10 June 2010 | BrianDanaCamp
AMBUSH – Abundant fights perk up lackluster Shaw Bros. entry
AMBUSH (1972) is a run-of-the-mill Shaw Bros. swordplay/kung fu film that suffers from a convoluted plot and a third-tier cast. But it offers a host of exciting fight scenes involving multiple opponents and it makes extremely effective atmospheric use of standing SB sets. In fact, the whole thing plays as if the director was given an assignment to use a certain group of non-star actors and construct a story to make use of sets left over from other films.
The plot has to do with a shipment of jewels stolen when one security bureau ambushes and slaughters another and then frames the slain security chief and his son for the crime. The son, Constable Chao Fan (Chiao Hsiung), then has to clear his and his father's name. It becomes quite obvious to everyone early on that Chao Fan's uncle, Chief Fan (Yang Chi-Ching), is the culprit, as we've already seen, and is in possession of the jewels, yet Chao Fan continues to blithely investigate all kinds of false leads, thus wasting a lot of narrative time. Characters pop up out of nowhere and then disappear for good as if they only had a day or two to film their scenes before returning to a more important film. Chao Fan has a mysterious ally who aids him, but only because he wants the jewels himself. In one confusing bit of business, Chief Fan's double-dealing mistress (Chiang Ling) tries to make off with the jewels, but it only became clear to me late in the film that the jewels she grabs are not the stolen ones everyone's looking for. Why even bring them into the story? Chao Fan is disgraced in the eyes of his beautiful cousin, played by Li Ching, and he makes ineffectual attempts to get back into her good graces. There's a scene in a seemingly haunted tomb that drags the pace down. It all culminates in a sword-and-kung-fu showdown at an abandoned windmill between uncle and nephew.
There are no real stars in this, except for the leading lady, Li Ching (VALLEY OF THE FANGS, KING EAGLE, THE LONG CHASE), who is more of a constant damsel-in-distress here than a proactive heroine. The lead actor, Chao Hsiung, is rather dour looking and usually played bad guys (THE Chinese BOXER) or supporting roles, and doesn't make much of a hero. The rest of the cast consists of a handful of Shaw Bros. regulars, with the main villain role, Chief Fan, going to SB veteran Yang Chi-Ching, who usually played authority figures or townsmen (court officers, nobles, constables, restaurant owners, etc.) and didn't often get to be the head bad guy who fights the hero at the end. He was well into middle age here and he's doubled extensively in his fight scenes. Also on hand are Tung Lin and Wang Hsieh as two important villains who pop in and out at odd times; Chan Shen, another villain who pops up infrequently; and Dean Shek, usually assigned to comic relief, but cast here as a fighter who helps out the hero at key points.
The saving grace of this film is the steady stream of action scenes choreographed by Hsu Er Niu (aka Simon Chui Yee-ang, aka Simon Hsu), who also choreographed the action for THE YOUNG AVENGER, DUEL FOR GOLD, BROTHERS FIVE, and THE FLYING GUILLOTINE, among others. He was probably Shaw's best fight director outside of Lau Kar Leung and Tang Chia and he does a great job here. The fighting is mostly swordplay, but also offers some straight hand-to-hand kung fu action. There are lots of opponents in the fight scenes and long takes and tracking shots, which pose greater challenges to the fight choreographer, but make for more exciting fight scenes. Many of the fights are shot outdoors, amidst some impressive sets. The final fight takes place on an abandoned estate with a tattered windmill figuring in the action. It gets pretty brutal on that windmill, as the fight persists long after the combatants get bloodied, bruised and maimed. It's a good finale but it would have been better if the build-up had been more compelling and if it had featured higher-profile fighting stars who were more forceful and charismatic (e.g. Yueh Hua and Ku Feng).