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Wednesday, August 26, 2009
  DVD Review: The 5 Deadly Venoms

It’s been too long since I got to review a kung fu movie for the blog, and it’s fitting that my return to the genre is for one of its bona fide classics. The 5 Deadly Venoms is one of the all-time greats of vintage Hong Kong martial arts cinema, and Dragon Dynasty maintains its stellar run of bringing classic Shaw Brothers (the studio for classic Hong Kong flicks of the ‘60s and ‘70s) movies to Western audiences with top-quality DVDs. Director Chang Cheh was the man at Shaw Bros., having helmed other classics like The One-Armed Swordsman, and in 1978 he released The 5 Deadly Venoms, a modest hit in Hong Kong that grew to become a cult hit in the West. The five actors in the titular roles became commonly known in Hong Kong simply as “The Venoms,” and the film spawned several unofficial sequels with the actors playing similar roles.

Appropriately, The 5 Deadly Venoms is an awesome old-school kung fu movie, easily the best such film I’ve reviewed here. The fights are a lot of fun, but one of the main reasons for the film’s legacy, oddly enough (particularly for this genre), is its story. It opens with the dying master of the Poison Clan giving a mission to his lone remaining student: he must track down five of his former students, whom he now believes are using their unique, individual skills for evil. The young student has been trained in parts of each of their styles – centipede, lizard, scorpion, snake and toad – but his lack of deep knowledge in any one particular style means he’s no match for any of them one-on-one. He’s told to track down one of his master’s old colleagues, who’s hiding a treasure the Venoms are looking for. The Venoms are all living under new identities in the big city, and part of the fun of the early part of the movie is trying to figure out which character is which Venom. (In some cases its remarkably easy, but the identity of the Scorpion is left mysterious basically until the climax.) And not all of the Venoms have turned to evil.

The 5 Deadly Venoms is a bit of an odd beast – not too many kung fu movies are renowned for their stories – but its twisty, surprisingly intricate plot is a lot of the fun, and it’s unquestionably a big part of the movie’s appeal. Having an ensemble cast also means it’s a bit of a change of pace from more traditional “lone hero on a quest for revenge” stories; The 5 Deadly Venoms has no real single protagonist, as the young student initially sent to find the Venoms actually has a fairly small role in the story, serving more as the audience’s entry point in the first act (though he does show up for the climactic battle).

I’d actually only seen The 5 Deadly Venoms once before, back the days I spent copious amounts of time tracking down Hong Kong action movies of the ‘70s through the ‘90s (this was before you could easily find cult foreign movies via small DVD distributors online), and I remember loving it. A lot of that was because the film is basically set up like a kung fu superhero movie; it’s got characters with unique powers who occasionally don themed masks and outfits, and plays with themes of power and responsibility (perhaps Chang was a fan of classic Spider-Man comics). But getting to watch it again to review it was a treat, and I was happy to learn it holds up. The fights are awesome, and the film shows why Chang Cheh was such an important director of that era. He was ahead of his time, using clever camera tricks for Lizard’s wall-walking abilities, including a very cool, proto-Matrix “speed-ramping” technique of subtly switching to slow-motion to create the illusion that he’s calmly walking up the wall. It’s cool stuff for a 1978 movie, and it’s very effective.

The 5 Deadly Venoms is known as a classic piece of martial arts cinema, and it’s deserving of its reputation. Obviously these sorts of movies aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re a fan of old-school kung fu movies, this DVD is a must-have. If you’re only casually interested in classic martial arts movies, it’s one of the best the genre has to offer. Highly recommended.



The lone extra on the 5 Deadly Venoms DVD is commentary from Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan, who provides commentary on just about everything Dragon Dynasty releases. That’s not a complaint, as this guy is a walking encyclopedia of Hong Kong cinema, casually reciting actors’ entire resumes, right up to the present, as they walk through the frame. He does an excellent job of explaining the impact the film had on pop culture, particularly in America (a number of rap groups, most prominently the Wu-Tang Clan, sample dialogue from the movie); if I’m not mistaken, 5 Deadly Venoms was featured in an Entertainment Weekly list of the top cult movies of all time. Logan manages to quote Shakespeare in virtually the same breath as a lyric from semi-obscure rapper LA the Darkman, and discusses everything from the movie’s potential influence on Toad in the first X-Men movie to the reason the dubbing in classic kung fu flicks sounds so weird and similar. As effusive as Logan is in his praise for 5 Deadly Venoms, he also points out that the new remastered Dragon Dynasty DVDs (which really do look quite spectacular, particularly the vintage Shaw Brothers flicks) do no favors to the late-‘70s Hong Kong makeup. The wigs and fake beards are incredibly phony-looking, but for me, that’s just part of the charm.

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