Five Tough Guys (aka Kung Fu Hellcats, 1974) Movie Review

“Five Tough Guys” is a new release of the 1974 Shaw Brothers film directed by Pao Hsueh-li, best known for his work on “The Water Margin” and “Boxer from Shantung”, both of which he co-directed with the legendary Chang Cheh (“The Five Venoms”). “Five Tough Guys” is one of the studio’s rare efforts, taking place in modern times, though quite obviously using the same old sets which will be instantly recognisable to fans of the studio.

The plot follows the titular gang of misfits, gathered together by Chen Kuan Tai (a real life martial arts champion who starred in many films for the studio) in order to protect a patriotic general from a scheming usurper. To this end, the unlikely heroes act as the general’s escorts on a dangerous journey to a distant British consulate, beset by enemies and sinister Japanese interference along the way.

Although the film is fairly short, the story does feel stretched a little thin, mainly as the espionage is largely confined to the first few scenes, with the rest of the running time being occupied by extended brawling. Similarly, the plot progression is often a little hazy, with characters and their enemies conveniently ending up in the same time at the same place, despite the fact that they are supposed to be engaged in a cross country chase. Although this is a fairly minor criticism for a film whose purpose is to entertain through martial arts action, it does drag things down somewhat, and prevents it from being truly gripping. This is a real shame, as the story is genuinely interesting, and certainly has the potential to make for a more epic, inspiring tale of heroism.

The five tough guys themselves are not particularly well drawn characters, which is a little strange for a film which at times seems to be styling itself as a gimmicky “Five Venoms” type piece and which features such a wealth of martial arts talent. In fact, the only one who really stands out is the fat guy, whose constant demands that the operation be a good advertisement for his ‘security company’ are very funny. Beyond this, the tough guys are little more than the usual righteous fighters, and though their cause is just and they have the requisite dastardly villains to battle, the viewer never becomes emotionally involved in their struggle.

Of course, the film’s main concern is its action, and on this level it certainly delivers some great fight scenes. Though Pao Hsueh-li’s direction is quite basic and the choreography is above average, with some clever editing adding extra impact and giving the film a more realistic feel. The final scene, in which the gang take on a huge, bestial Japanese brute is particularly exciting and makes for rousing viewing. Chen Kuan Tai is on good form in one of his early films, and shows some of the skills which would make him one of the studio’s most enduring stars.

Overall, “Five Tough Guys” is an enjoyable, though not hugely memorable Shaw Brothers release. Despite boasting some impressive melees, and largely managing to tick all the boxes on the martial arts film checklist, it remains a fairly generic effort, and one which is most likely to appeal only to fans of the studio’s output.

Hsueh Li Pao (director)
CAST: Hong-Yip Cheng, Kuan Tai Chen, Feng Ku, Chen Tien Loong

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