Crippled Avengers [殘缺] (1978)
AKA Return of the Five Deadly Venoms, Mortal Combat, Avengers Handicapped

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung, Lo Meng, Sun Chien, Chiang Sheng, Lu Feng, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Yang Hsiung, Yu Tai-Ping, Tony Tam Chun-To, Ching Miao

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High.

Crippled Avengers is like an anti-Chor Yuen movie; a nearly perfect example of a simple revenge tale told exceptionally well. Even without a deep narrative, Chang Cheh and the Venoms craft a film with the power to entertain and enthrall throughout. Would it be better with additional backstory? Maybe, but it’s also kind of genius in its simplicity, starting “in media res,” at what could theoretically be another film’s ending.

The Three Tigers of the South arrive at the home of Du Tiando the Black Tiger (Chen Kuan-Tai) while he’s away. They find his wife and son, who they punish for their relation to Du by chopping off the wife’s legs, and the son’s arms at the elbow. These are some ruthless individuals! Du returns home at this moment, though, and quickly kills the offending men with the three deadly styles of the Black Tiger Fist. Du vows to find a craftsman to create new arms of iron for his son, and with the magic of film editing, Du Chang (Lu Feng) has grown up and received his medieval-gauntlet-like iron arms. What will Du Chang do with his newfound iron strength? Cripple other innocents was not the answer I expected! What a twist!

These people who seemed to be the film’s heroes, done wrong by marauding villains, are in fact the villains themselves! I love it! The Du family cripples the other Venoms, who then train and avenge these crimes. It’s a beautifully simple story, but the details are so compelling that the film appears richer than it actually is. Does this mean it’s actually rich? I’m not sure, but the storytelling instincts of Chang Cheh and Ni Kuang take what could be any ol’ revenge film and make it a genre classic.

The action by Lu Feng, Robert Tai Chi-Hsien, and Chiang Sheng also elevates the film considerably among its Shaw contemporaries. The Venoms are always a joy to watch, with their wonderful acrobatics and martial abilities, and Crippled Avengers contains their best work up to this point. Long, wide takes deliver the bulk of the action, letting us bask in the athleticism necessary to perform the incredible chunks of choreography. Every fight is dynamic and incredibly well-staged, but there won’t be a closed mouth in the house when the rings come out. The ring training sequence is fun and playful, but when feeble-minded Wang Yi (Chiang Sheng) brings them into the fight between Chen Shun (Phillip Kwok) and Lu Feng, it rivals anything in any kung fu movie of the period. It’s sublime and astonishing, fusing the training’s playfulness to the framework of a life-or-death fight; the layers of breathtaking tension are overwhelming.

The Venoms’ characters possess unquenchable spirits prior to their crippling events, giving the actors a unique opportunity to flex their acting skills by choosing how to retain this quality in spite of their new disability. Lo Meng shines with the hard task of playing charismatic without the use of words — and really they’re all superb — but Chiang Sheng stands out the most. His disability is mental, and his character goes from the traditional stalwart swordsman to a playful child unaware of any threat or danger around him. He plays it with a lot of Monkey King style that made me relish every scene. Putting this character into the midst of the climactic battle is a stroke of brilliance, too.

Crippled Avengers is a great kung fu movie that every fan should see. It’s more rooted in the old ways than the fresh work of Lau Kar-Leung, Sammo Hung, or Yuen Woo-Ping, but this doesn’t diminish its power in the slightest. Especially since the film released 45 years ago, and no one really cares what else was happening around each film’s release. I mean, I do, that’s kind of the whole thing about this chronological review series, but I don’t think it should hinder your enjoyment of the movie. I might have thought “As great as this is, Sammo’s action in Warriors Two is more cinematic,” but sometimes it’s best to just shut up and revel in the wonders of the Venom Mob’s performance art.

And before we go, let’s all tip our hats to Chen Kuan-Tai, who appeared here in his first Chang Cheh film since 1976’s 7-Man Army, and would only do one more movie with him: 1984’s Shanghai 13.

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is a non-Shaw diversion from the 1978 Box Office Top 10: Sammo Hung’s Warriors Two! See ya then (hopefully soon)!