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Crashing the party
By Patrick Macias

AS FAR BACK as 1967, director Chang Cheh saw that the future of combat would be unarmed. Literally. His formula for the landmark production One-Armed Swordsman went like this: physically debilitate your hero, humiliate him until he goes berserk, and frame the resulting bloodshed as justice-is-served revenge. In 1978, Chang delivered his best-known film, The Five Deadly Venoms, which established a new grotesque comic book tone for Chang and introduced the Venoms, a team of stalwart young men more athlete than actor. Later that year, the Venoms reunited to feign various disfigurements in Return of the Five Deadly Venoms (Thurs/11, Four Star), a.k.a. Crippled Avengers, the graduate thesis of the heroes-with-disabilities bloodshed film. When Chen Kuan-tai's wife is killed by rogues and his son is left armless, he nurses the child by giving him a pair of metal claws that can shoot darts and extend at the wrists. The whole experience unglues both parent and child, who rove through the period sets of the Shaw Brothers' "Movietown" studio maiming anyone who mildly offends them: Philip Kwok (who played one-eyed "Mad Dog" in John Woo's Hard-Boiled) is blinded, muscular Lo Mang is made a deaf-mute, Sun Chien has his legs chopped off, and chivalrous Chiang Sheng (known to his fans as "cutey-pie") is permanently brain-damaged. Traveling on a pathetic one-wheel pushcart, the gang meets Chiang's old master, who spends three years (15 minutes in Cheh time) teaching each of them special karate skills befitting his particular disability. As the climax nears – and the avengers enact their master plan: to spoil their mutilator's birthday party – the fighting becomes eye-poppingly incredible. The Busby Berkeley-like compositions multiply, and an acrobatic scuffle built around a set of hula hoop rings becomes a career highlight for both Chang and the Venoms. All the while, the blind Kwok tightly clutches the hand of deaf-mute Mang, affirming the burning passions barely contained under the surface. It's a mythic, multigenerational tale of good fathers and bad fathers that suggests that revenge has a funny way of generating more bloodshed than it resolves. As the old master puts it best, although his phrasing isn't so hot, thanks to the I.Q.-challenged English dubbing, "Crippling can be remedied. But not mental crippling though."

Patrick Macias is the author of TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion.