“Toad Style is immensely strong and immune to nearly any weapon. When it’s properly used, it’s almost invincible.” This sound clip appears at the beginning of “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’”, which is a song from the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers. The album famously sampled from several Shaw Brothers movies. The quote itself comes from the movie titled Five Deadly Venoms (also known as The Five Venoms).
I love that title. It’s lyrical. Poetic. And at the same time hyperbolic, slightly goofy, and the perfect title for a kung fu movie. Those Shaw Brothers had a way with titles. Savor how that rolls off the tongue.
I’ve watched the movie both in the original Mandarin and the clumsily dubbed English version. I’m usually a purist when it comes to such things, and most of the times subtitles are less distracting. Shaw Brothers movies, though, were made for dubs. Give me all of those weird East Coast accents! And it’s almost all because of the Wu-Tang. This humble group formed a magic bond now between East and West, where the cartoonish machismo of Hong Kong meets the swagger from Staten Island hip-hop artists. In an era where rappers were establishing their street cred by adopting identities of street gangsters and drug dealers, the Wu-Tang Clan claimed that their inspiration is inherently fake and came directly from cheesily dubbed movies. Who knew that Shaw Brothers movies would eventually lead to The RZA cosplaying as an elderly kung fu master in GI Joe: Retailation?
Directed by Chang Cheh, Five Deadly Venoms features a group of actors known as the Venom Mob, all with alter egos that can double as hip-hop names: Kuo Chui (#4 Lizard), Lu Feng (#1 Centipede), Chiang Sheng (The Student), Sun Chien (#3 Scorpion), Lo Mang (#5 Toad), and Wei Pai (#2 Snake). This is the first movie that they all appear together. Most of these actors had been friends since childhood and attended the Peking Opera School. They developed skills in acting, acrobatics, and weaponry. They had appeared individually in previous Shaw Brothers films, but it wasn’t until Five Deadly Venoms that they were in high demand.
They form the Poison Clan, a group of highly trained individuals each specializing in a different fighting style. The immensely strong and nearly invulnerable Toad, for example, is like the Juggernaut and uses heavy blows. He cannot be easily taken down unless someone figures his weak point. Lizard gets to leap on walls like he’s Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding and rain blows from a position of relative safety. Scorpion’s got deadly kicks, Snake has incredible accuracy, and Centipede strikes swiftly. All are capable of generating kung fu whooshing sounds.
Some of the Poison Clan though, have been using their powers for evil and start a spree of murder and mayhem for personal gain.
As we begin the movie, the dying master of the Poison Clan summons Yang Tieh, his last student, for one final mission. The master has many regrets, and he seeks to make things right. The student must seek out Scorpion, Lizard, Toad, Snake, and Centipede and determine how to dispatch them. If they are responsible for the wrong-doing, they must be killed. However, Yang’s training is complete. If at all possible, he must align with one of the Poison Clan to defeat the rest.
There is slight complication, though. The Poison Clan always wore masks — ornate ones like they sell at Pier One, only with animal figurines molded onto the forehead. No one knows what they look like. In fact, The Poison Clan members in general don’t know what the other look like, though Snake and Centipede have worked together before, as did Lizard and Toad. Scorpion worked independently and is very much a wild card.
It surprises me that this movie was made as recently as 1978. The bright mod colors, the staginess, and the general camp atmosphere feels like something that would’ve been produced a decade or more earlier. Think Sean Connery-era James Bond sets, or Man From UNCLE. This seems to more of a thing with the Shaw Brothers than the entire Hong Kong film-making community. Bruce Lee’s Way of the Dragon, for example, came out six years prior and looks less dated. The sets and the cinematography impart a sense of claustrophobia. However, Five Deadly Venoms still looks good, perhaps even due to the sharp use of a primary color palette.
The plot accelerates when two of the Poison Clan murder an entire family after the head of the household refuses to give up the location of his treasure. A third member sneaks in after the massacre and finds a hidden map. A fourth and fifth member feel a great injustice has been committed and are determined to find the people responsible.
It turns out that the Poison Clan aren’t just people who have learned the secrets of deadly martial arts. They’re people in powerful positions. What do you do if one of the Clan also happens to be one of the wealthiest and influential men in town, and has the means to bribe a judge in order to cover his tracks? What if another member is also working for law enforcement, and is thus limited by his job in using the full extent of his skills?
Five Deadly Venoms presents a fun mystery in trying to determine the true identities of each of the Poison Clan. There isn’t much of a plot beyond that, though. The movie is analogous to watching pro-wrestling. Plot developments are there merely to set up martial arts matches between the various characters. Do you want to see the Toad take on the Centipede? Well, here’s a little plot contrivance so you can watch someone hammer his fists against someone waving his arms with blazing speed. Or here’s a scenario where two guys walk on walls and strike down at a guy forming his arms like a couple of snakes. For such a simplistic set-up, you only need to know that the guy on one side is good, the guy on one side is bad, and you’re rooting for the good guy. No further nuance is required.
Also not present in this movie: any woman. There are some female characters milling about, but they’re all background. The movie is about five tough dudes (and a sixth student) trying to game a system more concerned about pay-off than justice. We don’t need girls and their cooties messing things up.
The movie instead revolves around things like loyalty, honor, and responsibility, with the biggest and most manliest of tears directed at things like brotherhood and betrayal. If that last line brought on a big ol’ yawn, then this movie is probably not for you. However, you can probably see why such themes would be alluring for the hip-hop crowd. (Though there are ways to enjoy this squad in a gender-flipped way. The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad from Kill Bill is a reference to the Five Deadly Venoms.)
The fighting, though, is quite fun and inventive. In the final scene, five guys dressed in what can be judiciously called “video game costumes” meet in an ornately decorated chamber. (Several outfits, in fact, look like they informed the Mortal Kombat franchise.) You get everything: two-on-one match ups, a guy standing around in the background biding his time but you know he’s going to do something cool, and an incredibly display of high-flying acrobatics.
It’s well choreographed, too. The fights were directed by Leung Ting, a student of Ip Man. A claim, incidentally, that turns out to be controversial. Leung Ting had to hold a press conference in 2010 to address accusations from Ip Man’s son that he had never trained under his father.
Controversy or not, though, there’s a lyricism to the fighting itself that you don’t see often in many modern day kung fu movies. The Poison Mob are all equally balanced. You can imagine on any given day that one guy, using his technique properly, can defeat the other other guy by exploiting his weaknesses. There is no kung fu superman like a Jet Li who knows the superior technique and will win the day. The only thing you have going for you is confidence in your technique, and that you know it well enough to take on your opponent.
There’s one fight where an outside influence affects a fair one-on-one match, and it feels like a stunning betrayal. Win or lose, you expect a fight to be a true mettle of skills. To game the odds so that one of the fighters does not have the full range of his moves at his disposal? That is a villainy most foul.
Five Deadly Venoms is available for streaming (in dubbed form!) on Amazon Prime.
NEXT: An Indian spy tries to get the drop on the Pakistanis with the action thriller blockbuster, Ek Tha Tiger.