Director: Chang Cheh, Wu Ma, Pao Hsueh Lieh
Producer: Sir Run Run Shaw
Cast: David Chiang, Ti Lung, Lily Ho, Yueh Hua, Chin Feng, Guk Fung, Cheng Miu, Chen Kuan Tai, Danny Lee Sau-Yin, Tetsuro Tamba, Paul Chun Pui, Yuen Shun-Yi, Yuen Cheung Yan, Wong Chung, Wu Ma, Fan Mei Sheng, Yen Shi Kwan, Cecilia Wong Hang Sau
Running Time: 120 min.
These days when we think of old school kung fu movies, we think of Five Deadly Venoms and 36th Chamber of Shaolin. But the fact is, those movies were made at the tail end of the initial kung-fu boom which swept the West in the 1970s. But back in the early part of that decade, when movies like Enter the Dragon and Five Fingers of Death got things going with Western audiences, it was movies like The Water Margin, aka 7 Blows of the Dragon in the US, that drew them back into their grindhouse theaters for more martial arts cinema. So this is true old school, and in reality is nothing like the old school most of us know and love.
Based on a monstrously-long Chinese classic detailing the activities of 108 Outlaws who defended their Emperor against armies of rebels, The Water Margin wisely limits itself to just a few chapters, but unwisely assaults us with too many characters. The opening scene piles character introduction on top of character introduction, with each appearing alongside an on-screen credit. The scene itself is very impressive, and somehow reminds me of something Orson Welles might have pulled off. Luckily these multiple characters we meet in the opening disappear for the majority of the film, only to reappear in the end.
But this is one of the manifold problems with this movie. The opening scene, even though it confuses you with so many new faces and names, makes you believe you’re in store for an epic. Even the production values for this movie are on par with Hollywood epics of yore, with splendid outdoor sets of castles, a cast of thousands, and even a small armada. You see the money and effort that went into making this movie, and expect a Hong Kong Spartacus. Instead, what you get is a disjointed tale that squanders its promise.
As mentioned, there are 108 Outlaws banded together. The movie gets rolling with an evil general, Golden Spear, killing one of their leaders. The Outlaws find out about this, and fearing Golden Spear’s skill, decide that only one man, Lu Jun-Yi, can defeat him. So they go looking for this man who apparently is the only dude in all of friggin China who can kill Golden Spear, and along the way they meet Lu’s cocky disciple, Young Dragon Yen Ching (David Chiang). It would have been nice if the movie had then skimmed over the events in the book and instead gotten straight to the gist, the epicness of the story, but instead we must look on as things spiral into blandsville.
This is pretty much what happens, over and over in The Water Margin: someone will seek out Lu Jun-Yi. Either that person or Lu, or both, will then get captured, and then someone ELSE will come to rescue THEM. Over and over: wash, rinse, and repeat. This goes on for a good hour. I’d say it’s a comedy of errors, but judging from the production values and the music cues, it’s obvious Chang Cheh et al are aiming for something grand. But watching guys endlessly being jailed and freed isn’t grand, it’s boring. Well, initially it’s boring. Soon enough it becomes frustrating.
What makes it even worse is that the filmmakers stuck with the martial arts combat as described in the source material, and instead of cool kung-fu we get wrestling matches. David Chiang, for whatever reason Chang Cheh’s early favorite, is a master wrestler, tossing huge guys over his wiry and unimpressive frame. He does get a cool “chooka-chooka” music cue every time he does something, though. Occasionally there is a sword fight, or the burly Black Whirlwind will hack someone with his twin axes, but the violence is minimal, especially when compared with similar films of the era.
Finally Lu Jun-Yi is freed, joins the rebels, and everyone gets together for a battle against Golden Spear. But this final fight is anti-climactic. Golden Spear selects a mere five fighters to take on five of the 108 Outlaws (one of whom is sexpot Lily Ho, aka the Lady Professional), and during the round-robin melee Golden Spear himself takes on Lu Jun-Yi. The choreography here is better than any other part of the movie, however, and makes the viewer wish there had been more of it, and less jail time.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the sequel, All Men Are Brothers, is everything The Water Margin should have been. There are reviewers who will claim that The Water Margin is the superior film, and All Men is just a typically-bloody sequel, but I disagree. I’d even suggest if you’re thinking you have to watch Water Margin before All Men, then forget it. Just go straight to the sequel, as you won’t miss a thing. It’s not like we get to really know any of the characters in the Water Margin; most are just introduced for a handful of seconds. And speaking of introductions, this movie is crazy about them: even a damn clerk gets an on-screen credit, and he’s only in the movie for like two seconds!
On a side note, I’d say if there was a “Most Misleading Poster Award” out there, the US release of this movie would surely win it. The US poster for 7 Blows of the Dragon has male and female kung-fu warriors baring their teeth in martial rage, with all manner of bizarre weaponry in hand. There isn’t a THING like that in the movie. It seems obvious the distributors realized they had a mostly-boring flick on their hands, and tried all they could to make it appealing to the gullible masses.
I really shouldn’t be too hard on this movie, though. After all, how many other kung-fu flicks can you name with a soundtrack featuring the prog rock of Uriah Heep?
Joe909’s Rating: 7/10