Kung fu master Black Tiger Dao Tian-Du (Chen Kuan-Tai) encounters men attacking his family. His lethal reciprocation comes too late, as his wife has been murdered and his son, Dao Chang (Lu Feng), mutilated, his arms cut off. Many years later, Dao and his son, now with arms made of iron, seek revenge against the descendants of the men who killed their wife and mother. Their vengeance, however, extends beyond those related to the murderers, as they terrorize a town by crippling anyone who may even slightly provoke them. Three men who have fallen prey to the Dao father/son form a kinship: Chen Shuen (Philip Kwok as Kuo Chui), a traveling salesman who is blinded; Wei (Lo Meng), the town blacksmith who is made deaf and mute; and Hu (Sun Chien), simply a man who, in the midst of an argument, inadvertently bumped into Dao Chang and whose legs are severed as a result.
Master Wang Yi (Chiang Sheng) arrives in town and hears about the three crippled men, who have been outcast by the townspeople, too frightened to cross Dao. Wang confronts Dao and his army on the men’s behalf, but he is overpowered and tortured so ferociously that it renders him childlike. Accepting the blame for Wang’s condition, the three men return him to his master, Li (Cheng Miu). Master Li trains each man in the martial arts, strengthening Wei’s eyes and Chen Shuen’s ears, and helping Hu, with iron legs crafted by Wei, develop his kicking skills. After three years of discipline, the new masters, along with Wang, head back into town for retribution, while Dao is distracted by his upcoming birthday celebration.
Chang Cheh’s 1978 Crippled Avengers (original title: Can que/aka Return of the 5 Deadly Venoms; Mortal Combat; Avengers Handicapped) is a standout among kung fu films. Chang was one of the most productive and fruitful directors at Shaw Brothers Studio. Many of his films are considered classics, representative of both the kung fu and wuxia genres (wuxia films, in a very basic sense, focus on swordplay over hand-to-hand combat), as well as the Hong Kong industry in general. Chang’s filmography is just short of 100 movies, including The One-Armed Swordsman (1967) with Jimmy Wang Yu, King Eagle (1971) with Ti Lung, and The Brave Archer (1977/aka Kung Fu Warlords) and its sequels.
Crippled Avengers is about destitute men overcoming authoritarian brutality, a common theme in Chang’s and Hong Kong films, but it is also a movie about camaraderie and unity. The avengers of the title are triumphant because they function as a whole, a combined effort that the villains cannot truly achieve for themselves. Chen Sheun and Wei are the first two men wounded by Dao and his son, and they are also the first to bond. The two men communicate with their hands by writing characters on open palms and Wei occasionally guiding Chen Sheun by grasping his wrist or hand. Their relationship is like an older brother to a younger sibling, each man in each role interchangeably. More significantly, the physical connection links them together, so that their handicaps, which may be perceived as weaknesses, are offset by a mutual distribution of strength. It’s fitting that, in one sequence, Wei destroys the large drums intended to deafen Chen Shuen, while Chen Shuen shatters the mirrors meant to blind Wei with reflections. Singularly they are strong, but combined they are practically unstoppable.
The other two men, Hu and Wang, help reinforce the group. Once they’re in town, they spend much of the time keeping Hu’s iron legs a secret. Hu seems to become a reserve, or a trump card, as a kick from Hu almost certainly means death. Wang’s simple mind is very nearly a hindrance (he comes close to revealing the secret weapon), but he plays his part as an avenger. His antics (“playing” with the others) is ultimately an extension of the men’s training, as they work their skills against his constant interruptions. Wang most enjoys playing with iron rings in the course of Chen Shuen’s training. When Chen Shuen is fighting Dao Chang, Wang finds iron rings and throws them at the feuding men, leading to a breathtaking action sequence featuring the trio.
In contrast, Dao and his men have the ingredients for an alliance but cannot (or will not) take full advantage. Dao’s right-hand man, Keeper Wan (Wang Lung-Wei), initially underestimates the men once they return to town. But even after he recognizes their abilities, Wan still doesn’t utilize enough of Dao’s men and refuses to tell Dao of the antagonists, believing he will disrupt preparations for Dao’s birthday. In one particular scene, Master Jiu (Yeung Hung) has Wan attack him, using a Chinese weapon translated as “meteor hammer” (a single-headed version, with a heavy ball attached to a chain, similar to a flail). Wan swings the meteor hammer and wraps the bulky chain around Jiu, whose muscular prowess snaps the chain. It’s a notable expression of the villains’ lack of totality. If the men can be considered “links,” any chance of them joining together in full force is vanquished by an exhibition of individual physique.
A number of Chang’s films feature actors who have come to be collectively known as the Venoms or Venom Mob. The group’s namesake is derived from the title of the 1978 hit, The Five Deadly Venoms. The men had previously worked with one another and with Chang, but Venoms is one of the most popular films. The main five actors of the Venoms star in Crippled Avengers: Kwok, Chiang, Lo, Sun and Lu (though Chiang was not officially a “venom” in The Five Deadly Venoms -- he played the student searching for the five masters -- he appeared in more films than the fifth venom, played by Wei Pai). There are other actors, in addition to Wei, considered part of the Venoms but in fewer films, including Wang Lung-Wei. (Despite one of the U.S. titles -- Return of the 5 Deadly Venoms -- Crippled Avengers is unrelated in terms of plot and characters.)
There are some who regard Crippled Avengers as exploitative, for the characters’ disabilities as well as the violence (the latter of which is a typical complaint of many of Chang’s films, as he never shied away from geysers of blood). But Chang does not ridicule the characters. He presents them as men who are burdened with obstacles which they must overcome, and although Wang’s mental trauma results in the man behaving as a child (and Wang becoming the comic relief), his kung fu expertise remains intact, and he is clearly a vital part of the group. Crippled Avengers is a superb film from Chang and spotlighting the Venoms. Viewers may overlook the plot or may dwell on choosing a favorite Venom, but one thing is indisputable: when the Venoms are fighting, the audience should hold its breath and try not to blink.