When it came down to deciding what to cover on this, the last week of Shawtober September, I realized the event called for something special. I could only pick one more Shaw Brothers film to write about, out of the over two hundred available. It’s too great a responsibility to try and pick one and call it the “greatest”. That’s like deciding which of your children you like best (the oldest, obviously), picking a favorite color of M&M (the very rare “grey speckled” variety), or trying to name the top ten rock songs of all time without mentioning Led Zeppelin.
Viking Night - Shawtober September Part IV: Crippled Avengers
By Bruce Hall
September 27, 2017
I knew I’d be better served by making a personal decision. I chose a film that I would not consider the “best” of the lot, although it does make my unordered Top Five (too bad there’s not another week in September). But out of that number, it’s the truth to say that Crippled Avengers is my favorite Shaw Brothers film in the department of “monkey poo-flinging bonkers”. If I attempted to describe the plot, you would assume it to be the dying screams of a crazed madman. Or, a doomed philosopher’s world-ending prophecy scrawled in parchment with his own blood.
You certainly wouldn’t expect it to be one of the most ridiculously, insanely fun action movies of all time. If I told you the plot, you’d think me mad.
So here goes. A wealthy kung fu master named Chu Twin (Kuan Tai Chen) returns home one afternoon to find that jealous gangsters have murdered his wife and maimed his son. Chu does what any decent kung fu master would which is slaughter all three of them on the spot, after specifically telling them how he’s going to do it. His fury is more than justified, as his wife was literally cut off at the legs, and his son’s arms were chopped off. Apparently more impressed with his son’s bravery than his wife’s shattered corpse, Chu immediately vows to build his son a pair of iron arms, and impart his full knowledge of kung fu to the boy.
This he does, and when little Tao Sheng (Lu Feng) grows up, he is awarded a sweet pair of iron arms. They even fire deadly ninja darts from the fingertips on command. I remember thinking, the first time I saw this movie, how great it would be to have ninja-dart shooting metal murder arms. Hilariously, I never saw the obvious flaw in my own logic. Also hilarious is how moments after receiving his gift, Tao begins expertly practicing deadly Tiger Style moves. This, despite literally just having been given a pair of arms for the first time in ten years.
It’s no laughing matter though, when Tao starts bursting bamboo trees in half with those cast iron meat hooks. Five minutes into the story and you’d be forgiven for feeling sympathy for Chu and his son. Obviously Tao is the Crippled Avenger, right? And he’s going to get a sidekick at some point, who is also a kung fu cyborg? And they’ll avenge stuff?
Well, no. Instead, Chu has gone through the trouble of kidnapping the sons of the men who murdered his wife. He orders Tao to cripple them for life, which he does. Father and son have given themselves over to bitterness, terrorizing the town and making it his trademark to intentionally maim anyone who gets in his way. Things come to a head when they attack a pair of bar patrons, earning the ire of Wei (Lo Meng), the town’s irascible blacksmith. For this he is forced to drink poison, which renders him mute, and his ears are boxed, deafening him.
For good measure, Tao plucks out the eyes of an innocent drifter (Kuo Chui) who had the nerve to admire Wei’s bravery. Eventually another innocent bystander named Hu (Sun Chien) has his legs chopped off. Then, a traveling champion named Yuan Yi (Chiang Sheng) has his head bashed in just for trying to help.
That’s right. These guys are the Crippled Avengers, and guess who they owe a heaping helping of Crippling Vengeance?.
See what I mean? It’s all so nuts that you probably forgot all about those kickass iron arms. If it’s any consolation, the violence I’ve just described isn’t particularly unsettling. For God’s sake, most of the cast are wearing wigs that couldn’t be more obvious if they still had the price tags on them. Plus, the best part of the movie is how the four Avengers manage to - spoiler - join forces and take the fight back to the Man.
And that’s not as easy as it sounds. For example when the Drifter and Wei first meet up, what you’ve got is a scene where a blind man has to introduce himself to a man who can’t speak or hear. As I’ve alluded to before, these were two actors who had worked together many times, and who both boasted theater training. The scene is played for mild laughs, and if you hadn’t already guessed, the film as a whole isn’t meant to be taken very seriously. Despite the great violence done to their characters, interaction between the Avengers is largely an exercise in pantomime and physical comedy.
It goes without saying that for a blind man, a deaf-mute, a paraplegic and a crazy person to communicate requires creativity. Actually joining forces in a kung fu whirlwind of death seems like a bridge too far. What makes it so much fun watching them try is both the physically gifted cast and some really creative set design. Don’t get me wrong, Daniel Day-Lewis never looked to Crippled Avengers for inspiration. I’m just saying that as a fun and creative romp, you could do much worse than this. Maybe it’s just me, but I can never get over how amazing it is to watch someone have to act, perform physical comedy AND combat at the same time.
And while that does not a good movie make, Crippled Avengers has such a sense of humor about itself (remember, even what gore there is looks kind of intentionally silly) that it’s difficult not to have fun with it. The pigheaded Wei and the blind Drifter form quite a charming bond, communicating through touch-based sign language. Chiang Sheng may have the film’s breakout role, as Yuan Yi’s insanity makes him the “wildcard” of the team. So much thought went into the action sequences that you’ll forget about how improbable they are as you’re entertained by the inventive ways the Avengers compensate for their disabilities.
You haven’t lived until you’ve watched a man with metal arms take on the Monty Python/United Way mashup that is the Crippled Avengers and their completely bananas fighting style. It’s a thing of unexpected, electrifying beauty - like watching a Rube Goldberg machine finish a Rubik’s cube. It’s not all fun and games, and it’s not all politically correct, but if Crippled Avengers doesn’t put a smile on your face, then I guess you just don’t like action movies.
Fearlessly noble heroes, deliciously devious villains, and some wildly inventive physical stunts make this just good, goofy fun. This isn’t the greatest story the Shaws have ever told, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of their patented mix of drama, comedy and spectacular acrobatics. I couldn’t have had a better time reliving these forgotten childhood gems of mine.
So ends the inaugural Shawtober September. Will this magical time return, or has it run its course? Who can say, what with technically enough Shaw movies in existence or me to do this once a year until the heat death of the universe.
Keep your fingers crossed.