Retro Review: ‘Five Deadly Venoms’
A young martial artist is tasked with granting the wish of his dying master and locate his five most prized students who have adopted the fighting styles of five different animals. Thus begins what many argue is the best martial arts film of all time, Five Deadly Venoms. Produced in 1978, the flick is arguably the best to come from Shaw Brothers Studios and their legendary library of kung fu movies.
As mentioned previously the film centers on Yang Tieh a young martial artist who’s master taught the Poison Clan. Each member of this clan was taught in a different style and each donned a mask to conceal their identity. They each mastered a unique animal-inspired style; the Centipede style, the Snake style, the Scorpion style, Lizard style, Toad style. Now they are gone and Yang is the new student who has been trained in a way which dabbled but not mastered each of the five styles. With his master dying, the young pupil must seek out these five masters to truly master the five deadly styles of the Poison Clan. Searching for five unknown martial arts masters is made harder by conspiracy and intrigue which arises from the five being in conflict with each other with a large treasure at the center of it all. The Centipede and the Snake are searching for said treasure and our willing to kill for it. The Snake aids them in framing the Toad, and the Scorpion is playing a game of his own. Alliances, betrayals and of course fast paced action ensues leading to a memorable final battle.
Naturally being a Shaw Brothers product the fighting is the centerpiece of the movie, and in the Five Deadly Venoms the fights are choreographed to perfection. From the very start of the film we see that each of the five styles has it’s own unique focus and methodology. The Toad style focuses on strength, the Lizard focuses on agility and so on. This is all laid out in the first few minutes of the film, in perhaps the movie’s most iconic scene. Director Cheh Chang amplifies these with the energetic camera work and fast pace of the flick. The influence American comics had on Chang are quite obvious throughout.
Strangely the protagonist himself, Yang Tieh is kept in the passive role of an observer as the plot unfolds until the incredible melee at the climax of the flick. This allows the audience to use him as a window into the world of this film as he tries to decipher all that is going on between these five martial arts masters. This is made up for via a rich supporting cast who each not only have their own personalities, energies, and style. Given that the five member of the “Venom Mob” are the ones who continually push the story and action forward, nothing in this film would work if any of the actors portraying them did not live up to expectations.
To say Five Deadly Venoms made an impact is a bit of an understatement. Not only does it still hold a devoted cult following but it has inspired artists from Quentin Tarantino to the Wu Tang Clan, and even a Sprite commercial. Fans of martial arts cinema often hail this movie as being the best flick to come from the producers at Shaw Brothers and possibly the best overall in the genre as a whole. Many of the actors would return for a number of sequels, which while entertaining were not as good as the original masterpiece.