SHAWSCOPE VOL. 1: CRIPPLED AVENGERS Cinapse Roundtable Reviews

The team & guests cover Shaw Brothers classics from Arrow Video’s Blu-ray box set!

Cinapse has always been, and will always be, about cinematic discovery and discussion. Our Shawscope Volume One: Round Table Reviews column is, therefore, a watch project allowing our team, and guests, to work our way through this phenomenal 12 film Blu-ray box set from Arrow Video. These capsule reviews from a variety of writers are designed to give quick glimpses of our thoughts on all of these films as we discover them for ourselves. Some of us are experts and some of us are new to the world of Shaw Brothers studio and kung fu cinema in general. All of us are excited for the adventure.

The Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers Studio cranked out a staggering number of feature films over its lifetime. With worldwide influence continuing to this very day, their contributions to cinema are myriad and undeniable. But with the vast output they generated, it can be hard for modern audiences to wade into their catalogue and find the diamonds in the rough. Fortunately, Arrow Video has curated their first Volume of 12 titles; a phenomenal way to wade into the deep waters of the Shaw Brothers. Beyond just capsule reviews, our team will also offer thoughts on the curation of the set and bonus features found within. Watch along with us, join us in the comments, or reach out to us on social media (linked below) if you’d like to submit your own contributions!

Featured & Honored Guest: Samm Deighan:

Chang Cheh’s Crippled Avengers is only the third of his many films to feature the Venom Mob, but it remains one of the best. With a grimier edge than the average historical-set Shaw Brothers movie, this was seemingly made for the 42nd Street grindhouse audience. Various revenge plots unfold as a wronged man transforms his son — whose arms have been chopped off — into a lethal kung fu machine. Their quest for vengeance unexpectedly turns into a supercharged power trip, resulting in the crippling and maiming of several other men — who want revenge of their own. In this nihilistic universe, getting your legs cut off or your brains scrambled can become an excuse to train to become a martial arts superhero.

With its incredible choreography, wild plot devices, and colorful moments of gore, Crippled Avengers is the film that made me an avowed fan of kung fu movies. The Venoms’ graceful athleticism and weapons mastery is breathtaking, as is the film’s often intense mean-spiritedness. While this recurs in various ways through the Shaw canon, here no one is safe. The standard plot trope of an innocent martial artist forced to train past a physical limitation to defeat a nefarious villain (or entire group of adversaries) was popularized by films like The One-Armed Swordsman and the various one-armed warrior films to follow, but the trope is carried to a tasteless, yet gleeful conclusion here. It’s an absolutely necessary inclusion in Arrow’s Shaw Brothers box set. — Samm Deighan

Ed Travis:

The Crippled Avengers is a highly dated and insensitive kung fu film that is also very satisfying to watch. I don’t know entirely what to do with that but I can most definitely say that I personally had a blast with the film and simultaneously do not wish for anyone to be hurt by that. The basic premise of this Chang Cheh venom mob installment is that several young men are permanently injured or handicapped in some way, and they’re ultimately trained in the martial arts to overcome their disabilities (all inflicted by a cruel martial arts master and his son, whose arms were severed in his youth and were replaced by futuristic metal hands of death, the technology of which we still haven’t achieved even today) and avenge themselves. Barring the dated and offensive depictions of amputees and people with mental handicaps, the basic premise is incredibly similar to countless Shaw Brothers titles. A villain knocks our heroes down, they train relentlessly, and they get their comeuppance through the glory of discipline and the martial arts (and a little teamwork).

It’s worth digging a little deeper into this concept of a hero with some kind of disadvantage in one area becoming a master in another area. Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman, for instance, is one of my favorite characters in all of cinema and starred in some 20+ films. Zatoichi is much like our blinded hero here in Crippled Avengers. He develops his other senses and becomes almost a superior physical force because of his heightened other senses. This trope has of course continued in popularity with Marvel’s Daredevil, among other examples. Cinema is often obsessed with not only physical and mental differences in characters, but also such ideas as cyborgs and altering the human body to “improve” upon it. Heroes and villains found in Crippled Avengers lose limbs and replace them with more high tech and deadly ones. None of it is sensitive or given a moments thought in terms of how a person with differing abilities might perceive these things, but Crippled Avengers bears more resemblance to a modern superhero sci-fi film than anything with an ounce of nuance. Where the Five Deadly Venoms all obtained super powers through secretive mystical training, our Crippled Avengers overcome adversity and become stronger than their enemies through teamwork and reliance upon family. And honestly, this is why Crippled Avengers is easily my favorite venom mob title I’ve yet explored. — Ed Travis

Justin Harlan

As entertaining as it is offensive, the basic premise of 1978’s Venom Mob follow up to the classic Five VenomsCrippled Avengers – is something that could never be made today. While not made with any malicious intent, to call it politically incorrect and ableist would be one of the greatest understatements in cinematic history. The character of Yuan Yi – aka “The Fool” – alone is reason enough to make this film worthy of the label “problematic”… but it’s hard to deny how entertaining this one is from start to finish.

The fight choreography and storytelling are top notch, something those of us in the know have come to expect of Chang Cheh’s films. In fact, one could argue that there are multiple fight sequences that outshine anything in Venoms and that the film is about as strong and compelling a narrative take as you’ll find in the Shaw collection.

Putting aside the problematic nature of the characters with disabilities and the portrayals of these characters, the film is a standard tale of vengeance and heroes overcoming the big bad. The fact that they must overcome their specific disabilities and work as a team strengthens the film’s themes of teamwork, overcoming the odds, and never giving up. While the portrayal of the aforementioned fool/idiot character is notably inappropriate for today’s age and clearly is an example of 70s/80s art that hasn’t aged well, the other characters feel less egregiously offensive and could probably translate in some form to the present.

Nonetheless, if we can look past some of the film’s poorly aged parts, we’re treated to an extremely entertaining and well crafted Kung-Fu film. It’s not Venoms good in my opinion, but it’s certainly on that next tier… a truly excellent film that looks and sounds amazing on this disc. — Justin Harlan

Brendan Agnew:

Crippled Avengers finds Chang Cheh leaning hard into the same fantastical vein of Kung fu pictures that defined his own The Five Venoms and Five Elements Ninjas, and in that respect, it’s as slickly-paced, well-structured, and kinetically satisfying as either of those. However, Avengers also showcases the inescapable ableism of “stuff that was made 50 years ago.” The principal heroes are all struggling with a physical or cognitive disability inflicted by Chu Twin, the “Black Tiger” (played with obvious and delightful relish by The Boxer From Shantung‘s Chen Kuan-tai), and the means by which they overcome these barriers to their revenge is both visually creative and dramatically satisfying.

Unfortunately, the rather erratic tone also means that a lot of these disabilities are played for laughs, especially Wang Yi’s tragic brain damage that turns him almost into a cartoon. Chiang Sheng deserves all the credit for his physical performance (as does everyone, really), but…”it was a different time*” and all that. If that’s not a deal-breaker, Crippled Avengers features some of the most creative and physically impressive (and demanding – holy SHIT, that’s a lot of flips) action sequences and deliciously nasty villains of this entire boxed set.

(*Not an excuse, obviously.) — Brendan Agnew

Dan Tabor:

Crippled Avengers (1978), not to be confused with the pure exploitation insanity that is 1979’s Crippled Masters, has Chang Cheh making a pulpy beat’em up/body horror hybrid that would never be greenlit today due to its completely unpolitically correct views on disabilities and those who have them. The film is the story of the once great and good kung-fu master Chu Twin, who after a rival clan kills his wife and “cripples” his son, by chopping off his arms — is “mentally crippled” and becomes a warlord obsessed with disfiguring those who cross him. Of course because this is a Shaw Brothers film, a group of men that have all been his victims over the years band together, becoming kung-fu experts taking on the man who disfigured them in cruel and grotesque ways. Strangely the film has a very inspirational subtext of overcoming your disability as each fighter must learn to compensate and overcome their particular handicap to get their vengeance.

Given the surreal concept, this film leans more into the fantastic than previous films on the set. The fights definitely latch into this aesthetic as well. The choreography is awe inspiring with lots of long takes that highlight feats of acrobatics over the brutality. These matches are ambitiously complex and feel like they were rehearsed to perfection as each fighter has their own specialized flavor of kung-fu given their injury and is put in various disadvantages to up the stakes; because bad guys always play dirty. While Crippled Avengers is a rock solid entry and worth a watch for some of the two fisted tussles alone, it’s not quite on the same level of some of the other entries here. — Dan Tabor

Austin Vashaw:

Despite owning the DVD, this is a first time watch for me — I know it’s critical Shaw Bros but have always been a bit apprehensive to check it out.

And yet, of all the films I’ve caught in this cycle so far, this may actually be my favorite first time watch. It’s less offensive than I’d feared (though there’s certainly some “incorrectness” at play, most wincingly with the member of the crew whose disability is mental rather than physical). But the core revenge tale of a group of individuals maimed and harmed by a common enemy is definitely compelling, and the villains have some meaningful motivation, initially coming from a place of victimization and even righteousness.

The pros definitely outweigh the cons here. Charming protagonists, awesome baddies, outrageous (and honestly kind of hilarious) violence, cool gimmick weapons (iron fists and legs), amazing fight and training sequences, including some playful Jackie Chan-esque bits, and a drum-battle concept cribbed from Zatoichi. It’s great!

And We’re Out.

Shawscope Volume 1 is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video

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