Death Duel Review
Death Duel opens in spellbinding fashion. A theatrical set worthy of An Actor’s Revenge plays host to a heavily populated swordfight lit by an artificial red sun. Six out of seven dead, the victor, one Divine Sword, is hired by the Mu Yung family (lead by “an evil woman in the world of swordplay”) to avenge 46 slayings, the man responsible being Supreme Sword. Yet just as we think we know where the film is headed, Supreme Sword is revealed to be dead and so Death Duel digresses elsewhere. For much of its duration the film plays out as a multi-character tapestry, focussing on those who surround Ah Chi as he moves from one place to another until his martial arts skills eventually reveal him to be the very much alive Supreme Sword.
Such a revelation of course produces two results. Firstly, a number of hired assassins emerge from the woodwork, and secondly, the plotting gets back on track. Yet the change of tact following its initial scenes means that Death Duel is now unalterably affected and so it exists in an odd limbo between some kind of epic and a highly charged action flick. At ninety minutes in length it would seem firmly directed towards the latter approach, but if this were to be the case then why populate the film so heavily? Indeed, in doing so much of the supporting cast survive by the thinnest of characteristics and before long the multitude of beards and secret societies simply becomes too confusing as they meld into one.
Moreover, in having such scant time to develop the details, Death Duel plays out on the same, unaltered level. Some unexpected gore and a brief comic scene in which chaste grieving widow and a student of Confucius renege on their abstinences provide any sense of a shift from the po-faced threats of violence and ensuing swordplay. Of course, what this also means is that Death Duel soon runs out of surprises and settles into a predictable rut en route to its extended final showdown.
That said, Chu Yuan’s direction is largely sensible, though whilst this doesn’t make matters worse, it also does little to improve them. He takes Death Duel at face value which means that its various flaws remains apparent, as do its successes – most notably, it has the snappy energy of a typical kung fu flick, despite no great sense of style. This serves him well during the action scenes – Yuan favours an unfussy approach and simply lets them unfold – but means that the rest fall flat (indeed, crash zooms seem to be his only attempt at enlivenment). However, this being a Shaw Brothers production, Death Duel is still a cut above the standard martial arts pic courtesy of its gorgeous production values. The lush design of the opening scene is maintained throughout meaning that even if it never manages to excite the brain, Death Duel does at least provide a feast for the eyes.
As with all of Momentum Asia’s Shaw Brothers releases to date, Death Duel arrives with a fine print in its original 2.35:1 ratio but is presented non-anamorphically. This is an especial disappointment in this case given the standard of the production design, but otherwise the presentation is flawless, with no technical flaws to speak of. As for the soundtrack, the original Mandarin mono is supplied with optional English subtitles and sounds as good as could be expected. Sadly, the only extras content is the usual handful of promos for other titles in the Shaw Brothers range.