Considering the seismic impact that the 1978 Shaw brothers production The Five Deadly Venoms had on popular culture, its DVD release stands to be an event in cult circles. After all, here’s a movie that’s been referenced by two of kung-fu’s most high-profile acolytes: The Wu-Tang Clan, which sampled it on several tracks, and Quentin Tarantino, whose Deadly Viper Assassination Squad in Kill Bill also pays homage, to put it diplomatically. Yet it’s a rare case of the imitation being more inspired than the source, perhaps because the concept of animal-themed martial-arts experts ignites the imagination, regardless of how it’s executed. Though its story is clogged by an overabundance of talky intrigue, The Five Deadly Venoms squeezes in a few memorable sequences that pit amphibian against insect, arachnid against reptile, and protégé against master, among many other combinations.
The needlessly complicated plot has the dying master of the notorious “Poison Clan” sending Chiang Sheng, his final student, out to track down five of his former protégés. Each of the five was taught a different combat style: Centipede, also referred to as “thousand hands,” is known for the quickness of his strikes; Snake lashes out at opponents with clawed fingers; Scorpion can paralyze his adversaries with a few piercing kicks; Lizard has the ability to walk on walls and attack from them; and Toad has a defensive style that repels all blades and bends solid metal. Because their identities are unknown beyond their masks, finding them isn’t easy, and harder still is figuring out which are good guys and which are corrupt, treasure-stealing thugs. Then it’s up to Chaing to combine the skills of all five men to bring honor to his late master’s disgraced house.
The Five Deadly Venoms doesn’t get better than the initial unveiling of the “Poison Clan,” done through a series of luxuriant slo-mo kung-fu demonstrations. From there, the film gets lost in the soupy goings-on of a murder mystery, a buried treasure, the corruption of local officials, and the various allegiances and rivalries between clan members, some of whom know each other, and others with murkier identities. Co-writer/director Chang Cheh (The One-Armed Swordsman) works his way out of trouble eventually, delivering the five-way free-for-all battle his movie promises. But the film never entirely lives up to the glorious action figures it conjures in the mind.
Key features: Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan, the go-to guy for Dragon Dynasty releases, delivers another informative commentary.