THE AVENGING EAGLE (1978) review

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While he didn’t achieve the same status as fellow directors Chang Cheh, Yuan Chu or Liu Chia-Liang within the Shaw Brothers roster of talent, Sun Chung has nevertheless given the legendary Hong Kong film studio some of its most original and/or striking classics. From his trailblazing use of steadycam to film martial arts fights in The Kung Fu Instructor, to the unhinged weirdness of Human Lanterns, Sun left an unmistakable though unsung mark in the Shaw catalogue. The Avenging Eagle might just be his best achievement. It follows Chi Min-Sing (Ti Lung), who is part of a brotherhood of assassins known as the Eagles, all raised by and obeying to the cruel Yue Xi-Hong (Ku Feng), who sends them on missions to murder his enemies. When Chi is gravely wounded in one of these missions, he is taken in by a generous man, whose daughter he falls in love with. She urges him to not kill anymore and become a good man, but the pressure from Yue and the Eagles proves too strong : soon Chi is back in the murdering business, and he can’t stop the man who saved him and the woman he loves from being assassinated by his ‘brothers’. But after having committed the unthinkable by murdering a pregnant woman on his master’s order, Chi finally decides to run away from the Eagles and look for the murdered woman’s husband to atone for his crime. During his escape he meets a nameless man (Alexander Fu-Sheng), who decides to help him, seemingly out of the kindness of his heart. But it is soon discovered he has hidden motives, and unsuspected fighting abilities…

The Avenging Eagle tells a fairly simple story of betrayal, revenge and the awakening to Good, but tells it in a compact, hard-hitting way that instantly raises the film above many Shaw Brothers films that get bogged down in too many twists and turns. The film starts in the middle of the narrative, and lets the audience catch up on the story through a series of brisk flashbacks that peel off the plot’s layers in an engaging way. This is a streamlined, 86-minute film where every minute counts. The fights are abundant and masterfully edited, but never grow repetitive, thanks to the use of inventive weaponry like the forearm blades wielded by Fu Sheng or the steel claws Ku Feng uses in the stunning final fight. Sun Chung didn’t get the Shaw Brothers’ biggest budgets, but he always made the most of what he got, and The Avenging Eagle looks stunning with its perfectly-framed forest settings and the striking set design of the Eagles’ headquarters.

But one of the film’s key strengths is the cast. Alexander Fu Sheng had an uncanny ability to go from supremely goofy to lean and deadly, and that ability is put to great use here. When we first meet him it looks like he’s going to be Ti Lung’s goofy sidekick ; then we see flashes of his lethal fighting style, and cracks start to appear in his amiable exterior. The gradual reveal of his true identity and motivations is perfectly carried out by the late star. Ku Feng is a memorable villain and never lets his awesome facial hair out-act him ; no small feat. But the film belongs to Ti Lung. Chi as a character is all shades of grey ; he’s a deadly assassin who’s only ever known the cold act of killing, and when his eyes are opened and he experiences the warmth of love, his awakening is a gradual one, not some kind of overnight change for good. Even after swearing to never kill again, he murders a pregnant woman out of sheepish obedience to his master ; even after choosing to do good, glints of his old self show up : when Fu Sheng rescues him in the desert in the beginning of the film, he reciprocates by stealing his horse and water. When born and raised a murdering outlaw, you don’t just turn it off like that. All this is superbly conveyed by Ti Lung in what is one of the best performances in his long and legendary career, not to mention his fighting performance with the three-section staff he wields in the film is quite impressive. Ti’s eventual team-up with Fu Sheng is one of the most charismatic duos in the Shaw Brothers catalogue. The cast for the rest of the Eagles is populated with such distinguished martial arts supporting players as Wang Lung Mei, Dick Wei, Eddy Ko Hung and Yuen Bun, which means every fight is a delight. A remake of this film is in the plans : it has its work cut out for itself to match the star wattage, hard-hitting storytelling and visual mastery The Avenging Eagle displays.

Long Story Short : One of the true gems of the Shaw Brothers catalogue, The Avenging Eagle is a lean, mean story of vengeance and redemption, carried by a superb cast and powered by Sun Chung’s masterful direction. A dark and punchy treat. ****

 

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