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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Deadly Silver Spear (1977) review


Jimmy Wang Yu (Lung Fei Yung), Hsu Feng (Tung Hsiao Lan), Chen Ti Men (The Old Recluse), Chang Yi (Hsu Erh Lan), Hu Chin (Wealthy Clan Leader), Wu Chia Chi (Chow Hung), Ko Chun Pang (Tung Si Yu), Blackie Ko (Mortuary Fighter, Wu Tan), Blackie Ko (Underwater Fighter, Lee Fung), Wang Kuo Fei (Cave Fighter, Hsao Hung), Hsieh Hsing (3-Section Staff Fighter, Sung), Blackie Ko (Bamboo Forest Fighter)

Directed by Sung Ting-Mei

The Short Version: Jimmy Wang Yu leaps aboard the Wuxia bandwagon--the genre having been reinvigorated by Chu Yuan's KILLER CLANS in 1976--and the style of film he first found his fame in. With the success of his MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1976), the actor appears in yet another clone of that famous Shaw Brothers head-cleaving contraption that made its big screen debut in 1975. One of Hong Kong's examples of colorful, creatively kooky action, Wang Yu's unscrupulous hired assassin wages war with zombies, flying skeletons and killers who fight underwater accompanied by sonar sound effects. Every so often somebody steps in a plot hole, but these are quickly forgotten once the exceptionally edited finale--chock full of traps, double crosses and bloody action--turns up. Dub devotees will get a kick out of Wang Yu uttering lines like, "you shameless bitch!"; and the intermittently maniacal cackling of the white-haired, bi-polar villain.

Spear Master and paid assassin Lung Fei Yung is hired by a wealthy and devious female clan leader for various missions--one of which involves killing three ruthless martial arts masters known as The Devil's Three. Meanwhile, a powerful villain known as The Old Recluse oppresses and tortures a famous weapons-maker and captures his blind daughter; forcing him to build his ultimate weapon, the Death Rings--a devastating mechanical flying guillotine that hasn't been seen in ten years. With this weapon, he can rule the Martial World... although others have their own plans about procuring the spinning wheel of death.

Wuxia cinema has the propensity to be confusing--especially when they're based on novels. THE DEADLY SILVER SPEAR isn't based on a book but it's certainly confusing due mainly to its script that can't make up its mind on certain details. Stripping the narrative to its barest essentials, the storyline is your garden-variety revenge tale--a white-haired villain obsesses over obtaining the Death Ring weapon and Wang Yu's revenge-seeking spear-slinger, goes on a journey to stop him. In between are a bunch of incidental bits and pieces where assorted betrayals and last minute revelations lie in wait to ambush the viewer prior to the frantic, studio-bound finale when the spinning top with teeth shaves both trees and heads with abandon.

In the late 1970s Wuxia movies (swordplay) were in vogue again thanks to the box office success of KILLER CLANS (1976), an ornate rendering of Ku Lung's (Gu Long) classic novel BUTTERFLY AND SWORD (the film's translated Chinese title) directed by Chu Yuan for the Shaw Brothers Studio. Chu quickly followed up that hit with the garish insanity of THE WEB OF DEATH and the moody THE MAGIC BLADE (both 1976)--each film piling on more wacky elements and more cliffhanger moments than any of your finer serials from the 30s and 40s. Swordplay cinema had been in hibernation since the widespread success of Jimmy Wang Yu's Fist and Kick classic THE CHINESE BOXER (1970), and the intricate Kung Fu choreo seen in Chang Cheh's celebrated Shaolin Cycle of movies from the same time period.

Sung Ting-Mei didn't helm a lot of movies; and while this one has more than enough craziness to deter viewers from its inconsistencies (and there's lots of them), director Sung has no particular style to call his own. Nothing in his direction lets him stand out from the dozens of others making thousands of these movies back then. On the bright side, Sung's movie is never boring; and the beautiful, diverse set design is as imaginative as, and crucial to, the sideshow frivolity found in Chen Chu Huang's ailing screenplay. To be a fan of this genre, you often have to be forgiving of certain things; but still..... 

Chen Chu Huang's convoluted script could have easily been less dense; but this is the nature of the independent Kung Fu movie scene. Motivations and actions frequently make no sense--contradicting events that had transpired moments earlier. For example, Wang Yu gets poisoned by this sorcerer who resides in a mortuary; given only two hours to live, this plot point simply disappears immediately thereafter. There are many other examples which are covered below....

An even bigger question mark is how the film unravels its story--opening with Wang Yu's Spearman being hired to kill The Devil's Three, a trio of eccentric, yet powerful fighters. But why? In typically mysterious Wuxia form, a character whose identity we're not supposed to know discusses the importance of their extermination with the duplicitous female who hires Lung Fei Yung (Wang Yu) to do the job for them--"It's just 10 years ago since that big massacre. They wiped out those 8 Kung Fu schools... and killed about a 120 Kung Fu experts". Naturally, this set-up would lead you to believe that Lung being paid to hunt down these three for unspecified reasons was the story. Aside from a vague mention of interfering with "our plans", we never specifically learn why. But a short time later when the real plot is revealed, the why is rendered pointless anyways.... 

While we're on the topic, The Devil's Three, as inconsequential as they prove to be, are an interesting trio. The first, Lee Fung (the first of three roles by Blacky Ko), the submarine swordsman as we'll call him, is supposed to be invincible underwater; yet Lung Fei Yung is able to kill him during a rather silly skirmish below depths. The second is a one-eyed cave-dweller who fights with twin axes. Played by Wang Kuo Fei (an actor who appeared in many of Wang Yu's movies), he also played the unnamed swordsman who attacks Lung at the beginning. The third is Blacky Ko again, this time playing a snake-loving sorcerer who uses all sorts of arcane, low budget trickery and Halloween sound effects to combat Wang Yu to no avail.

Wrapped up within the first 30 minutes, it becomes obvious this narrative ploy was little more than a means to pad out what could, and should, have been a very linear storyline. It's all entertaining nuttiness regardless, just be prepared for one of the typical scripting ambushes where a new tale abruptly takes over for another, never to be heard from again.

This second plot concerns the search for the maker of The Death Ring, a Flying Guillotine knock-off that looks exactly like a spinning top that flies and can sever your head. It is now revealed that it was this weapon--and not The Devil's Three--that not only caused the deadly massacre mentioned at the beginning, but forced the three assassins into retirement. Learning this makes the first plotline obsolete. The man who wants this weapon is a white-haired villain (Chen Ti Men of the same year's RETURN OF THE CHINESE BOXER) who lives in a castle high in the snow-capped mountains. Often yelling his lines and cackling interminably, we never get his name other than The Old Recluse.... unless the dubbed line, "lousy, despicable bastard", counts.

Somewhere within the hallowed halls of Hong Kong's and Taiwan's Wacky Weapons Hall of Fame, there's a place for The Death Ring. Of all the imitations of Shaw Brothers' terrifying cranial-cleaver, The Death Ring is arguably the most ridiculously improbable. Looking like a child's spinning top with a buzzsaw at its center, it's activated by pulling a string and away it goes. But unlike the nearly invincible Guillotine of the Shaw movie--destroyed only by another Guillotine--The Death Ring is rendered useless by a simple piece of cloth tossed into its mechanism!

Wang Yu's mantra, "People don't interest me... gold does" is right out of a European western; a genre which Jimmy Wang Yu and his stone-faced acting style would be right at home. The obvious devotion to samurai cinema of his earlier works is all but non-existent at this point in his career. Much like the stubble-faced gunslingers of the Italian West, his character has no allegiance to anybody, seemingly taking the money so long as, in his own words, the price is right and the targets deserve it; how he knows the people he's hired to eliminate deserve to die is seemingly of little interest since the individuals buying his services constantly double cross him.

This is one of Jimmy Wang Yu's roles where, no matter what happens onscreen, his expression never changes. He's the polar opposite of his energized spear master essayed in the excellent THE DESPERATE CHASE (1971). For THE DEADLY SILVER SPEAR, Wang opts instead to do his best imitation of a brick wall while wandering through the various sets--both interior and exterior--demonstrating Force powers and carrying a retractable spear that is frequently run through the cast members and extras at regular intervals.

Wang Yu's lengthy, expeditious career was slowing down by 1977 (he only had seven movies released that year). The actor looks genuinely tired, with little of the spirited machismo of his earlier works. Wang Yu is simply going through the motions at this point; the colorful sets and the above-mentioned gimmicks are diversions to mask his sedated performance.

Award winning actress Hsu Feng plays Lung Fei Yung's blind girlfriend. Likely her appearance is for marquee value as she isn't in the movie all that much. Her career spanning association with King Hu began with her debut in his DRAGON INN (1967), garnering international fame in A TOUCH OF ZEN (1971), a film that won an award at Cannes in 1975. The movie was not a success in Hong Kong but went on to become one of the most famous examples of Asian cinema. Hsu Feng won a Best Actress award in 1976 for ASSASSIN; although she isn't entirely convincing playing a blind woman. In the 1980s she phased out her acting career and became a film producer.

The other lady in The Deadly Silver Spear's life is the cunning, unnamed (at least in the dubbed print) woman of wealth played by erotica starlet Hu Chin. The typical, calculating female of these movies, Hu Chin ports over her sexually charged demeanor of numerous sex romps to this swordplay actioner. Possibly the film's most intriguing character, we learn little about her aside from the fact she has lots of money, loves men, and takes whatever side is beneficial to her at that moment.

Considering his stature at the time, Chang Yi fares the worst of all the major players. He doesn't get a lot to do and never really comes alive till the end during his excellent duel with Wang Yu. Both men worked together a few times--the best of these being FOUR REAL FRIENDS (1974), aka DRAGON SQUAD. Incidentally, Chang Yi acted as the main villain with a similar Flying Guillotine weapon in a film released the previous year titled SHAOLIN KUNG FU MYSTAGOGUE (1976). He's quite a presence as the main villain in both EAGLE'S CLAW (1977) and THE VICTIM (1980).

The prolific Liu Chia Yung, brother to the famous Liu Chia Liang (Lau Kar Leung), did the action design. The duels aren't among his best work although the battle between Wang Yu and Chang Yi at the end is arguably the best one in the movie--set inside a chamber that's been set aflame via some trap devices. It's the most grounded of the fight sequences whereas the rest are enhanced with gimmicks.... whether they be ninja-like swordsmen hiding under the snow; or the bamboo forest fighter who walks up trees; or the flying skeletons that spit red poison from their bony mouths!

Around the time Liu was working on this movie, he was making his directing debut with HE HAS NOTHING BUT KUNG FU (1977) and co-founding Lau Brothers, a production company with his older brother, the late Liu Chia Liang.

Regarding this version of THE DEADLY SILVER SPEAR, it is complete. Some of the violent bits have been reinstated from a source of lesser quality. Those used to full screen versions of this picture will be in for a treat.

The appeal of Wang Yu's movies has a lot to do with the carnival aura that comes with them. Bizarre characters are commonplace in the genre but some are more colorful than others. THE DEADLY SILVER SPEAR is of that class. Overflowing with eccentricities that sustain an already muddled script, fans (and maybe even some non-fans) will find much to enjoy here. It's not a patch on the actor's Shaw Brothers features, or any of his early directed works, but this SILVER SPEAR is delightfully DEADLY fun.

This review is representative of the Imperial Pictures/KNM Home Entertainment DVD. Specs and Extras: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; German and English dubbed version; photo gallery (German promotion only); running time: 01:25:52


Diane Bombshelter said...

Great review. Thanks!

Unknown said...

I enjoyed I enjoyed many of the Star Theater movies I viewed as a youth in downtown Sacramento Cali. I think the best character to come from this genre is the pei mei style of villain...very intelligent humorous and cleverly thought out.

Unknown said...

Bombshelter, you are truly a fan of Wuxia movies😂

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