The Deadly Duo (1971)
Director: Chang Cheh
Writers: Ni Kuang
Starring: David Chiang, Ti Lung and Feng Ku

The Plot: The film starts with the Jin rulers (the ancestors of the Manchu, who would dominate China some 500 years later and establish the Qing dynasty), assassinating those who were loyal to the Sung dynasty. Pao Kung Tien (Ti Lung) leads a small revolt against the Jin, and unfortunately they are not very successful. While doing battle he runs into a traitor who has dishonored his people by helping the Jin, and although the two don’t face off here, they are immediately mortal enemies. Pao Kung Tien and his crew regrettably save only one man from a team of nine who were captured by the Jin. This man passes along information on the fighters who help the Jin. Along with these warnings, he provides a map on his back that shows where the great Prince Kang is being hidden! He warns however that few men would be able to cross the bridge that protects the path to these kidnappers. There is only one man who could potentially save the Prince and he is a gentleman known as master Yin: The Shadow. The Shadow is a ruthless and greedy martial artist who is now in trouble with his own clan after the news has got out about his evil deeds. Hsiao Pin-fu (David Chiang) is a martial artist from the same clan as The Shadow and has been sent by their master, in order to put an end to The Shadow’s corrupt ways. When Pao Kung Tien shows up searching for The Shadow, in an attempt to appeal to his better nature so that he can help save the prince, a fight ensues and David Chiang joins up with Pao Kung Tien’s group of soldiers. Now this ragtag group have to somehow find their way into the camp that Prince Kang is being held… and it won’t be easy!

The Review
Although I have covered a lot of martial arts cinema on this website, I usually don’t delve heavily into the legitimate history behind these films. This likely has something to do with me not understanding any of the history itself! Yet, as a viewer, I have found myself studying some of China’s more popular history in order to better understand the context of my favorite martial arts epics. The Deadly Duo is one of Chang Cheh’s more historical pieces of cinema. Granted, all of these films have their own historical context, but The Deadly Duo actually begins with a scroll that lets us know precisely what time and era this film takes place in. According to the introduction, the film is set at the end of the Northern Sung Dynasty after the Jin (eventually the Manchu) have began their takeover of China, marking the start of the Jin Dynasty as well as the rebelling Southern Sung Dynasty. This was a time period of strife and battling between clans, but our film here more than likely takes place in or around 1127AD.
Although I don’t know a great deal about the history involved, it seems like an interesting period for Chinese history. It is a time that pre-shadows the inevitable rise of the Manchu, who would take control of the country and dominate the majority-Han population. Our film focuses on the rebirth of the Sung dynasty, who would then be known thereon as the Southern Sung dynasty. After doing some initial reading, it was difficult to find many references to a Prince Kang from this time period but from the few things I did read I would assume it is safe to say that our story could essentially be a true story. However, knowing Chang Cheh and the martial arts film business within that time period – you can expect a great deal of embellishment on top of the already mythical folk story-esque nature of Chinese history. The characters are grandiose, the good deeds are impossibly kind and the villains are epic in their evil nature. In Chinese storytelling the nature of grudges seem to be capable of lasting for centuries. The Jin/Manchu/Ching have a long history in martial arts cinema as the pre-requisite bad guys within the genre. That animosity towards the Manchu was certainly palpable throughout the seventies, where the Manchu rivaled the villainy of Russians in American cinema during the Cold War!

A Chang Cheh film wouldn’t really be a Chang Cheh title if there wasn’t some kind of silliness at foot however, and although this is a martial arts film in the guise of history, there is plenty of zany activity here to keep the audience entertained. I think for fans of martial arts cinema, this should hold some interest due to the similarities between a select group of villains in this film and those of Cheh’s later film: Chinese Super Ninjas. Similar to that film, we’re given a group of killers out to stop our protagonists, and they have some very unique powers. We have Mole Man, who can dig through the ground. Tree Man, who hides out in trees. We have Fire Man, who uses explosives that erupt in flames. We have Water Man who assassinates enemies by hiding under their boats and then we have Gold Man.. who I don’t recall ever seeing any super powers from. I’m just being honest here! Anyway, the Mole Man and Water Man here are the most reminiscent of Cheh’s Ninja classic and should capture the imagination of fanboys looking for some of that Five Element magic.

Continuing on with the theatrics, David Chiang’s character has some rather supernatural abilities here as well. A fighter who uses a technique so faint that he has all but mastered the art of weightlessness, he factors heavily into the plot as the only good soul capable of attempting to cross the deadly bridge that leads to Prince Kang’s holding place. It’s unfortunate that he doesn’t get to put this masterful style to good use often, but Chiang does manage to evade attacks by literally floating in mid-air. The style is similar to the mythical depiction of Wing Chun in the Gordon Liu vehicle Fists of the White Lotus, where we saw Lo Lieh use the air from Liu’s punches to quite literally blow him out of the way in order to evade punches. Although one wishes that Cheh would have taken advantage of this strange concept, it could have added an unnecessary and superfluous gimmick on top of a film that is already strong and pointed on its own.
David Chiang and Ti Lung starred in many films together and The Deadly Duo is just another title that sees this dynamic duo showing why they were kings of the industry at one point. Surprisingly, Chiang actually comes into the movie somewhat late for such a integral character. Marking his introduction near the twenty or thirty minute point, his role in the story ahead seems somewhat ambiguous. As we see how things play out however, it becomes obvious that this is a man of humble decency and is willing to sacrifice his life as a patriot for his people rather than sit idely by. Lung and Chiang, as they always did, work well together and under Chang Cheh’s guidance the bonds of heroic bloodshed seem so emboldened through their actions. Cheh always had a strong hand in stressing the importance of brotherhood in his films and even if Chiang and Lung were to only meet for a few moments worth of screen time (as was the case in Vengeance), their familiarity and charisma would be enough to stress those important bonds for the audience.

The fight sequences here are choreographed by the immortal Liu Chia-Liang (36th Chamber of Shaolin, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter), who focuses heavily on weapons based combat as would seem necessary. His choreography is often very down to earth and it truly suits this historical epic due to the context and the complimenting styles. Chang Cheh of course adds his patented violence, as bodies seem to stack up in mind blowing increments, especially during the tense and excellent finale. Although nowhere near his goriest work, Chang Cheh incorporates a great deal of blood within his Shakespearean style tragedy, as he was often known to do. Although I won’t say whether the ending is happy or sad, you can look forward to many of the characters, both good and bad, paying the ultimate price. The finale truly is the reason to see the film, as Chang Cheh establishes a very tense pace from the very start of the film that pays off heavily in the inevitable conclusion. Although I have seen others who disagree, I commend The Deadly Duo for crafting an excellent finale that is predicated on intense drama and not just setting the stage for a series of massively orchestrated fight sequences. Mind you, there are fight sequences, but the reason for them is always readily available and completely necessary to give payoff to the well crafted drama that came before it.

The Conclusion
Overall, I had a really good time with The Deadly Duo! I liked it possibly more than the far more famous The Heroic Ones, also helmed by Chang Cheh and starring Ti Lung and David Chiang. It deals with a story that has historical importance for the Chinese, but focuses on a very basic and simple story that doesn’t require massive sets and an infinite number of extras. I give the film a very beloved four out of five. I highly recommend it and hope others get the chance to track this one down!