Masked Avengers Review
With the greater popularity of relatively bloodless Hong Kong action comedies from Jackie Chan, I always find myself admiring the technique but wanting a bit more reality. Like anyone I enjoy good triumphing over evil but common-sense and experience tells me it's a little harder than JC finds it, and with a lot less humour along the way. the antidote to anodyne action lies with Chang Cheh. His martial arts films usually end in a victory for righteousness but with a lot of pain and loss along the way. His chivalrous heroes lose loved ones, limbs and some face in their quest for justice, but the worst thing they ever face is disloyalty and treachery. The greatest sin in a Chang Cheh film is doing your brother down and even bandits, murderers, and rapists are not so low as the treacherous. In Masked Avengers, there is the central fight between the forces of crime and the law, but more importantly there is the threat of dishonest men who call you brother. When the cook's secret is revealed in the film he is redeemed as a “brother” to Zeng Yun but revealed as a criminal, in the film's eyes the former is much more important leaving the latter matter redeemed. Cheh's films always celebrate the chivalrous criminal over the filial betrayer.
Masked Avengers is a hoot. Gloriously bloody with some amazing moments of evil from the gangsters that equates them with Satanists and occultists. We see the gang taking good men on and outnumbering them, skewering decent men in the back, perpetrating sneaky ambushes and generally running rings around the decent law men after them. My favourite moment involves the gang placing their pray tied up on a revolving Buddha whilst they throw spears at them. The gang desecrate, fornicate and party and are charmingly unrepentant. Their pursuers are earnest good men fooled by vice and lies, and impatient to put the world to rights. One by one, the virtuous are tricked and killed until the remaining law men are outnumbered and lured into an impossible trap. In this final reckoning, the honourable and the treacherous face off and torrents of blood drown the frame.
Of the later Cheh films, Masked Avengers is one of the best choreographed with excellent duels between sword and trident, and terrific wire work and tumbling from the cast. The story itself hinges on a secret that once revealed may not completely absolve its subject and the dimness of the virtuous seems to be endless as they fall for ambush after ambush. This all is rendered irrelevant because the action is so frenetic and the identification with the heroes is so strong because of the malevolence of the villains. Great sequence gives way to great sequence and the quality of the martial arts is superb with Philip Kwok being particularly graceful and lithe in both fights and demonstrations of his ability with the trident. Most importantly the film works because the excellent choreography climaxes with terrific gore and physicality; the masked avengers kill with brutality and are served bloody justice too.
Masked Avengers is one hell of a ride and will appeal to fans of Cheh's bloodier efforts. Definitely a high point in his eighties filmography and a great popcorn movie.
Another standards conversion I am afraid and by lord does it show. It took some time to get none shaky captures for this review and that meant choosing scenes without action or movement as the motion shake here and combing are very marked. The transfer has clearly come from a good print but the overall look is very soft, with the foreground of the image looking particularly poor. Colour balance and contrast are both relatively strong but these can't make up for the conversions issues and the softness. One of the poorer IVL transfers. The Mandarin audio track is not exactly dynamic but is generally sound bar a few moments of distortion at the high end of the treble. The English subs do lack spelling errors although the grammar is occasionally clunky.
The special features on the disc are all available in English options. The biographies are each a couple of pages long and cover Cheh and his main cast members, the majority of whom were recruited from Taiwan. The bios are written as basic introductions and plugs for other IVL discs. There are two trailers for the film carrying English subs, one the original theatrical trailer along with a re-edited one for the DVD release, there are also trailers for four other IVL releases. As is usual with IVL discs the extras are completed with stills, original poster art and some bilingual production notes.
A terrific movie with great villains gets a poor transfer beset by conversion issues. There are few decent and legit alternatives to owning this poor presentation but I am confident that any future DVD releases of this film will have little to beat.