9 March 2002 | BrianDanaCamp
Wong Tao excels as a kung fu cop who flees his destiny
FATAL NEEDLES FATAL FISTS (the actual on screen title) is a kung fu film with an above-average storyline and top-notch cast which compensate for fewer fights than usual. The film marks the fourth collaboration between star Wong Tao and Taiwan-based director Lee Tso Nam and certainly deserves to be as well-remembered as their earlier team-ups: THE HOT, THE COOL AND THE VICIOUS, EAGLE'S CLAW and CHALLENGE OF DEATH.
The film takes the time-honored ploy of the hero who hangs up his gun/sword and applies it to the kung fu genre. Here the hero, Meng Hu (Wong Tao), is a town constable who gives up fighting after he inadvertently causes the death of his captain (Lo Lieh) during a tavern bout with the Four Devils, a band of thugs. The guilt-stricken Meng wanders drunkenly through the countryside until he winds up near dead outside the home of a town magistrate whose daughter nurses him back to health. He stays on to work as a servant and when a Mongolian bandit and his nasty crew show up and cause trouble, he does nothing to help when the fighting starts.
The bandit, Chung Tung (Chang Yi), seeks to use the town for an opium route and pressures the ailing magistrate to look the other way. Several fights ensue but the magistrate's men, led by his son (Jimmy Lee), are no match for Chung Tung and his trio of henchmen led by Chin Piao (Tommy Lee, who's also the film's action choreographer). Meng, under the assumed name of Chin Chai, refuses to help and is labeled a coward. Eventually, of course, he is provoked into action and proves an equal match for the villains. Chung Tung reacts by planting acupuncture needles in the magistrate's face and torso which only he can remove safely--and only if the magistrate cooperates. This creates a tricky situation for Meng and the others and leads, of course, to a final series of exciting kung fu battles between Wong Tao and his formidable co-stars.
The action slows somewhat in the final stretch as a couple of characters deliver long monologues. A sympathetic prostitute comes to offer key information to the heroes at the risk of her own life and stops to launch into a lengthy anti-drug tirade. All the extra dialogue taxes the capacities of the voice actors doing the English-dubbing, but they pull though and do a fine job.
Wong Tao, always the most underrated of kung fu stars, gives one of his most intense performances as a tortured soul burdened with frequent flashbacks to the death of his close partner in the film's earliest sequence. Even though he is dubbed a coward for much of the film, it's not that he's afraid to fight or that he's committed to nonviolence, but that he feels he has no right to live and develops a death wish. As a result, in several harrowing scenes he allows himself to be beaten and even stabbed when attacked. When he's finally shaken out of his depressed state by the brutal beating of a servant buddy by the bad guys, it marks a stirring return to action. While the film lacks the overall thrills of the star-director team's earlier efforts, it is nonetheless well-produced and remains consistently gripping and engaging.
ADDENDUM (6/13/15): Watching this again after 13 years, I was struck by how strong the drama is and how much attention is paid to characterization and character relationships. The characters have many more dramatic scenes than normal for a film in this genre and the English voice actors clearly relish the opportunity to invest more in the characters than usual. Also, there are three strong women characters in the film and all are played by fine actresses, although they're all unfamiliar to me. Hwa Ling plays the magistrate's daughter and Cheung Ping plays Madame Lee, the brothel manager, but I can't identify the one who plays the prostitute who helps the hero. The only quibble I have is that the final battle between hero and villain is written and staged almost as an afterthought. It needed some stronger flourishes in order to end the film on a more satisfying note.