Portrait of two kickass Asian heroes: the incomparable Ti Lung (L) as Magic Sword and David Chiang (in black) as Young Dragon. Damn, I love those guys!!!
There are a number of movies that just plain put me in a very psyched-up and good mood and the classic Shaw Brothers kung fu flick 7 BLOWS OF THE DRAGON is one of them. Released in China in 1972 and making its way over here in 1974 as part of the avalanche during the mid-1970's "chopsocky" boom, the flick is kind of an all-star Eastern variant on the whole Robin Hood-style heroic outlaws thing, and I just got my hands on a cherry widescreen DVD of it that includes the frequently hilarious English dubbing. Watching it a few nights ago, I once more reveled in its story of betrayal and the subsequent righteous vengeance for that lowdown treachery, so I figured I'd hip you to its old school goodness. Based on the classic Chinese novel THE WATER MARGIN, this is one adaptation of a literary cultural milestone that is about as far from stodgy and stolid as it can possibly get.
In 11th century China, the corrupt Sung Dynasty’s cruel oppression led 108 heroic men and women to become outlaws and fight the government as The Mountain Bandits, basically a Chinese analog to Robin Hood and the Merry Men whose wide range fighting skills made their British counterparts look like a pitiful wet Budweiser fart by way of comparison. Loved by the common citizenry and absolutely despised by the Sungs, The Mountain Bandits are clearly on an inevitable collision course with their governmental adversaries, so the story proper kicks off when Heavenly King, the leader of The Mountain Bandits, is killed by Golden Spear (Toshio Kurosawa), the highly skilled bodyguard of one of the corrupt officials.
This being an old school kung fu story, The Mountain Bandits immediately set about plotting their vengeance but, being no fools, they realize they need someone as adept as Golden Spear to face him, so they decide to approach hardcore expert in damned near every fighting art that one could think of, Master Lu, aka Jade Dragon (Tetsuro Tanba, best known to Western audiences as James Bond’s totally cool Japanese pal, Tiger Tanaka, in 1967’s YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) to aid them.
If they succeed in wooing Jade Dragon, by default they also get the elder master’s supremely badassed bodyguard, the handsome and devil-may-care ladies’ man Young Dragon (David Chiang), in the bargain, and with those two on their side The Mountain Bandits theoretically cannot lose.
My kind of hero: Young Dragon (David Chiang), spending his off-time hanging out at the local whorehouse where his charm has bewitched the entire staff.
When two disguised members of the Bandits arrive in the Northern Capital to approach Jade Dragon, Young Dragon sees through their disguise and has them detained while the authorities are summoned. While awaiting the constables, Jade Dragon senses the goodness in the captives and allows them leave before the authorities arrive, but that act of respect comes back to bite Jade Dragon on the ass when it is witnessed by the steward of his house. While Jade Dragon has spent his every waking moment in hard martial training, he has ignored his hot young wife and she found adulterous comfort in the slimy steward’s arms, so witnessing Jade Dragon letting the Bandits go is just the thing that will allow the foul adulterers to get rid of him for good. When the authorities arrive, the steward accuses Jade Dragon of treason and the elder master is immediately arrested and sent to jail, there to await capital punishment. When Jade Dragon dissuades his bodyguard from fighting the authorities, naively thinking that he can find a way out of his predicament on his own and trusting in the aforementioned corrupt Sung assholes, it soon becomes clear that there is no way out and that the officials intend to make an example of Jade Dragon to illustrate what happens if any sympathy is shown to the wanted outlaws. Gravely concerned for his master’s life, Young Dragon attempts to rescue the elder warrior but is unable to successfully take on the scores of soldiers set against him (though he does fight like a man possessed), so, in an act of desperation, he runs to The Mountain Bandits for help. The bandits are only too happy to assist and the rest of the movie details a few failed rescue attempts before our heroes succeed in freeing Jade Dragon. As the heroes make their way out of the city, Golden Spear is deployed and vows to bring down all and sundry, but most especially Jade Dragon, who was revealed earlier to once have been Golden Spear’s greatly respected friend. The forces of the corrupt government and our heroes face each other on a battlefield and five elite members of The Mountain Bandits — Leopard (Yueh Hua), Tigress (Lily Ho), Black Whirlwind (Fan Mei-Sheng), Magic Sword (the exquisite Ti Lung) and Fearless One (Wong Chung) — are chosen to take on the cream of the enemy crop while Golden Spear and Jade Dragon engage in tragic final combat.
What ensues is old school kung fu superheroics at their best as The Mountain Bandits fight the good fight and hand out ass-whuppings like Halloween candy.
7 BLOWS OF THE DRAGON is unpretentious chopsocky of a breed that more or less died out with the passing of the 1970’s martial arts boom and the advent of post-MTV quick-cut editing and CGI in place of honest-to-goodness shots that allowed audiences to watch quality martial artists work the fight choreography in lengthy, minimum bullshit takes. Plus, since this is a prime example of a classic Shaw Brothers picture, there are gorgeous period sets and costumes, along with the icing on the cake: the seasoned directorial hand of Chang Cheh, my all-time favorite old school kung fu film director. Chang was a man who usually insisted on presenting a strong and involving story in which his heroes endure all manner of unfair and downright evil torments until they strike back with extreme prejudice, and you always knew when you were watching a Chang flick because the fights were punctuated with then-copious amounts of bright red stage blood. Compared to the gory excesses of such Chang epics as FIVE DEADLY VENOMS (1978), TEN TIGERS OF KWANGTUNG (1979, which features a guy’s head getting literally kicked off at the end) and the superb and justly classic FIVE ELEMENT NINJA (1982, in which the main bad guy is torn in half at the waist at the end), 7 BLOWS OF THE DRAGON is fairly tame, although it does comes through when the vicious and righteous retribution is unleashed.
That said, the film is still suitable for the whole family and would probably earn a soft PG-13 if submitted to the MPAA nowadays, although they have been known to slap needless R ratings on many martial arts films over the past three-plus decades, a move that makes me wonder if the brain-dead fucksticks at the MPAA even bothered to watch the movies in question. Even by my own relatively lenient standards regarding what is suitable for kids to see, 7 BLOWS OF THE DRAGON counts as something that could run uncut on afternoon TV (and I think it did during the 1980’s on New York City’s late, lamented Saturday afternoon DRIVE-IN MOVIE martial arts movie showcase on Channel 5), and even its adultery subplot is pulled off without a trace of tits or reproductive bits shown. Yet the film was tarred with a completely undeserved R rating when released to theaters here in the States, a certification that must have confused regular grindhouse attendees who were used to ultra-violent stuff like LIGHTNING SWORDS OF DEATH (1974) and the deservedly rated X for violence THE STREET FIGHTER (1975).
Whatever the case, 7 BLOWS OF THE DRAGON is a fun, colorful classic that solidly delivers from start to finish, and the goofy English dubbing works to add to the entertainment, providing viewers with such ludicrous lines as "The Mountain Bandits are here!!!" when Jade Dragon is rescued from execution, and "Watch out! The Double-Kick of Death!" (used to described what is clearly a three-tiered technique).
When I first saw the film on VHS sometime in the mid-1980’s with two equally chopsocky-minded friends, the cartoonish dialogue had us laughing our stoned asses off, and to this day that stuff just makes me smile. When stacked against several of the more famous Shaw Brothers classics, 7 BLOWS OF THE DRAGON rates as somewhat lesser by comparison in the eyes of many who are well-versed in the genre, but take my word for it and check it out. It’s an absolutely perfect Saturday afternoon popcorn flick.
Oh, and I forgot to mention: the title has absolutely nothing to do with anything that happens during the course of the story, an aspect that only bolsters the film’s sheer awesomeness because at no point will you feel ripped off by the absence of the titular seven blows. But who needs seven blows when you’ve got the Double-Kick of Death? HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Theatrical poster from the American release. Note the unnecessary R rating.