proudly bore the logo of Turner Entertainment - with the interesting benefit of it being the best-looking print of a kung fu movie I've seen in ages. Reel.com, for some reason, carried it under one of its alternate titles, Fighting Life. Can't remember the label's name, but longtime kung fu-philes would recognize it as the one that always had the cover blurb, "A tribute to the master!" What master? What kind of tribute? What the hell?
Sadly, after the first fight scene with the titular masters, you've pretty much seen everything this movie had to give you, and anyone who has seen Johnny Eck the Half-Man caper about in Tod Browning's Freaks has already seen half of that. The novelty wears off quickly, and you soon yearn for the end to come. Only the mystery of the composition of the Warlord's hump kept me tuned in until the end of the movie, hoping he would whip off his jacket and reveal whatever it was, flesh and bone or steel and iron. Alas, in that I was also disappointed.