A man wearing a dark grey poncho over white flowing robes walks alone on a forest path. A few leaves fall gracefully to the ground next to him. He stops and listens. The only sounds are some birds in the distance and branches creaking high above him in the breeze. But this man’s senses are sharper than most, and he knows something isn’t right. In a blink, the man reaches into his robes and pulls out a katana sword, seconds before a group of men dressed all in black jump down from the treetops and land in a circle around him, their own swords already drawn. Although surrounded and outnumbered, the man shows no fear, and instead glares icily at his opponents. They advance at once, but after two sweeping swings of the man’s sword, the attackers all fall to the ground, bleeding. Coldly, the man hides his sword back in his robes, and then continues on his path, leaving his would-be assassins behind, and ready for whoever comes after him next.
This, movie fans, is the world of the Shaw brothers’ films of the 1970s.
Fu Hung Hsieh (Lung Ti) is a wanderer, traveling solo across the countryside, armed only with his sword and his reputation as one of the greatest martial arts masters in the land. He longs to defeat his rival, Yen Nan-fei (Lieh Ho) in battle. Fu saved Yen’s life, and therefore believes only he has the right to kill Yen. When their showdown is interrupted by assassins trying to kill them both, it leads the pair to put aside their grudges and work together to obtain the Peacock Dart, the most powerful weapon ever created. Elsewhere, the mysterious Mr. Yu also wants the dart, and he’s sent a variety of hired killers after Fu and Yen.
All the way from China via the Shaw brothers comes a 1970s fantasy martial arts classic. If you’ve seen folks like Quentin Tarantino rant and rave about these kinds of movies but never seen one yourself, The Magic Blade is a good place to start. Today’s film fans have seen modern-day takes on the Shaw style in stuff like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Iron Monkey, pop culture tributes like Kill Bill: Volume 1, and outright spoofs like Kung Fu Hustle. But The Magic Blade is the real deal, and, fortunately, it lives up to all the geek love for these films.
Know that 1976’s The Magic Blade is pure fantasy, with fighters making huge leaps through the air and conducting physical feats that would be impossible without some sort of telekinesis. Certain weapons have amazing powers as well, and there are even a few humorous touches. The movie is deliriously over-the-top, rocking and rolling from one action scene and crazy set piece to the next. A lot of the kicks, flips, and twirls through the air at times start feeling repetitive, but the action never falls into pure dullness. It’s mixed enough between smaller duels between a few people and all-out brawls among dozens of sword-wielding stuntmen.
Although the plot starts out in “buddy cop-movie” mode with Fu and Yen working together, Lung Ti as Fu eventually takes over as the central character. The actor clearly knows just what kind of movie this is, so he ably doesn’t play it too dark and serious, but he doesn’t play it wacky and goofy either. It’s just the right “tough guy” performance for this type of film. He is able to handle the few serious moments with skill, he has lightning-fast moves, and he reacts naturally to all the craziness happening around him without overdoing it.
Speaking of craziness, there sure is a lot of it in The Magic Blade. This is a world where anyone who crosses your path could be an assassin, more assassins could jump in from out of nowhere at any second, and any handheld object could contain enough explosive inside it to level a two-story house. Just wait until you meet some of the kooky characters that try to kill Fu. There’s a lady assassin with incredibly long sleeves for weapons, there’s a “tree spirit” who does indeed pop out of a big fake tree, there’s a chess-themed assassin that makes the characters play out a game on a gigantic chessboard, there’s the cross-dressing assassin (you heard me), and, of course, there’s Devil Grandma.
Trust me, people, you have not truly lived until you’ve seen Devil Grandma in action. Played with sinister glee by Teresa Hsia Ping (Cobra Girl), Devil Grandma is an old, hunchbacked lady with grotesquely misshapen teeth who has an annoying habit of always trying to blow up our heroes. An old lady who’s also a demolitions expert—what’s not to love? Then, when our heroes take the offensive, Devil Grandma is not above flying through the air with her own gravity-defying martial arts moves. More accurately, the filmmakers cut to a wide shot where a stunt performer quite obviously takes over for the actress, performing feats that would be challenging for anyone, let alone an elderly crone. The result is beautiful in its cheesiness. Whenever Devil Grandma is on screen, she had me smiling deliriously.
Visually, The Magic Blade looks terrific on DVD. The imagery is crisp and clear, and the colors really shine, especially on some of the gigantic Wizard of Oz-like sets. The audio, in mono, doesn’t hold up quite as well. It’s not bad, but it just doesn’t fill the room as it should. Note that it comes in both the original Mandarin (traditional) and the English dub (traditionally cheesy), with English subtitles. The only extras are trailers. It’s at this point that all of DVD-dom turns to me and yells, “Trailers don’t really count as extras!” In this case, though, they do. One trailer gallery is for other Shaw brothers films, and there are 16 total, including The Magic Blade’s trailer. The “Other Films You Might Like” gallery adds another 13 trailers. These are the really long kind of trailers that play whole scenes from the movie as well as some of its biggest action stunts. Sure, they give away spoilers, but watching these trailers all at once with the “Play All” button makes them a sort of demo reel for 1970s martial arts action, and it’s a pretty damn cool feature for this disc to have. A gallery of production stills is the only other extra here.
People don’t watch martial arts movies for their plots, I know, but I have to admit The Magic Blade’s story made little sense. Yen’s departure was so abrupt, I had to stop and say, “Wait, what happened?” Also, if the Peacock Dart is so deadly, and so feared by everyone, why not pull a Mount Doom and destroy it? And there’s no sense of geography. I don’t know how big (or small) of a world this takes place in. When a character announces he’s going to a mansion, the very next shot is him arriving at the mansion. He could have traveled for days to get there, or it could be just down the street. We don’t know. Finally, in the movie’s last 15 minutes, there’s one crazy plot twist after another after another, until it all gets way too ridiculous for its own good.
Outrageous martial arts choreography, a stoic hero, cartoonish villains, lavish production design, and lots of explosions. That’s The Magic Blade in a nutshell. If you dig these old-school Shaw brothers films, pick this one up right away. For the curious, it’ll make a fun Saturday night rental.