4 August 2008 | BrianDanaCamp
THE SAVAGE FIVE Outlaws take over town in suspenseful kung fu thriller
THE SAVAGE FIVE (1974) was the 19th collaboration of director Chang Cheh and his star duo, Ti Lung and David Chiang, a team responsible for many great kung fu films made at Shaw Bros. in the 1970s, aided and abetted by this film's fight choreographers, Tang Chia and Lau Kar Leung, who performed the same duties on most of the previous collaborations. This one doesn't have the flashy kung fu setpieces or elaborate settings of the team's earlier films (THE HEROIC ONES, THE NEW ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, BLOOD BROTHERS, etc.), but it's still a worthy effort with a strong storyline and a series of fight scenes designed strictly to serve the story. The five lead actors, Ti Lung, David Chiang, Chen Kuan Tai, Danny Lee, and Wang Chung, play characters with kung fu skills who decide to offer some resistance after their town is taken over by a robbery gang. The outlaws want the town silversmith, Wei (Danny Lee), to open the safe that they robbed from a bank in a neighboring town. But when Wei flees town to try and summon help it has tragic repercussions for the townsfolk. After a number of failed attempts which leave several townsmen dead, the remaining four heroes finally get the best of the bandits, only to get sent back to square one after the rest of the outlaw gang shows up, along with their vicious leader (played by Frankie Wei), who is armed with automatic pistols and uses them to regain the upper hand.
The other fighters are played by David Chiang as a petty thief with a past; Ti Lung as a drunken scion of a once-wealthy family; Chen Kuan Tai as a simple woodcutter; and Wang Chung as a traveling acrobat who's fallen ill and is recuperating in the town. Wang Ping plays San Niang, a restaurant owner and female friend of the heroes who is quite a cool customer in the face of danger. At one point, she steps forth boldly as the outlaws begin picking out screaming young girls from the town to take with them for the night and offers herself in their place. This encounter and the aftermath in the morning are powerful dramatic scenes in the midst of this kung fu action tale.
There are a few contrivances along the way that threaten the film's credibility, but overall it's a lean, mean suspenseful thriller that plays like a western and may indeed have borrowed its plot from one. In fact, there are three earlier films I was reminded of as I watched this: Andre de Toth's Hollywood western, DAY OF THE OUTLAW (1959); Duccio Tessari's Italian western, A PISTOL FOR RINGO (1965); and Hiroshi Inagaki's Japanese samurai drama, MACHIBUSE (1970). The music score in SAVAGE FIVE consists of cues ripped off from Ennio Morricone soundtracks for Italian westerns, including THE RETURN OF RINGO, the sequel to A PISTOL FOR RINGO.
The film has come out in a restored, remastered edition in Mandarin with English subtitles available on R3 DVD from Celestial Pictures/IVL.