Dragon Lee Vs. the 5 Brothers (1978)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-06-01
The centerpiece of “Dragon Lee vs. The Five Brothers” and a wonderful example both of great action direction and also how the action can be seamlessly made a part of and add to the impact of the narrative is the superbly choreographed and executed fight between man with silver hand and the white clad ninja. A medicine seller who may have a list of rebels is trying to escape from the silver handed villain. This metallic hand is a terrible weapon; it can injure with one blow and kill with two. In order for the medicine seller to get away the ninja has to keep her opponent occupied but at the same time not allow him to land a punch with his lustrous limb. She fights almost entirely with her feet, launching flying kicks from a safe distance, landing in balance and either retreating, avoiding his counter attack or kicking again. She is smaller, more agile, very fit, almost unbelievably acrobatic and is able to keep her distance from the deadly hand while hitting him with kick after kick.

In addition to the respect for silver hand’s deadly talent shown by the ninja’s tactics it also puts her solidly in the good guy’s camp. She is even more altruistic than they since she, at least until now, has no interest in the insurgency. It seems she has nothing to gain by facing off against the most fearsome fighter in the kingdom. She finishes the fight with a (literal) in your face move. Silver hand leaps, tumbles in the air and is driving down at her feet first. She parries his attack by grabbing his feet just before they hit her and hurl him back into the air. Then, perhaps to show her disdain, she attacks with exactly the same move but she is able to land her kick and stun silver hand. While he is trying to gather his wits she escapes by running across the tops of trees. She is someone you would want on your side in any fight. Most importantly the medicine seller has escaped, taking with him his piece of the puzzle regarding the all important list.

The man with silver hand has already shown his martial arts power. He intervenes into a fracas which has gone very badly for his side—two of the emperor’s men sent to arrest someone have been locked up. He quickly frees the captives and when confronted by two underling who he knocks them aside easily. Then the major domo arrives, obviously much more skilled than the first two but is quickly beaten. The master of the house next joins the fray and it takes silver hand just a bit longer to kill him. He is obviously a very deadly and ruthless opponent.

We later discover that the brave ninja has been following Han because her brother is in prison. She needs 500 taels of gold to bribe the right officials to get him out—in a flashback we see her telling the chief bureaucrat that she will do anything, accept any condition to secure his release. It is clear where things are going—she can’t get the gold but there may be something else the ambitious official would take in return—the all important list or the person who has it. This creates a dynamic instability in her choice of action when she realizes that Han and the rebels can’t help free her brother. She tells Han that they are now enemies.

There interests coincide again when she brings the hapless medicine seller to the court in exchange for her brother. As is often the case we are expected to suspend disbelief just a bit too much here. It is one thing to accept that a dedicated kung fu practitioner can jump to the roof of a two story building or chop through a tree with a metal fan—that is part of the contract with the filmmaker that the audience agrees to when watching martial arts movies. The problem is not in the sophistication of physical technique that is shown but in the naiveté regarding political and social forces that afflict people who have spent years fighting oppressive overlords. When they accept the word of the scoundrels who have been trying to kill them—to, for example, deliver your hostage before seeing if your brother is actually free and doing so within the prison itself—it makes the entire narrative suffer.

But that is just a quibble. This movie is about courage, self-sacrifice, the ability to stand against evil even when badly outnumbered and loyalty to family and country. Han and his cohorts along with the white ninja are on one side and the emperor’s men are on the other. The villains are driven by the most base and mundane motive imaginable; they want to be promoted, given a chance to enjoy a higher place in a corrupt system. The heroes are always heroic—those who die do so without a whimper, refuse to divulge secrets under torture and take as many of the enemy with them as they can. Conversely the oppressor’s men scheme against each other while thinking only of wealth and promotion.

Dragon Lee does a lot of flexing and preening during his fights much of it with his shirt off. He looks more like a weightlifter than a martial arts expert but obviously has the moves—just is a bit too big and cut up for me. Sliver hand is an excellent villain. He kills out of loyalty to the emperor and to advance in the bureaucracy but mainly because he enjoys it. His superior, the senior of the five brothers of the title, is more problematical. He goes from ambitious bureaucrat to campy reprobate (wearing dangly earrings and a silk robe while being massaged by no fewer than five young women) to super-skillful kung fu artist. His end comes at the end of the movie when he shows he is tougher than any of his underlings. It takes both Han and the white ninja to kill him and they have their hands full doing it. He takes his time dying—the last thirty seconds or so reminds one of bearbaiting.

The real star and the moral center of the movie is the white ninja. She is first introduced as simply a lady on the road who can take care of herself—she has a broad brimmed hat that functions as a Frisbee style throwing weapon which either imbeds itself in the unfortunate target or flies back to her for another shot. When the white clad avenger turns up to battle the man with the silver hand we know immediately it is the same person and cheer for her success. She is obviously paired with silver hand—both are expert at disguise, although silver hand doesn’t really need one and they are at completely opposites ends of the ethical compass. She is incorruptible and is willing to die for loyalty honor while he eagerly seeks corruption and is willing to kill for preferment and place.

Recommended
Reviewer Score: 7