It drags a bit initially, but Shaolin Mantis becomes a winner as soon as the fists and feet start flying.
Plot: A spy (David Chiang) infiltrates the home of a prominent rebel leader determined to bring down the emperor, only to fall in love with the man’s daughter.
Review: A Shaw Brothers production, you immediately would think that this movie will be an action extravaganza. A demonstration of martial arts moves during the opening credits, followed by a test of the main character’s martial arts skills in the opening scene, offers promise. However, there’s this long section right afterwards that builds the love story between the main character and the antagonist’s daughter that made me wonder if I was watching a Shaw Brothers production. “This is supposed to be an action movie,” I thought. “Where’s the action?”
Well, when the action starts, let me tell you, it doesn’t quit – it’s a dizzying and profound martial arts spectacle that made me shake my head in disbelief. Every type of bladed weapon you could ask for goes on display, and it’s magnificent. I honestly shake my head in disbelief and admiration whenever I watch a Shaw Brothers production – the choreography is simply out of this world.
Which isn’t to say the story dies when the action begins. This movie had a surprisingly deep story for what is essentially a revenge story. The buildup, while seemingly excessive before the fighting commences, does give you a sense of emotion towards the characters – when Wei Fung is battling through the house of rebels, you want him to kick ass – which, thankfully, he does. The ending is a shocker that I had to watch twice as I couldn’t believe what was happening – it’s the most out of nowhere ending in a movie I’ve seen in a while.
The characters are terrific – I really believed in the romance between the two main characters, and yet, I also understood the actions of the “bad guys,” who really weren’t that bad. Today, we get nothing but sympathetic characters, which seems contrived these days. This movie, however, makes everyone’s motives and reasons completely believable. Even though I hated the rebels at the end and wanted them all to die, I strangely understood where they were coming from and felt like they had little choice in the matter.
The sets are incredible – an enormous house is the film’s primary setting, and the fighting occurs in every room. No two rooms are alike, and there’s a scale to the production that makes you shake your head in admiration. The soundtrack is adequate and fits the action – I wouldn’t say that I could recognize the tunes from the movie instantly if I heard them, but I don’t think they were created to do anything but suit the action. I don’t know how the mantis scenes were done, but I completely bought into them – so kudos to the effects people, whether the mantises were real or not.
If you’re a fan of kung fu movies and you haven’t seen this one yet, I highly recommend it. The action is well-choreographed and dominates the second half of the film. While some might become impatient with the love story buildup, I guarantee the wait is worthwhile. This is kung-fu with heart, and there’s no better film genre when you get both elements clicking.