Shaw Brothers Classics Vol. Three Blu-ray Review: The Formula Remains Strong, Even As the Stars Disappear

Shout! Factory continues their torrid pace of classic martial arts releases with this latest installment of restored Shaw Brothers films. The new box contains a whopping 11 films on individual discs housed in six standard cases in a sturdy slipcase. This collection marks Shout’s third massive box set released within the last five months, following on the heels of Arrow Video’s even more expansive Shawscope box sets released during the last two holiday seasons, so the “Classics” designation is wearing thin as the included titles become less and less essential. Still, there’s plenty of the legendary Shaw house style to enjoy here, along with a bevy of bonus features.

Killer Clans (1976) is noticeably bereft of Shaw’s top-tier talent, with the heaviest hitter, Lo Lieh, being dispatched within the space of a one-minute cameo. The plot is convoluted and scattershot, full of double crosses and too many plot threads, but the action is skillfully staged thanks to the involvement of Yuen Cheung-yan, brother of legendary choreographer Yuen Woo-ping. The main story involves a long-standing feud between rival clans as they each dispatch agents to attempt to defeat their foes. I couldn’t really find anyone to root for in the film, it’s too talky, and it’s shot almost entirely at night in poor lighting, making this one hard to recommend. Bonus features include a new look at the career of director Chor Yuen, trailers, and a new audio commentary track.

The Shaolin Avengers (1976) gets back on the right track with Chang Cheh in the director’s chair, and while none of their early breakout stars are present, it’s clear right from the opening credits sequence that the super-fit young guns are hungry to impress viewers. Sheng Fu and Kuan-Chun Chi play brothers tasked with avenging their father’s death at the hands of scores of martial arts baddies. Fu’s character has the added benefit of invulnerability thanks to his mother’s meddling, leading to plenty of shirtless brawls against seemingly limitless hordes of hapless rivals. The narrow plot focus and clearly defined, energetic heroes in near constant action make this film easy to recommend. Bonus features are a new reminiscence by a critic about his first Shaw Brothers encounters, a trailer, and a new audio commentary.

The Web of Death (1976) hands a plum lead role to mainstay Lo Lieh in a fun outing with supernatural elements. The addition of trippy practical effects and fire elements make this a visual showcase more reliant on flash than martial arts. The main subplot involves a taboo love story between rival clan members played by Yueh Hua and Ching Li, hampered by her involvement in disabling his brother. The clans battle for control of an unstoppable weapon called the Five Venom Spider, with scuffles aplenty, elaborate and luridly lit sets, and surprisingly extensive effects. The film has a lot going on, and I loved all of it. Bonus features are two new audio commentary tracks and trailers.

The Vengeful Beauty (1978) sees the return of the famous flying guillotine weapon in this superbly plotted revenge tale helmed by Ho Meng-Hua. While lacking in big-name stars, aside from Lo Lieh once again, the film has such a great story and action that it fully earns its classic status. The beauty is played by Chen Ping, subbing in on a lead role that traditionally would have been handled by Pei-Pei Cheng. She plays the sole survivor of a family wiped out by a vengeful emperor intent on protecting a damning secret, leading her to face off against the three offspring of the emperor’s closest acolyte (Lo). There’s a killer plot twist and great action set pieces including a bamboo forest brawl, a topless sword fight, and all-hands mayhem when Lo seemingly multiplies into at least six different copies of himself via doubles wearing his mask. Highly recommended. Bonus features include a very candid recent interview with one of the co-stars, as well as trailers and a new commentary track.

Death Duel (1977) is way too talky, and yet is still somehow difficult to follow. Pretty boy Derek Yee stars as an unbeatable swordsman called to protect prostitutes and eliminate all enemies in his path. Long stretches of dialogue are punctuated with okay fight scenes, but Yee is too wooden in his line delivery and fighting to generate any real heat. The lighting in frequent night scenes is fairly poor, and there’s little to root for, making for an exercise in drudgery that is best skipped. Bonus features are two new commentary tracks and a trailer.

Life Gamble (1978) is helmed and co-written by the big gun, Chang Cheh, immediately giving this entry a leg up on the rest of the set. It’s also stuffed with recognizable faces and is possibly the best photographed entry in the collection. The story involves a fight to control an immensely valuable jade statue, leading to an assortment of colorful fighters to attempt to outwit and outplay each other to be the last swordsman standing. There’s also a plot about a retired swordsman forced to abandon his secret identity as a lowly blacksmith to try his hand at winning the statue. The film feels the most “Shaw” through and through, from the highly stylized opening credit footage to the imaginative and charmingly illogical flag fight that closes the film. Bonus features are a trailer and new audio commentary.

Soul of the Sword (1978) is a showcase for lead actor Ti Lung, a gifted performer with natural ease in both acting and fighting. He plays a nameless swordsman who devotes his life to perfecting his skills so that he can defeat the seemingly unbeatable King of Swords. He’s set on this path as a boy when he witnesses the King strike down an upstart young swordsman, resulting in the swordsman’s fiancee tragically killing herself with the same sword. Nameless seemingly has no skin in the long game to defeat and become the King, other than his own hubris, making his motivations a bit lacking, but there’s plenty of action to make this one worthwhile. Bonus features include a new look at grindhouse films, trailers, and new audio commentary.

Deadly Breaking Sword (1979) gives top billing to Ti Lung and Fu Sheng, but it’s Sheng’s movie all the way. He plays a penniless gambler who mugs and clowns his way through life, especially his frequent fight scenes. His unorthodox fighting style and general approach to life gives the film a bit of a drunken master/Jackie Chan feel, a nice change from the typically super-serious Shaw fights. The story is decidedly low stakes and seems to have been cobbled together on the fly, but it ultimately involves Lung’s straightlaced and fairly boring swordsman and Sheng teaming up against an assassin who is being controlled and strengthened by an evil doctor’s acupuncture. Enjoy Sheng’s antics, don’t bother trying to understand the story. Bonus features include a new look at the violence and success of the studio’s action formula, trailers, and a new audio commentary.

Clan of the White Lotus (1980) sees Shaw veteran actor Lo Lieh elevated to the director’s chair as well as co-starring, and also includes the welcome return of Shaw big gun Gordon Liu (Kill Bill) in the lead role. It follows the success of Executioners from Shaolin, and operates as both a sequel and remake. This time Liu faces off against the brother of the old priest he killed in the prior film, another super-skilled old priest (played by Lo) who promptly kills Liu’s fighting partner from the prior film. Even as the story stalls out around the midpoint, it’s a joy to see Lo and Liu facing off together, as well as a key supporting female role from fellow veteran Kara Wei. Well worth watching, even if it falls a bit short of its predecessor. Bonus features are a video discussion of Lo Lieh’s career, trailers, and two new audio commentary tracks.

Shaolin Abbot (1979) stars David Chiang as a devout monk tasked with single-handedly securing resources to rebuild a destroyed Shaolin monastery. He faces off against a white-haired renegade monk, once again played by Lo Lieh. While the fight scenes are decent and plentiful, and the story stays mostly on track. Chiang is sorely lacking in charisma, making this one a bit of a slog. The cast is very weak all around, missing any real star power aside from Lo. Bonus features are a trailer and new audio commentary.

Shaolin Rescuers (1979) closes out the set on a high note with another directorial effort by master Chang Cheh and the return of his Venom fighters (first seen in the awesome The Five Venoms) including Korean ace Sun Chien. The miniscule plot takes a long time to reveal itself, but we’re treated to plenty of entertaining martial arts showcases while we wait. The film is wall-to-wall action, one amazing fight after another with very little dialogue to break up the blistering pace. Bonus features are actor Yang Hsiung discussing his film career, a trailer, and two new audio commentary tracks.

All of the films look superb on Blu-ray, and while no remastering details are provided, it’s quite clear that they all have been restored to their original brilliance. The best aspect is how clean all of the films look, with no scratches or debris, no shakiness, and no loss in color saturation throughout scenes. I noted just a bit of dirt momentarily on one of the later films, other than that it’s hard to imagine any of these films ever looking  better. Subtitles are clearly displayed and fully competent, and audio tracks are similarly clean with no noticeable hiss.

While the set is short of star power, it still has plenty of entertaining Shaw formula. In fact, it’s entirely their classic old-timey martial arts formula, with none of their rare forays into other arenas like the 20th-century San Francisco setting of Chinatown Kid or the bonkers King Kong ripoff The Mighty Peking Man. If you like your martial arts classic and adhering to the most basic tenets of the Shaw Brothers blueprint, this set will keep you thoroughly entertained.

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Steve Geise

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