At the turn of the 20th century, China is in chaos as foreign imperialists move in and divide the country into neat little pieces to exploit. This leads to the rise of quasi-religious societies/cult militias made up of Chinese “Boxers,” warriors bent on expelling all foreign influences in the country. Many of these boxers believed they held magical powers over weapons, including invincibility to the gun. One such society is the Yi Ho Boxer Society, whose own spirit warrior, Lei Gung (Lau Kar-leung), has left them.
Sent to the Yunan province to recruit and train more boxers for the uprising, Lei Gung instead saw the futility of using martial arts to combat Western troops. As a result, the Yi Ho Society wants him eliminated before he can spread his “blasphemy”. Magic warriors Ti-hau (Hsiao Hou) and Shao-ching (Kara Hui) and spiritual boxer Ti-tan (Gordan Lau) are sent to track down and kill Lei Gung, who has since abandoned the world of martial arts and now lives a simple life as a woodcutter named Yu. But all that’s about to change as the assassins rapidly close in on him.
When it comes to the global reputation of the kung fu movies churned out by the Shaw Brothers, two directors are most responsible. One is Chang Cheh, the man who gave the world the borderline-fantasies “Five Deadly Venoms,” “Crippled Heroes (Mortal Combat),” “Spearmen of Death,” “(Chinese) Super Ninjas,” and “Kid With the Golden Arms.” The other man is Lau Kar-leung, a real martial artist who was once the action choreographer on Chang Cheh’s movies. While Cheh’s movies were usually about guys who used kung-fu to improve their own lives, Lau Kar-leung, a man whose training lineage goes all the way back to the Shaolin temple, was more concerned about the place martial arts held in Chinese history.
The great thing about “Legendary Weapons” is that it starts off like a comic book but doesn’t stay that way. Early fight scenes involve characters that incorporate sleight-of-hand magic, secret weapons (smoke bombs, darts and throwing stars) and Zen-like chants/hexes with kung fu to trick their adversaries and work themselves up. Ironically for a Hong Kong movie, this is likely the closest anyone’s ever come to depicting the aura of historical ninjitsu on film without throwing in blatant supernatural elements. But the pretense of these tricks taking the place of genuine combat is revealed to be just another illusion, something that many of the characters themselves come to learn. So with each succeeding fight, the tricks become less prominent and the fights are more straightforward and “real.”
What this means for the viewer is a series of terrifically choreographed fights that change in tone as the story progresses before culminating in a duel to the death featuring the 18 legendary kung-fu weapons of China, which plays out like a “Soul Calibur” jam session. Among the highlights is a one-on-one scuffle in the cramped attic crawlspace above an inn where fighters trade punches, kicks and darts without ever standing up. There’s an exchange of swords where one guy hangs from a ceiling in an upside-down split while his opponent hangs by the arms and fights with swords attached to his legs. And don’t forget a four-way free-for-all where everyone throws in their secret weapons and techniques.
Unfortunately for everything the movie gets right, there are a few goofy points that don’t work. The “mystery” of Lei Gung’s secret identity is obvious and not much of a secret at all. Neither is the identity of the fourth assassin sent to kill him. When Shao-ching shows up on Lei Gung’s trail, she’s dressed up in typical Chinese male reverse-drag and everyone seems to fall for it, including other magic fighters/spiritual boxers, though you’d think these guys more than anyone else would be used to looking through disguises. The movie also sees fit to drop in a fake Lei Gung who is used by the Yi Ho Society agents to draw out the real one. Played by old-school Shaw Brothers star Fu Sheng, the double is an annoying comic relief player prone to making funny faces and overacting. Lau Kar-leung may be a great action director, but his tastes in comedy are way off. And don’t even get me started on the voodoo/mind control nonsense that pops up every now and then.
“Legendary Weapons of China” would prove to be one of the last old-school kung-fu movies by the Shaw Brothers. The timing worked for and against the movie, since by then audiences had seen untold numbers of kung-fu movies, many of which blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. “Legendary Weapons’” storyline was about stripping away the bogus mysticism that by then had become an integral part of many kung-fu movies. However, coming at the end of the cycle, it had to compete with the likes of Jet Li’s “Shaolin Temple” and Jackie Chan’s “Dragon Lord” and “Project A.” These movies were decidedly different from what audiences were used to and changed how kung-fu movies were presented.
The bad timing also meant that star Hsiao Hou would never became the superstar he clearly could have been. Although he did appear in a few Sammo Hung movies throughout the 80′s, before coming out of left-field as the evil double-fisted swordsman in “Iron Monkey.” Watching Hou in “Legendary Weapons”, as well as other Lau Kar-leung movies like “Mad Monkey Kung Fu” and “Disciples of the (36th Chamber/Master Killer),” it’s incredible how spry and athletic he was, if not a little on the short side. It’s a shame that the kind of movies in which he was so good in would soon be phased out.
Chia-Liang Liu (director) / E. Charles McBroom (screenplay)
CAST: Sheng Fu …. Wu
Hou Hsiao …. Tieh Hon
Kara Hui …. Fang Shao-Ching
Chia Hui Liu …. Ti Tan
Chia-Liang Liu …. Lei Kung
Chia Yung Liu …. Lei Ying