The Scoop: 1978 R, directed by Cheh Chang and starring Sheng Chiang, Philip Kwok, and Feng Lu
Tagline: Pick your poison!
Summary Capsule: The Poison Clan’s dying master instructs his final student to track down each of his five prior pupils and discover whether his techniques are being used for good or for evil. He must band together with those who have stayed true and destroy the corrupt to fulfill his teacher’s last wish.
Al’s Rating: This review presented in Shaw Scope!
Al’s Review: Like all film nerds worth their salt, I love to argue the “Best Of”. Is Raiders a better Indy movie than Grail? Is Mike or Joel the better Satellite of Love prisoner? Is Salma Hayek in From Dusk ‘Til Dawn a better stripper-who-doesn’t-actually-strip than Natalie Portman in Closer? This tends to be what I spend my time dwelling on — especially Salma Hayek in From Dusk ‘Til Dawn. But in the interest of not drooling on my keyboard, I’m going to put that out of my mind and move on. In a second… … … Okay, I’m done. No, wait… Now I’m done.
So, 1970’s martial arts films hold a unique place in these debates. No matter how many films are gone over, it always seems to come down to three contenders: Enter the Dragon, The 36 Chambers of Shaolin, and Five Deadly Venoms. In one corner is Bruce Lee’s realistic, quick-as-a-blink unmatched intensity; in the other corner is a quasi-historical/philosophical Kung-Fu How To film, and in the, uh, other corner is epic, wall-hopping wuxia fantasy. All are great films, but which is really a taolu above the rest? Right now, I’m in the mood to get toxic, so let’s check out Chang Cheh’s Five Deadly Venoms.
The plot is simplistic, but classic enough to have remained a kung-fu archetype even thirty years later: On his death bed, the master of the Poison Clan asks his final student, Yang Tieh, to locate his old pupils. As part of the Clan, each was trained in a specific style created after a poisonous animal: Centipede style, which develops super fast hands; Snake style, which gives a tremendously agile body; Scorpion style, that rocks you like a hurricane with powerful kicks; Lizard (or Gecko) style, which teaches the ability to cling to walls; and Toad style, which you would imagine to be up there with Bunny Rabbit style or Manatee style, but is actually pretty cool as it renders the user almost completely impervious to injury.
Master has become concerned that, in the years since they left the temple, his students may have begun using their skills for evil purposes. Tieh, who has trained a little bit in each style, is charged with finding them and stopping any who have succumbed to the dark side. As it happens, a retired friend who possesses the Poison Clan fortune will be in town and each of the venoms will be there, either to protect him or murder him for his money. Unfortunately for Tieh, each student wore a mask at all times while they were training, changed their names as soon as they left, and will be hiding their skills while they are in town, so he will have to maintain a low profile and keep his eyes open for potential allies and adversaries. Actually, that does sound kinda complicated, but, trust me, it’s not.
He sets out into the world and, within minutes, completely botches his mission by (a) locating no one, (b) letting the Master’s rich buddy get himself murdered in, like, eight seconds, and (c) being conspicuous as hell with a haircut that hopefully involved someone losing their job. In fact, Tieh does almost nothing until the last twenty minutes of the movie, but its okay because you forget about him pretty quickly when we’re introduced to the venoms themselves. The venoms are pretty much one-note characters, but they are far and away more interesting than our bland-as-Dobey-Gillis protagonist: Centipede and Snake are flamboyantly evil, complete with hands-on-hips dramatic cackling; Lizard and Toad are stoically noble, trying to work within the system to bring their wayward brothers to justice; and Scorpion is adrift in the middle, never taking off his mask and seemingly in cahoots with Centipede and Snake, but IS HE REALLY?
And before you start screaming “Spoilers!” and cursing my name, let me just clarify that Tieh’s big puzzle about ‘who’s who’ really lasts all of six scenes before three of the five venoms are definitively revealed, and only Scorpion’s identity is really ever in doubt for most of the film. Hey, you want mystery? Rent Poirot.
But like most martial arts flicks, Five Deadly Venoms isn’t really about the story, anyway. You’re here to see some ass-whomping, which FDV delivers like gangbusters. The movie opens with great little appetite-whetting vignettes on each fighter, then, later, just as we start to get antsy, Centipede versus Toad revs you up and Toad taking on basically an entire court of law will leave you grinning.
But the real treasure here in the finale. Oh, the finale. I’ve talked to some “serious” martial arts fans who scoff at it for various reasons that I won’t go into ‘cause they’re way wrong, but for my money, the five-way battle royale that finishes this movie is top of the heap. It’s as good as — if not better — than any onscreen fight before or since: Neo vs. Agent Smith, Rocky vs. Apollo, The Bride vs. the Crazy 88, Optimus Prime vs. Megatron, Clint Eastwood vs. Lee Van Cleef vs. Eli Wallach, Pee-Wee Herman vs. Francis. It will stand toe-to-toe with any of them.
If I haven’t been clear enough: I love Five Deadly Venoms. I’m honestly too wishy-washy to really put my foot down and crown it The Best Of The 1970s, but I can say that this is a hell of a film. It’s got fight scenes that will leave you breathless, characters that are easy to fall in love with, and simple accessibility, even for people who hear “wushu” and say “God bless you.” Five Deadly Venoms is the real deal, and martial arts fans new and old owe it to themselves to visit or revisit this classic and show some respect. Poison Clan rocks the world!
- Along with a handful of other Shaw Brothers stars, the actors of Five Deadly Venoms became known as the ‘Venom Mob,’ sort of a Chinese version of the Rat Pack, who would all act together repeatedly over several dozen films in the late seventies and early eighties.
- The “Snake” role was originally intended for a woman, but director Cheh Chang (reportedly) did not want a woman to have such a prominent role in one of his films.
- The Wu Tang Clan has sampled Five Deadly Venoms at least twice, first in “The Mystery of Chessboxin’” on Enter the Wu Tang and again during “Shaolin Finger Jab” on The W.
- The kickass style demonstrations in the beginning?
- Centipede is clearly one of the great breakdancers of our age?
- When being accused of murder, laughing maniacally in the courtroom does not help your cause
- Nobody talks coherently through a ceramic mask?
- He Yuan-Xin is possibly the worst interrogator ever.
- The Iron Maiden? Excellent!
- The Passion of the Toad? Seriously, guys, that’s pretty gross.
- There’s music in here from Monty Python and the Holy Grail! No, really!
Yang Tieh: Poison Clan rocks the world!
Judge: You’ve 10 days to solve this and then you will be whipped. And for every extra day, there’s one extra stoke.
Judge: On the night that the Yuens died, did you see this man?
Wan Fan: Yes.
Judge. All right. Well, he denies the crime. Use torture.
Snake: I came from a wealthy family. I joined the clan because I wanted to learn a special kung fu. Be a real expert. But in actual fact I’ve just become a killer. Killing, that’s all I know. Death, everyday… another…
Scorpion: You’ve just asked me “When will it end?” Well let me tell you: Once an evil deed is done, then it never ends… it goes on and it goes on forever.
If You Liked This Movie, Try These:
- Iron Monkey
- The Street Fighter
- The 36th Chamber of Shaolin