Life Gamble (1978)
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Director Chang Cheh goes for a different approach here. This is more akin to a bloodier version of a Chu Yuan Romantic Swordsman movie with all the subterfuge going on in the film. There are constant double crosses between most of the characters. Virtually everyone is a villain of some kind. This was probably Chang's first movie to feature characters utilizing a gallery of secret weapons, thus beginning his violent comic book kung fu movies. This is essentially a Venoms film even though it was shot just before the original FIVE VENOMS (1978), it was released afterwards.
Kuo Chui is fairly restrained here as the blacksmith. Many characters push him to make weapons for them but after a double cross (which you see in a flashback) involving a specially made sword, he has sworn off making weapons of any kind. The final fight with Chui and the REAL villain of the piece is a bravura piece of choreography which showcases many different weapons at once as well as multiple attackers against one.
Lo Mang is playing against type here as a knife throwing specialist. In most all of his movies he always fights barehanded. Here, he always uses his special throwing knives, some of which have a secret use. The wig he sports for this film gives him the appearance of a Mongolian. His character is not really a bad guy, but he does try and force the blacksmith to make him some additional knives after his are stolen by one of the thieves in the story.
Fu Sheng is also on hand to lend support to this effort also playing a knife thrower who is out to kill Lo Mang's character. Both wish to see who is the best in knife throwing skills. Fu never cracks a smile in this film nor plays around at all. He's serious from beginning to end. An unusual turn from him which he would revisit in the same years AVENGING EAGLE.
And of course, Lu Feng is here portraying a sneaky villain who may or may not have seen the err of his ways over the course of the film. He ends up with a special metal hand that fires darts and also acts as a magnet after he loses a hand early in the film. This metallic appendage would soon become a pair in CRIPPLED AVENGERS released after FIVE VENOMS.
This was another extremely rare movie in that although there was a somewhat widescreen version in English floating around, the picture quality was one of the worst. Also, the first four minutes of the film (including the credits) were missing. Seeing it now in restored quality, the film is much better. Still a little slow here and there, but a far better experience. Even when the action stops for the bad guys to plot their nefarious deeds, there is much to look at. Not one of Chang's best, but it has enough good qualities and fight scenes to recommend it for both fans of the Venoms and kung fu cinema in general.
It's one of those films like THE HATEFUL EIGHT which is all about getting the principal characters into a specific location and then having them bump each other off until the victor remains, but there's a lot more to it than that. This is one of those movies you have to watch very closely just to keep up with the story. As well as the dense plotting and character work, there's absolutely plentiful action, particularly in the second half, and all of it is fresh and inventive. There's an impressive flag-fu climax, duels involving flying daggers, and all manner of outlandish weaponry including one of those great mechanical fists that shoots darts that was also used in CRIPPLED AVENGERS.
The cast is exceptional even for a Shaw Brothers film. Phillip Kwok gets a chance to shine as the blacksmith with one or two skeletons in his closet while Alexander Fu Sheng is one of those laconic hero types. Kara Hui plays the lovely Xiao Hong with real relish. Lo Meng's dagger-wielding swordsman is a well developed character in his own right while there are smaller but no less important parts for Chiang Sheng, Danny Lee, Lu Feng, and Li Yi-Min. Put together the film best resembles a western in its depiction of a rural village invaded by various combatants and fighters, each out for his or her own gain, and it's great fun to boot.