I was expecting something great. What I saw was, well, puzzling.
Reviewer Score: 7
Right up front, the bad news. The story starts out slowly and, apart from the full-on fight scenes, never really speeds up. This film is mostly slow, ponderous and remarkably talky. And for the first 45 minutes, the fight choreography is dull. That's right, dull. Nothing like the standard you'd expect from this stellar fu cast.
End of bad news and puzzlement.
One thing which kept me going, through the puzzlement, ponderousnesss and poor choreog was the look of this film. If ever one needed reminding of the generally high quality of fu film production in the early 70s, and how much it slipped around the mid 70s, this is a great example. Another example is Jimmy Wang Yu's Chinese Boxer (1970) - stunning cinematography and great direction.
Anyway, the video of Five Shaolin Master which I was nearly cinema quality, and this was another surprise. The packaging of the video signalled none of this. It was a simple photo of two unknown young musclemen biffing each other (neither was in the movie), and had no mention of any of the cast. At least the cover mentioned that it was Shaw Brothers. Probably the reason for the high quality print was that it was a release from the large Australian cinema group Roadshow. Must have been their cinema print. There is stunning scenery here, and it could only look better in a cinema. Terrific stuff.
As I said, once the 45 minute mark is passed, the choreog improves dramatically, and this great fu mob perform at their peak. The finale is a ripper. The five baddies, all masters of their own styles, are taken on by the five titular masters, who in fact doubt their ability to win ! A most unusual outbreak of humility in the fu film world. This finale cross-cuts between the five separate one-on-one fights for a slam-bang twenty minutes. Classic stuff.
And it's interesting to note some of the up and coming talent. Super fu hero Gordon Liu is relegated to 14th billing and has only one scene. Incredible.
I can't quite agree that this film should have the status of classic, but warmly recommended anyway.