Lau Kar-Leung was one of the few Shaws directors with a truly distinct, uncompromising personality. He was recognizable for his tasteful, relatively subtle sense of humor, surprisingly faithful portrayal of martial arts (save for his fantasy touches), and pacifism; victory and defeat have more to do with morale than blood in his movies. In a way he was the more disciplined, intelligent foil to Chang Cheh's proto-John Woo sentimental bloodletting. With an intoxicatingly dark, occult atmosphere and a bodycount that exceeds many other entire films, the first few scenes of Legendary Weapons... threatens to subvert all of that. Of course, it quickly lapses into more typical Kar-Leung territory when we get to the meat of the story, but that opening scene leaves a hell of an impression--eyeballs and groins are torn out, bizarre curses are cast, it all just bleeds a sense of doom. The scene where the antagonist uses voodoo to control and speak through a room full of men is eerie enough to belong in a horror movie. Overall it's a bit of an uneven, strangely paced film, but it's overflowing with bits of strange genius like that.
So, at the onset of mass firearm distribution in fake-ancient China, one brutal martial arts clan attempts (in vain) to train its members to become invulnerable to bullets. One master, not wanting to have his students' lives wasted, breaks up his part of the clan and unsanctimoniously retires, an act that his superiors deem treachery. The plot follows four agents of this clan--each associated with each other but with hidden intentions and disguises--on a fool's errand to find this old man. It's a very open-ended thread in vein of Five Deadly Venoms, taking the majority of the film to narrow down each character's identity and motivation, but it works; rather than frustrate, there's a palpable sense of discovery to the proceedings.
If there's one problem, it's that telling the characters apart can be ridiculously confusing. There are five characters who change hairstyles and facial hair throughout the film, three of whom are almost identical. Good facial recognition is recommended.
By the end, the characterization is solid enough that the movie's not quite the thinly strung together series of great action scenes that many people say it is, yet there is definitely an element of virtuosic pageantry to the battles. Showboating is frequent and at times it all starts to feel like a magic show with shiny blades, but the bloodless yet highly inventive use of weapons reflects Lau Kar-Leung's love for martial arts as an artform.
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