I don’t want to talk over anyone’s head here, I’m just assuming everyone reading knows who Chang Cheh is so if you’re unfamiliar with the man’s work I’ll just say that for the old school martial arts movie – he’s one of the most important names out there. He directed a lot of seminal movies and had such an outrageous output that it would really take some serious devotion to go through his entire catalog. The movie he’ll likely be best remembered for would be The Five Deadly Venoms, a real classic of the genre and what many would argue as being the perfect blend of storytelling and Kung Fu action. Masked Avengers is one of a number of films that feature several of the actors that appeared in Five Deadly Venoms. They’re often reffered to as the Venom Mob, Venom Clan or any handful of other aliases. Anyway, Masked Avengers was one of their final team-ups and certainly has it’s moments of pure brilliance but by and large I don’t think it’s one of their best. There’s certainly worse out there, but Masked Avengers just doesn’t match the fun or excitement of a Chang Cheh outing. With these movies you can usually count on some kind of gimmicky device to push the story, such as characters with Golden Arms or a wandering band of recently Crippled warriors who each have their own technique, but Masked Avengers really doesn’t deliver in that respect. More or less, it’s your average martial arts movies with some artistic flourishes such as the great set decoration or the costume design on the masked killers. The masked killers, one could argue that they take the place of our gimmick this time out but unfortunately these villains are all about equal to one another so there just isn’t that feeling of something unique that could be found in so many of these other movies.
Masked Avengers might be best known as being one of the most violent of Chang Cheh’s films. Cheh was never afraid to show some of the red stuff, certainly in comparison to what was coming out at the time. Masked Avengers sits high up there alongside Chinese Super Ninjas as Chang Cheh’s bloodiest martial art movies. Although I don’t think it quite tops …Ninjas, I do have to say it gets pretty nasty in its violence. The tone for the rest of the film is really set within the first few minutes as we get repeated stabbings of this poor guy who we the audience have not even been introduced to yet. Then, in one of the few moments of gory special FX, he gets a pretty convincing trident impaled in his arm. This is all literally with the first… minute or two? Then, it’s not three or four minutes after that we get blood drinking and arterial spray. If it weren’t for the torso ripping in Chinese Super Ninjas, this would hands down be Cheh’s bloodiest movie that I have seen. With that said, modern fans of Hong Kong cinema, please do take heed of my warning. Like I said, this isn’t really “gory” violence as in Ricky Oh, this is just bloody violence. There’s a difference to be sure.
The masked-killers are definitely an interesting element in the movie. They’re very thinly drawn (What do you want? This is a Kung Fu flick!) and I actually like that. They’re so inconceivably evil and ruthless. A favorite moment of mine popped up right in those introductory moments as the gang interrogates a captured enemy who claims that his brother escaped their clutches. His hope is that this brother will return for vengeance on the masked killers and put a stop to their evil ways. How wrong he is, as our evil captors so love to point out. They reveal the missing brother to be just another victim hanging on their wall waiting to be killed. The reveal isn’t just a simple “look over there at that wall your brother is on!” either. The man is hidden behind a wall on a hanging gurney which flips around like a trap door. Then, of course, our killers proceed to murder one brother in front of the other. It’s almost a kind of shocking little moment as the idea behind it is so brutal and callous. Yet, the way it plays in the movie just seems like an incredibly childish and cocky thing for these murderers to be doing. This probably plays out that way thanks to the terrible English dubbing, but it’s a moment that actually endears me to the movie.
Like most of Chang Cheh’s better work, as crazy as it tends to be there’s still a certain amount of story to go with all of the action. The plot tends to lead the action, instead of the other way around. A route that so many other movies of the type seemed to a take. You could say that the plot here tends to be a bit heavier than what a movie such as this really calls for, and you might be right. Unlike Five Deadly Venoms, Masked Avengers doesn’t have the mystery surrounding its story to really carry it over. Nor the really great gimmicks that keep your interest during the slower portions. The movie tends to drag because of this, especially for the first two thirds, where the plot just sort of meanders a bit around this back and forth questioning over who the three chiefs are. It eats up so much time and even on repeat viewings, I never find myself as absorbed into the story as I have with other Venom films. Still, there are a couple of key ingredients that make it so interesting and the third act is really the best piece of the puzzle to be sure. The final fifteen minutes to Masked Avengers really makes the movie. The fight sequences are remarkable for one thing, the violence is amped up another eleven notches and the set pieces are at the top of Chang Cheh’s career. There’s all this technology that really shouldn’t exist during this time period (like that hidden gurney sequence mentioned above) that comes to focus in the back end of the movie, and I just love that. This strange science fiction element that is added to the mix, right in the midst of all of this martial arts mayhem.