The Magnificent Ruffians (1979)
Director: Chang Cheh
Writers: Ni Kuang and Chang Cheh
Starring: Lu Feng, Lo meng, Chiang Sheng, Sun Chien and Philip Kwok

The Plot: Mr. Yuan (Lu Feng) is a businessman from a very successful family, but he desperately holds onto his family’s legendary tales of martial prowess. The Golden Sword is a sword made famous by the Yuan family before the Qing dynasty, and it is now in possession of this youngest Yuan heir apparent. With his absurd wealth, he has taken advantage of the tough times that have befallen his province. He regularly contacts any and all local martial artists that enter his province, so that he may challenge them for his own personal amusement. Being the cruel dictator that he is, he of course kills them all. The Guan family owns a Wu Wei Security Service that has unfortunately fallen upon bad times due to the changing world around them. The youngest Guan family member Ah Yun (Lo Meng), who has inherited the firm, is a stubborn young man. When Yuan decides that he wants to buy Ah Yun Guan’s security business, in order to acquire the property because of its fantastic location between two other properties that Yuan already owns, trouble begins to brew. At a local restaurant nearby, Feng Jia ji (Sun Chien) Zeng, and He Fei (Chiang Sheng) rest and relax while eating noodles. They are very poor and unable to pay for their meals, so they leave Feng Jia Ji behind in order to receive a beating by the cooks. Yang Zhua Feng (Phillip Kwok) is another down on his luck martial artist who steps up in order to save Feng Jia Ji. All martial artists refuse to take a free meal, however, and usually accept their beatings if it proves to be reasonable. When He Fei, Feng Jia Ji and Zeng all stumble upon a restaurant that refuses to beat them, they are intrigued. it seems that the restaurant is owned by Yuan, and he uses it as a tool for finding local martial artists. As the film boils to a pitch, it is only a matter of time before the Guan family and these starving martial artists meet up with Yuan in a battle of good vs. evil.

The Review
You will have a hard time finding a more ardent defender of the Venom Clan than myself. For those of you unaware, the venom clan/venom mob were a troupe of martial arts actors who became famous under the tutelage of Chang Cheh after their starring role in the martial arts classic Five Deadly Venoms. There are generally two schools of thought when it comes to Chang Cheh and his venoms: There are those who enjoy Chang Cheh’s more serious work, and those who appreciate the silliness of this Venoms-era. While I can appreciate both time periods from Chang Cheh’s vast catalog, I must confess that I am a Venoms man through and through. The work was simply more fun than anything else Kung Fu cinema had seen up until this point, and I have been drawn to it ever since first watching Five Deadly Venoms. The Magnificent Ruffians is a large ensemble piece featuring all of the Venoms (aside from Wei Pai), but unlike some other pieces of Cheh’s filmography, this one manages to nail the narrative requirements of the genre as well as the action. Featuring a huge cast, amazing choreography, brilliant sets and a story that is at times even emotional, this is a classic of the Venom teamups.

The plot is actually very well handled. Normally with these large ensemble films, Ni Kuang and Chang Cheh lose themselves in the midst of their story. These two seemed to love layering their films with intrigue, but the price of doing this without the proper preparation was simply a cluster of ideas that never fully developed. While The Magnificent Ruffians may have occasional slips in logic, this time out the movie absorbs its audience into the plot. By pitting class structures against one another, Cheh and Kuang enter into a certain level of subtext that their films normally did not have. Essentially the film seems to pit the poor against the rich, and we see a bit of class warfare enter into the realm of the literal. Lu Feng’s character is the aristocratic child born into money, and he quite literally plays with the life and death of laborers for his own amusement. How much of this was intended to reflect current day China or Hong Kong, I am not sure. The movie definitely does a solid job of experimenting with these ideas, but I do get the feeling that it is essentially speaking more in terms of general ideas than directly speaking of any one particular society.

What makes these films what they are has to be the Venom clan itself. I often speak about this in reviews for these movies, but it is hard not to acknowledge their efforts when writing at length about these movies. Each member always served their individual purposes, but they each brought something new and unique to every role that they took. Within The Magnificent Ruffians, each member has their time in the spotlight. Each member does get to show off in the areas for which they are best known, but I think that each member is also allowed to stretch out and invent a different character than what audiences might at first expect. For instance, this is yet another film where Chiang Sheng is acrobatic, Lu Feng is the Villain, Sun Chien plays a expert kicker and Phillip Kwok is the consumate “good guy,” but it is the playful differences that makes things interesting. Chiang Sheng gets to try out his comedic abilities yet again, but this time out he shows off a slightly more reserved approach that still allows him to play a very heroic individual. Sun Chien is given a larger role than what he is normally afforded, and he does a swell job at making the most of the situation. Lo Meng, who isn’t so easy to throw into a archetype, really gets to show off his charisma in the movie. A varitable loose cannon, his facial features and wild-eyed attitude is part of what makes him so special. Lu Feng is the one actor who seems to be the most typecast in his role, but even as the evil villain he manages to show off more dialogue than I am accustomed to seeing from his roles.

The fight choreography is everything that you expect from this troupe. Each member does bring their own specialty to their roles, and the climactic finale is as amazing as one would hope for. Lu Feng steps up to the plate as a indestructible villain, and he brings the role to life with gusto. As the characters struggle to find a way to defeat him, the film enters into one of the best training sequences that I have seen in quite a while. This training sequence is established when our lead characters discover only the names of Lu Feng’s destructive finishing moves. Having seen him use two out of his seven potential deadly moves, the group must then put a name on the two moves that they are familiar with. It is one of the only times I have seen genuine game planning before a battle within a Kung Fu flick. They track down Yuan’s moves, learn them and work on the counterattacks that will be effective against this. We watch as our leads essentially shadowbox against a invisible opponent, but this is represented by Lu Feng’s near-invisible-self being displayed on the screen. This sort of preparation is often glanced over in movies such as this, where it would seem to be more effective if the filmmakers reserved showing off the counterattacks until the final minutes of the picture. Yet, it works both dramatically and realistically for The Magnificent Ruffians.

The Conclusion
Normally Chang Cheh is well known for his use of gimmickry plot developments when he worked with the Venom Clan, but The Magnificent Ruffians doesn’t really showcase any of that. Aside from perhaps looking at these “poor” characters as replacements for the poison clan, this is a much more general martial arts film than some might expect. This is perhaps what makes it so special. I inevitably must give the film a four out of five. It came relatively close to achieving a full five out of five, but it lacks in some of the magic that would push this one out of the stratosphere. Still, it is a very entertaining film and could potentially make it into the top five teamups that the Venoms ever had.

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