Fearless Fighters (1971)

Directed by: Wu Min-Hsiung
Written by: Heung Yeung
Producer: Tung Yueh-Chuan
Starring: Chen Hung-Lieh, Yi Yuan, Cheung Ching-Ching, Wu Min-Hsiung, & Wu Min-Hsia

The Eagle Claw clan are divided and led by To Pa, they stage a robbery of a government gold transport. Foiled by the guard of the shipment known as the Lightning Whipper, the attack on his family and home is successful. Fellow clan member Lei Peng (Yi Yuan) wants to right wrongs though and intercepts the gold with the intention to return it to its rightful owner. To Pa however frames Lei Peng for the theft, murders his family and in the process members of the Lightning Whipper’s family are as well after Lei Peng is convinced he murdered the elder as well. Getting on the same page eventually and figuring out who their common enemy is, they have to take on not only To Pa, his clan members but also a group of hired killers with skill sets involving solar rays and twin swords.

Quick, efficient, to the point and with no unnecessary dialogue, Fearless Fighters is one of the very best Wuxia pieces of its kind, providing terrific energy, creative weaponry and running only 82 minutes. There's a good explanation though as to why all of a sudden a production such as this got polished and streamlined. It was made as A Real Man in 1971 (directed and action-directed by Wu Min-Hsiung, who is also a cast-member) and picked up in 1973 by Richard Ellman's independent distribution company. Dubbed and re-edited, Fearless Fighters went on to become a noticeable success in the relatively early days of exposure of this genre to American audiences.

In a genre that was evolving but via key filmmakers almost exclusively such as Chang Cheh and King Hu, most Wuxia that followed tried to fit in but didn’t re-invent. Fearless Fighters clearly isn’t in the latter camp but is a production possessing motivation to offer up fantastical spectacle on a budget, with a structural way of thinking that turns out to be key: Get better as the movie rolls along. Released the same year as the quite spectacular and creative The Ghost Hill (and coming out in America shortly after Enter The Dragon and in the wake of King Boxer having put kung fu on the minds of American mainstream audiences), the movie is cleverly mapped out in terms of how to visually impact viewers action-wise. Mostly Wu Min-Hsiung stages fairly snappy, fast and grounded swordplay with select acrobatic feats done in editing. It verges on merely being what can be done on a low budget but is also distancing itself from operatic, soft depiction of swordplay by having most performers bringing an intensity that convinces us slashes are powerful and violent. Plus by adding colorful costumes, masked fighters and such characteristics in the early going, the movie is starting to craft a visual identity that’s going to come to fruition by the time the second half-gear is initiated.

At least as reassembled and dubbed by Richard Ellman and his editor/post-production supervisor Dick Brummer, Fearless Fighters is basic, snappy and seemingly comes off as one big fighting showcase. But since it does provide the fun and creativity within these, ticking off the simple and short story beats in between is far from incompetence. Wu even manages to evoke, perhaps by lack of choice, a slight gritty view of the martial world as village settings look rather run down rather than eye popping and out of this world in look and feel. But knowing as they crafted their advertising that director Wu hinged a lot on the introduction of his hired killers, Ellman and company cements their contribution and impact in us as well. Especially in the fairly long demonstration sequence involving characters and weapons with wonderful titles such as the One Man Army, Deadly Twin Swords, Flying Discs, Solar Rays etc. But despite crude depiction of this done through cutting, reverse photography and the likes, this gets audiences pumped to see how this will practically play out in the field.

And it does so very skillfully and confidently thanks to fetching casting such as eternal baddie Chen Hung-Lieh (Come Drink With Me) and seeing these fights now elevated to the degree where our heroes need to take on outside clan members and out of this world weaponry. On a budget it’s massively fun watching the solar rays being physically depicted via explosive charges in the ground, a character thought to have died gets his limbs exchanged for projectile weaponry and Wu showcases a rarely seen fun, even frantic tone in early 70s Taiwanese Wuxia pian. It’s not just verbal. It’s essentially all depicted and by not cheating us, he gains the most admiration and impact. This then traveled to an international audience thanks to A Real Man turning into Fearless Fighters.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson