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ANONYMOUS HEROES - action comedy with Ti Lung, David Chiang
THE ANONYMOUS HEROES is a 1971 action-adventure-comedy from Hong Kong recently released on DVD as part of the new wave of restored & remastered Shaw Bros. movies. It stars David Chiang and Ti Lung, was directed by Chang Cheh, with fight direction by Tang Chia and Liu Chia Liang, and written by I Kuang, all members of the same team that made such exemplary Shaw Bros. martial arts films of 1970-73 as THE HEROIC ONES, THE NEW ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, BLOOD BROTHERS, DEADLY DUO and, from the same stars and director, DUEL OF THE IRON FIST, all also reviewed on this site.
THE ANONYMOUS HEROES lacks the brooding intensity of the other films and opts for a lighter tone and looser approach to the action. The fight scenes are more of a brawling nature than a demonstration of martial arts. The two heroes, knockabout hustlers played by David Chiang and Ti Lung, punch and kick a lot, leap through windows, and use rifle barrels, carts and handy objects as weapons. There is some bayoneting and a lot of rifle and pistol fire. The heroine, Li Ching, uses only a pistol when called upon to fight. It's all fun to watch, but never engages our emotions the way their other collaborations did.
The film is set sometime in the early 20th century during a period of civil war in China. There is one brief mention of the Japanese and a slightly more specific mention of a warlord, but the exact time period is hard to pin down, despite the 1940s cars. The plot has to do with a revolutionary (Ku Feng) from South China, whose affiliation is never specified, who recruits the two heroes to steal 3000 rifles and 200,000 rounds of ammo from a local army outpost and transport them by train to "South City," where the rebels are waiting. After lots of adventures and misadventures, the mission is accomplished, but never with any degree of plausibility. The military officers all behave like buffoons and the heroes get away with everything much too easily. The bloody finale comes as something of a surprise given the lighthearted tone of the rest of the film.
The film owes a lot more to Sam Peckinpah's western THE WILD BUNCH (1969) and Italian westerns of the period than to earlier Hong Kong martial arts films. The two heroes wear stolen army uniforms for much of the film and the scenes on the train from which they shoot at pursuing troops deliberately recall similar scenes in Peckinpah's film. There is some location shooting for the scenes involving the train, but most of the film was shot in the studio. The process shots of the heroes standing on the train top and the miniatures used to depict a train wreck are jarringly inept.
The two heroes smile a lot (too much) and carry on like swashbucklers of yore, ready to leap into full fighting mode at a moment's notice even when the odds are stacked against them. However, they seem to be in it for fun, given their lack of moral purpose or political ideology. They're not even in it for the money, since they refuse to accept pay for the job. David and Ti were always charismatic performers and they go a long way in carrying the weight of the contrived goings-on here. Li Ching, normally the demure heroine (see THE MAGIC BLADE and BOXER FROM SHANTUNG), is much spunkier than usual, playing the customs chief's daughter who helps the heroes transport the weapons and winds up joining them on their journey. Many other familiar Shaw Bros. faces are on hand also, including Wang Chung, Cheng Miu, Wong Ching Ho, Cheng Lei, Cheng Kang Yeh and kung fu villain Chen Sing.
The music score seems to be entirely ripped off from Hollywood soundtracks, with John Barry's haunting theme from THE CHASE (1966) standing out as a particularly frequent refrain.
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