For a good chunk of “Five Deadly Venoms,” it’s more John Grisham than Jackie Chan. There’s a long stretch in the middle that’s actually a legal thriller involving witness intimidation, false testimony, corrupt judges, phony confessions and finally the execution of an innocent man. It’s kind of like “A Few Good Men,” but if Tom Cruise got a needle pushed through his brain at the end.
But the movie’s not really a courtroom drama. The master of the Poison Clan is at the end of his life, and he feels pretty bad about teaching guys how to disembowel somebody with their fingers. He tells his last student, a kid by the name of Yang, to go out and find his five star pupils – Centipede, Snake, Scorpion, Lizard and Toad. If any of them turned out to be evil, the old master says, Yang should kill them. But, because they all wore masks that made them look like they were posing for the cover of Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker,” no one knows who they are.
All the old man knows is that one of his former students is a rich man who lives in the city who buried all his money. The old man wants Yang to convince the guy to give all his money to charity to atone for whatever evil the Poison Clan has done. As it turns out, Centipede and Snake are thieves and murderers, Lizard and Toad are on the side of law and order, and Scorpion is the wild card working for himself. Everyone is trying to find the location of the rich man’s treasure.
Centipede and Snake kill an old scholar who they believe has the map, and they bully the only witness into fingering Toad as the murderer. Yang teams up with Lizard to clear Toad’s name and defeat the evil clan members. Unfortunately, the interference of Scorpion results in Toad’s death.
“Five Deadly Venoms” was directed by Cheh Chang, a prolific director who also made “Five Element Ninjas,” “Crippled Avengers” and nearly 100 other movies. He is believed to have directed portions of “The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires,” the famous horror/martial arts mash-up created by Hammer and Shaw Brothers that featured Peter Cushing chasing Dracula to China.
The action is crisp and lively. The actors leap over each other, cling to walls and rip off rapid-fire punches, all with physicality that puts most modern action movies to shame. It’s really something to watch something and ask, “How did they do that?” without knowing the answer is, “Computers.” The fights are so tightly choreographed and stagey that there’s no mistaking them for actual mortal combat (or kombat, as the case may be). But you’re not watching these movies for realism, I hope.
“Five Deadly Venoms” also strikes a nice balance between story and action, never allowing one to overwhelm the other. The plot is just the bare minimum, but its detour into legal drama territory makes it feel fresher. Other elements are more predictable. For example – if your friend insists on accompanying you to the final duel with your enemies, but all he does is hang back and look shady, don’t be too shocked when he stabs you in the back. Especially when he shows up for the fight dressed like General Zod. Here’s how “Five Deadly Venoms” rates on the Schlock Index:
Blood – There’s little actual blood-letting in the movie, but we are treated to some unusual kills. In addition to the usual kung-fu action, we get to see a needle to the brain, a hook to the inside of the throat, a round in the iron maiden and the only instance I have ever seen of death by papier-mâché. 4/5
Breasts – I don’t recall ever even seeing a woman in the film at all, so this is a pretty chaste affair. There are a lot of shirtless men in excellent physical condition, however, as is usually the case in kung-fu movies. 1/5
Beasts – No monsters, just a whole lot of kicking and flipping. 0/5