Starring David Chiang, Ti Lung, Ku Feng, Wong Chung, Chan Sing, Stanley Fung Sui-Fan, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Wang Kuang-Yu, Cheng Lui, Chen Feng-Chen, Lau Gong, Yeung Chak-Lam, Bolo Yeung, Wong Pau-Gei, Lau Kar-Wing, Chan Chuen, Yau Lung
Directed by Chang Cheh
Expectations: Very high.
The Deadly Duo is a thrilling martial arts film, but not necessarily for the reasons generally associated with the genre. The fights, always the highlight of any martial arts film, are thrown in almost as an afterthought in The Deadly Duo. There’s a lot of action, but the fights are never the knock-down, drag-out battles fans of the genre come in expecting. And this is kind of weird in a Chang Cheh film, the man known for creating and popularizing the knock-down, drag-out, bloody-as-hell fight scene. But that’s the thing with Chang Cheh, he was always searching for a different way to make what most people would call very similar films. And it is in this slight innovation that the film shines.
The Deadly Duo is the first film in my Shaw Brothers review series to feature a group of fighters based on the five Chinese elements or Wu Xing. They are collectively known as the “Five Elements Great Fighters.” The group consists of River Dragon (Bolo Yeung), Golden Demon, Fire Demon Lui, and… Unfortunately, the wood and earth guys didn’t get cool names of their own in the subtitles, but the HKMDB entry lists them as Leopard and Mole. These five amazing fighters all work for the invading Ching forces, who have kidnapped the Sung Prince Kang. We are told at the beginning of the film that Kang later escaped and went on to become the first emperor of the Southern Sung Dynasty, so the end of our film is already laid out for us.
With these elements in place, The Deadly Duo sets us up for a thrilling rescue mission, headed up by the heroic Bao Ting Tien (Ti Lung) and assisted by a small group of Sung fighters. And it delivers that rescue mission in thrilling Chang Cheh fashion, but it still feels largely different from any previous Chang Cheh film. What I keep coming back to in my mind is instead of being a simple action film, it is meant to serve as kindling for your imagination. This could just be me reading things that aren’t there into something as innocent as budgetary concerns, but as Chang Cheh was the star director and could pretty much make whatever he wanted, I have to assume this is exactly the film he wished to make… with an ending foretold in the opening text, and wild, over-the-top villains that never truly get a chance to shine.
Take Fire Demon Lui, for example. He features in a couple of quick scenes, blasting little fire bombs out of his weapon and causing massive damage to the enemy forces. But he is defeated in a couple of quick strokes. This is the kind of guy that could have a whole film built around him, not someone who dies mid-way through after just a few minutes of screentime. And Chang Cheh’s previous films have very frequently featured inventive, over-the-top villains with interesting weapons, and if I remember right, most of them get a fairer shake than anyone in this film. Even the final confrontation, featuring the last of these Five Elements Great Fighters, is mostly happening in the background while the film’s focus lies elsewhere.
Generally, something like this would really irritate me (and I won’t lie, I would kill for more with these great villains), but The Deadly Duo is so well-made and exciting that I don’t really care. The heroes move through the villains quickly and without much trouble, leading us through a very quick series of action sequences that make up nearly the entire runtime of the film. For a film so flawed on the surface, it is incredibly chock full of action. But because I’m choosing to side optimistically and believe that Chang Cheh intended the villains to be grand but die quickly, I also believe that the intention of the film is to spark imaginations (and patriotism, like a good many Chinese films).
In terms of the technical aspects, Chang Cheh adds a couple of pieces to his arsenal with The Deadly Duo. He seems to do this in every film, and I like to imagine Chang Cheh as a video game character and each of his films as a level in his game. He completes the level and is then able to buy a few upgrades which will help him through his next adventure. The upgrades in The Deadly Duo are freeze-frame and underwater filming. Both add another layer of interesting visuals to the film, although a few of the freeze-frames don’t feel necessary. They are cool, though, and I’ve always enjoyed underwater filming (as long as it’s not torturously slow like in Thunderball).
It’s also worthwhile to note that The Deadly Duo was the first assistant directing job for fan-favorite director Godfrey Ho. He’s considered to be like the Ed Wood of Hong Kong, making unintentionally hilarious, low-budget kung fu movies, oftentimes re-cutting the footage he shot for one movie into many different films. Now that’s value!
But back to the film at hand: The Deadly Duo rocked me with its fun villains and its pretty much non-stop action. There’s a lengthy sequence in the middle where the action slows down for a tense bridge crossing, executed not through wuxia skill but through careful ingenuity and cunning. Chang Cheh constructs the sequence to be nearly silent, with only slight sound effects on the soundtrack to heighten the tension (similar to the spacewalk from 2001: A Space Odyssey). For being such a straightforward action film, it’s not nearly as straightforward as it seems. The Deadly Duo is a thrilling martial arts film that succeeds without focusing on tense struggles between perfectly matched opponents, and that’s one hard feat to pull off.
Next up in this chronological jaunt through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog: Ho Meng-Hua’s The Long Chase! Hope it’s a thrilling chase and not a long, drawn-out one! See ya next week!