Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Leg Fighters (1980) review


Tan Tao Liang (Tan Hai Chieh), Hsia Kwan Li (Phoenix Ho), Peng Kang (Peng Fei/Peng Pa), Sun Jung Chi (Master Mo Ku Feng), Chin Lung (Chin Fa), Wang Hsieh (Phoenix's Father), Tsai Hung (Divine Fist Master Niu)

Directed by Lee Tso Nam

The Short Version: Tan's kicks are about all that's worth watching in THE LEG FIGHTERS, a middle-of-the-road indy Kung Fu picture from one of the independent circuits best directors, Lee Tso Nam. In keeping with trends at the time, Lee's movie throws away its potential for being a top-class kick flick for the sake of unfunny comedy; the sort that exploded in popularity in 1978 thanks to Jackie Chan and the hundreds of Rib-tickle Fu movies that imitated him. It's neither Tan's nor director Lee's best work, but KF fans will especially want it in their collection since it's been restored on blu-ray by genuine fans of the genre.

Northern Kick King Tan Hai Chieh is challenged by Peng Fei of the Foot of Earth school to see who has the best kicking technique. Tan wins the fight, but Peng tries to kill him in a sneak attack with a hidden knife. Tan is forced to kill Peng; this leads his brother, the far better skilled Peng Pa, to seek revenge. Meanwhile, Tan is entrusted to teach a feisty young lady of the Mo Family Kicking style while her elder master is away taking care of his wife. Peng Pa traces Tan to the Mo estate, leaving a trail of bodies along the way.

After years of heroic swordplay and historic fist and kick bloodshedders, Yuen Woo Ping and Jackie Chan changed the look of the Kung Fu landscape with 1978s influential comedy SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW. Between 1978 and 1981, most genre fare veered away from the downbeat and gloomy atmosphere of the more expensive and mannered Shaw Brothers style once producers saw the box office numbers of the low budget JC flick.

Ironically, it was in a Shaw Brothers production where Comedy Kung Fu first left its mark in Liu Chia Liang's directing debut THE SPIRITUAL BOXER (1975). Bloodshed master Chang Cheh took it even further with a failed attempt at Kung Fu slapstick in the star-studded dud THE MAGNIFICENT WANDERERS (1977).

However, it was the Jackie Chan cheapie from Seasonal Films where the formula took off--resulting in dozens upon dozens of imitations--many of which were good, but also many that were not. THE LEG FIGHTERS falls somewhere in the middle. The KF comedy is simplicity in nature, with little variance in the template established by Chan's SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW and the even bigger success of Chan's followup, DRUNKEN MASTER (1978). For KF comedies, virtually the entire enterprise could be filmed out in a field somewhere with the barest minimum of sets. With minor deviation, many of them go like this:

KF comedies often begin with a mid-level good guy being challenged and easily killed by the main villain--who all but disappears till the last 30 minutes. We're then introduced to the naive, foolish, and young, soon-to-be Kung Fu master. For approximately 30-40 minutes, a variety of comical scenarios unfold with little to nothing to do with the actual plot. At approximately an hour in, the main villain surfaces again and does something drastic to make the young hero get serious about training to defeat him. Sets are limited, always featuring one or two outdoor KF school sets and a restaurant. The old master almost always lives in a hut out in a field somewhere; generally the location of all the major fight sequences.

THE LEG FIGHTERS (1980) is one of countless others to follow this blueprint; although Chang Hsin Yi's script does play around with the formula--the biggest difference being it's the younger master who is ultimately tasked with training the younger student instead of the elder teacher. In this case, the hero Tan Tao Liang already knows Kung Fu so the learner is Hsia Kwan Li's Phoenix character. Sadly, Tan disappears for a chunk of the movie's running time leaving you with the annoying high-jinks of lady Hsia and the indy KF village idiot character played by Chin Lung. As often is the case in the indy Fu movies, and as described above, things finally take a serious turn in the last 30 minutes. 

At the time, Chinese audiences didn't mind as seeing a comical scenario was like a breath of fresh air after years of serious stories of undaunted, blood-soaked heroism. Still, with a title that promises kicking techniques, you have to wait till the major showcase in the last 30 minutes to appreciate the actors displaying them in a serious fashion before the camera. 

Lee Tso Nam is among the best of the indy filmmakers with some of the genres memorable titles adorning his resume. 1976s THE HOT, THE COOL, AND THE VICIOUS is possibly Tan Tao Liang's best work; while SHAOLIN VS. LAMA (1983) has one of the genres finest final fights; and LIFE OF A NINJA (1983) is a top tier actioner in the Chinese-made, ninja subgenre that seemed to have been inspired more by Chang Cheh's wild, gore-soaked FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982) than Cannon's ENTER THE NINJA (1981).

Korean born Tan Tao Liang became a famous TKD instructor, displaying his skills in a few dozen motion pictures for approximately a decade between 1975-1985. His kicking skills are as unique as fellow kicker colleagues like John Liu and Hwang Jang Lee. Tan's feet maneuver in specific patterns that quickly fluctuate between mid and high-levels that are dazzling to watch. Some of Tan's prime kick flicks include THE HOT, THE COOL, AND THE VICIOUS (1976), the 3D Kung Fu of DYNASTY (1977), SHOWDOWN AT THE COTTON MILL (where he played the main villain), BLOODY TREASURY FIGHT (1979), and THE HEROES (1980). 

Lee's movie might not be the last word on Kung Foot flicks, but in this reviewers eyes, the ultimate old-school 'Leg Fighter' movie would star Tan, Liu, Hwang, and Korean kicking sensation, Kwan Young Moon going at it literally toe to toe. 

Sun Jung Chi (above at left) as Master Mo is a welcome cast addition. He was a young guy occasionally playing elder Kung Fu teacher characters. When Yuen Siu Tien passed away (the Yuen Clan patriarch and father of Yuen Woo Ping) in January of 1979, Sun was among the class that assumed the wig and facial hair pieces of the old Kung Fu Master in a handful of films like 1980s MONKEY FIST, FLOATING SNAKE (aka MONKEY KUNG FU) and the superb SHAOLIN VS. LAMA in 1983. Aside from his acting role, this was one of his action director credits, sharing the work load with Peng Kang (above at right; who plays lead antagonist Peng Pa and his brother Peng Fei) and Wang Yao (see insert at left in red; who plays Ding Dong, one half of an annoying duo of comedic wrongdoers).

Another welcome addition is a guest appearance by one of the genres busiest actors and greatest villains, Tsai Hung. His participation gives the audience a nicely choreographed fight that bridges the monotonous comedic elements of the first hour with the change in tone when Peng Kang's lead antagonist re-enters the picture. Tsai Hung is likely best remembered for his appearances in Chang Cheh's Shaolin series entries including FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS (1974) as Flying Axe Pao; and the Qigong expert Feng Dao De in SHAOLIN AVENGERS (1976). As good as he was playing a bad guy, Tsai was just as memorable playing characters on the right side of the law; one of the best examples as David Chiang's cellmate in THE CONDEMNED, directed by David Chiang. 

As the premiere title of the Pearl River collection, THE LEG FIGHTERS isn't that strong of a title to launch a Kung Fu movie line with. It's a recognizable title, though, previously on VHS through Ocean Shores and later on DVD using that same OS tape source for their DVD release. The interesting Bruce Li feature, DYNAMO (1978) is also available, with the much better DUEL OF THE 7 TIGERS (1979) soon to come. Others this author would like to see surface on this label are SHAOLIN KING BOXER (1979), THE REBELLIOUS REIGN (1980), THE THUNDERING MANTIS (1980), THE HEROES (1980), THE COUNTRY OF BEAUTIES (1981), SHAOLIN VS. LAMA (1983), and LIFE OF A NINJA (1983).

THE LEG FIGHTERS (1980) isn't indicative of Lee Tso Nam's best work. These LEGS are weak in the knees compared to something like Lee's THE HOT, THE COOL, AND THE VICIOUS (also starring Tan Tao Liang). It does, however, look great in widescreen compared to its prior fullscreen presentations; where the proper framing allows viewers to fully appreciate the action. Tan fans and indy enthusiasts will get the biggest kick out of these LEG FIGHTERS. 

This review is representative of the Pearl River Blu-ray/DVD combo (Blu-ray screen-caps). Specs and extras: new 2K restoration from the original Chinese 35mm print in 1080p 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; Chinese language w/burned in English subtitles; English dubbed version; introduction by Michael Worth; audio commentary by Michael Worth; interview with director Lee Tso Nam; Dan Halsted's Portland Kung Fu Night; photo gallery; trailer for THE HOT, THE COOL, AND THE VICIOUS; running time: 01:30:55

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