King Eagle Reviews
I recently saw the incredible Shaw Bros. 1971 film King Eagle, which has a rock-solid story, barring a few hick-ups that I'm sure are the result of spotty translation. More than anything, King Eagle, a "Wuxia" tale set in ancient China reminded me of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. Only in this film, as with countless other great 1970's Shaw Bros. Kung Fu flicks, the locations are beautifully constructed studio sets, and the actors are all incredibly skilled stunt performers working together to weave an engaging tale of a lone swordsman righting wrongs... the first of many starring Ti Lung for the Shaw Bros. studio. There are none of Leone's classic vistas, unless you count the cardboard inside of a Hong Kong studio.
King Eagle is the nickname of an infamous loner swordsman/hero named Jin Fei (Ti Lung), who everyone thinks is, well, just amazing. Because he is, mainly. He's a real hero: purity of heart coupled with unparalleled skill with a really shiny sword, together in the body of a man with great hair. And even though he doesn't like to get involved in other people's affairs, he gets drawn into a sticky situation surrounding the betrayal and death of the Master of the Tien Yi Tong clan, who is sneakily killed by his own 1st Chief (who shoots darts out of his flute). Jin ends up being the only dude who knows the truth, and even though he keeps telling 1st Chief that what happened is none of his business, 1st Chief spends the rest of the movie trying to kill him anyway. Big mistake, because this guy, Jin Fei, this guy can swing a sword. Arms and legs get lopped off, and orangy blood sprays everywhere. And King Eagle barely breaks a sweat.
A neat thing about this film is how dedicated the filmmakers were in portraying Jin as a true, serious hero. He can tell the difference between two beautiful twin(-ish) sisters (played by Li Chung) because one is evil and one is good, and he brings tribute to the graves of a lowly waiter and farm girl, killed because of their association with him. A lot of this can be, of course, attributed to the fantastic Ti Lung, who, while physically capable of playing the dashing swordsman, actually has the acting chops to engage you. It's no surprise that he went on to play similar roles through the rest of his career, as he pretty much nailed it. Dude basically is Kung Fu Hero. And, oh yeah, dude can fight. He is an absolute badass. It's not even the best display of choreography you'll see in a Shaw Bros. flick, but Ti Lung is exceptional as a lone warrior, dispensing dozens of combatants at once with speed and cunning. There's an efficiency to his movements that clearly sets him apart from his fellow performers.
You've got to understand, if you don't already, that watching a Shaw Bros. movie (particularly one directed by Chang Cheh) means you'll be subjected to some of the most violent and inventive combat ever captured on film. Yeah, it's all very, very (very) fake. And there's no way that red stuff isn't acrylic paint. But in this film it still catches you off guard in the same way any more modern, realistic depiction of violence can because the story is actually engaging. And even though I've seen better kung fu fighting on film, King Eagle gets full points in this category becasue of the introduction of some memorably wicked characters. The hands-down most badass villain I've seen in a movie in a long time is Mr. "Deadly Fingers" Wan, who is hired out of desperation in the third act by 1st Chief. He's a mild-mannered older gentlemen that has steel fingers with which he uses to rip out your throat. Unbelievably cool.
The one thing though, the only real negative thing I can say about this film is that the sword sound effects were grating. Classically speaking, the Shaw Bros films didn't exactly have any cutting edge sound design applied to them. In fact, they probably used the exact same "punch" sound effect thousands of times per film throughout the 70's and eighties, regardless of performer, roomtone, etc. This is as endearing as it is laughable, but in the case of King Eagle, I have to say, their choice of sword sound effect made the hair on my neck stand up. It isn't so much the sound of two swords smashing, it's more like two swords scraping against eachother. Like nails on a chalkboard. And this is a movie about swordfighting. So you hear it a lot. Like, 8000 times. Eventually I had to mute the fight scenes, which is a shame, because the laughable, endearing soundtrack to a Shaw Bros. fight scene is pretty much the greatest thing in the world.
If you squint your eyes you could imagine Clint Eastwood as the title character and it wouldn't change a thing. See it only for Mr. Wan, and it'll be worth it, I promise you. Three and a half clenched fists out of five.