Plot: Master Chiao (Leung Kar Yan) is a senior in the 8 Beggar Lords association - great name - and is wrongfully accused by court officials of stealing a valuable secret book of invincible techniques, the "Mao Shan tricks". The court's head catcher Lord Pao (Jason Pai Piao) is despatched with his agents to track down the book and recover it; aided by an eager junior who brings Pao their first lead. Although Chiao is innocent he claims the tricks belong to his association, and vows to retrieve it too.
Meanwhile Chiao starts his own investigation to clear the Beggar Lord's name, running into mysterious Lamas and thugs employing the Mao Shan tricks. Here we see some 'Spooky Encounters' magic gimickry with voodoo dolls, grenades, spells on scrolls to give invincibility.
In the background is Lieu Feng (HJL), who is best described as Black Magic Fox here: lots of seedy rituals involving "women's blood" and disco lighting.
As Pao's troop of inspectors uncover the mystery of who is involved in the theft, the suspects are whittled down one by one. Treachery in Lieu Feng's own clan leads to in-fighting, and finally. Chiao and Pao take on Feng in his palace for a sci-fi-hi-kicking showdown, with an 'Eh? Was that it?' final shot along the lines of '60 Second Assassin'.
Now, what is odd about this plot is that it has two main themes. One is Lord Pao's meditations on death. Following the killing of the first suspect we see Pao chased by the dead man's daughter; and we warns her against the negative nature of revenge. We later see mercy killings, self sacrifice, self defence killing, capital punishment; with Pao deeply moved by the loyal valedictions of his squad. Very Kurosawa, and done quite well (depsite some suspect subs).
And yet mixed into this is the 'Spooky Encounters' stuff - the psychedelic interludes involving HJL, seedy torture and special effects which looked dated in the 70's. These would be all well and good if it was camp horror Kung Fu like Kung Fu Zombies , but it sits very awkwardly with the seriousness of the rest, and ruins the drama.
Fights: Beardy is as crisp and efficient as ever; fast block and counter, leap, balance, repeat. Always a joy. Piao's clearly a basher at heart but works in some nice broadsword, meaty boot, and even the odd shape. Notable fights are the arrest of the bean-curd maker, with some decent stunts and sword; a fun gang rumble at the cliffside involving an iron hoop vs. sword and whip. There's a decent two vs. one kickoff at a beautiful pagoda that's open to the elements, and an all too short playoff featuring the winner and HJL which will have you reaching for the remote to watch his flying kick again.
But the finale: a letdown for me. Here we have Beardy and Paio vs HJL, in what could and should have been a classic of shapes & basher taking on the kicking king. Unfortunately, there are two big problems. Firstly, the fight sees HJL fight in a garish uniform against a garish palace interior, so although the fighting is furious it can be hard to follow. But worse, the fight is laden with daft wirework and ludicrous black magic laser fire! When you have ingredients as good as these 3 fighters, you don't need lashings of cheap sauce - keep it simple. For example the 'Secret Rivals' end fight works really well because it's set in a quarry, no gimmicks, and so you get to concentrate on the fights.
Overall: 3 out of 5. There's just enough Beardy, HJL and Piao quality here to make it above average, but this is a film with an identity crisis and a waste of a potentially brilliant finale.
Version watched: Vengeance video, 86 mins (Pal); not too bad: colour bleed, frequent minor scratches, 1.85:1