Aristotle once mused that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Aristotle never watched kung-fu movies, but if he did, first, he’d LOVE them, and second, he’d absolutely agree that his quote applies to 1978’s Crippled Avengers.
Also released by Shaw Brothers Studios under the titles Mortal Combat and Return of the 5 Deadly Venoms, the movie begins with a tragedy befalling the local kung-fu master, To Tin Tao. He comes home to find his wife being murdered and his son’s arms getting cut off above the elbow. Master To avenges his wife’s death, but his bitterness over the harm to his family poisons his outlook on the world. He supplies new, cast-iron arms, complete with hands, to his crippled son, To Chang, and trains the boy in martial arts; they eventually take over the town and submit it to their intolerant, tyrannical rule.
As brutal as these punishments are, nothing tops what happens to young martial artist named Wang. Wang comes through town and meets the deaf-mute blacksmith, the blind peddler, and the legless villager, who have now taken up their miserable lot together. He learns of their misfortune, and decides to avenge the three men, but is no match for the combined strength of To’s son and his main henchman. His proper punishment is to have a chain wrapped around his head; it slowly squeezes tighter and tighter until Wang is turned into a physically able but mentally impaired idiot, giggling and laughing at everything like a child.
Although it’s a lot of setup, the movie feels like it goes through these expository gears quickly, leading to the considerable amount of action. One of my quibbles with Shaw Brothers movies is that they’re so hit or miss with the obligatory romantic interest for the hero. Crippled Avengers eliminates that arc completely, along with any sort of inward remorse felt by the characters, creating a clean line from beginning to end that’s very black and white about the stakes and which side everyone is on. That sounds superficial, and perhaps it is, but it’s also wildly entertaining in the way that revenge movies with like Taken can be.
Five Deadly Venoms just a few months before.
The action after the training comes thick and fast, with Master To hiring his own set of mercenary warriors with their own special gifts to battle the crippled masters. And when the final enemy falls dead at their feet, the crippled avengers turn away as the credits roll. The story began when a man couldn’t handle the maiming done to his family, and this trauma turns him to evil. The ultimate vengeance of the crippled masters here is that they take the same awful trauma of loss and turn it into something good. That’s the power of working together.