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Heroic Ones
cast: David Chiang, Ti Lung, Chin Han, Lili Li, and Nan Kung-Hsun

director: Chang Cheh

101 minutes (18) 1974
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Momentum Asia DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Alasdair Stuart
Originally released in the 1970s, The Heroic Ones (aka: Shaolin Masters) is a sprawling epic of a film. It follows the fortunes of a general and his 13 sons, all feared warriors who find themselves being used as both political and military weapons in the constant wars for territory and respect.

Front and centre amongst them are stars Ti Lung and David Chiang. Chiang in particular is the hero, the 13th son whose casual attitude towards their work leads to some of the film's best early comedy and lays the groundwork for much of the drama to follow. He's an interesting lead, not remotely physically imposing and seemingly both drunk and asleep when we first see him. It's only when, after the opening duel with future star Bolo Yeung, he throws his spear aside and it takes two men to lift it that you get a sense of why he's as feared as he is.

Were the film simply an extended group of action sequences, which to be fair it very nearly is, that would be enough. The actors are all competent to very impressive, the scenes are staged with aplomb and on a vast scale and, with very little music, are punctuated only by the sounds of metal on metal and the screams of the dying. However, The Heroic Ones attempts to do something more than simple swordplay and goes a long way to succeeding.

Revealing that Chiang's character, like the others, was adopted and adopted last, the film shows how his competence and bravery in combat leads to him getting most of the credit for their actions and two of his other brothers, the 4th and 11th, becoming jealous. This jealousy leads, inevitably, to outright warfare and in an incredible, extended action sequence Ti Lung is forced to fight his way out of an enemy city alone against literally hundreds of other swordsmen. Lasting over half an hour, this is an action sequence that builds and builds and it's worth seeing the film just for this.

The consequences of 4th and 11th brothers' actions, in particular as a result of this battle, are felt throughout the rest of the film. In fact, Heroic Ones saves its trump card for the last 20 minutes when they do something utterly unexpected that turns the entire film on its head. The tragic consequences of their jealousy give the final scenes of the film an almost Shakespearean feel and an emotional weight that not every film of this genre can manage successfully.

The one criticism of the film is the poor subtitling. Whilst it's very far from the comedic heights of early video releases there are still some howlers in here and the clunky dialogue often gets in the way of the film. It's hard work, but if you can get past the subtitling, there's a lot to enjoy here.
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