I've probably seen hundreds of kung fu films in my life (most between the ages of 9 and 15). Strangely, this is one I'd never heard of. Sometime in 2006, I watched 42nd Street Forever, a glorious 2 hours of trailers from 1970s exploitation films. This was one of those trailers. I knew I had to see it. I searched the ends of the earth. Netflix, amazon, the martial arts section at Newbury comics. To no avail. It simply wasn't available. The Crippled Masters would become my holy grail. I couldn't imagine going another year without seeing this. Well, if you try hard enough and really put your mind into something, then anything is possible (also, the message of this picture). So, barely a month ago, I found this used online as part of a ten pack called Tough Guys of Kung Fu. It comes with such titles as Ninja Wars, Killing Machine, and Fists of Bruce Lee which, oddly enough, does NOT star Bruce Lee. All for under ten bucks! How could I possibly say no??
What did I think? Fucking awesome! Inspirational and most certainly NOT funny! This is a serious story, beautifully told, about overcoming the odds and standing (or sitting, I guess) up for oneself. It's the story of Lee Ho and Tang. Two bad men who suddenly become good because they lose their arms (Lee) and legs (Tang). Two fierce enemies who unite only because there is something they hate more than each other; Master Lin, the crime lord with the steel hump. Together, Lee and Tang form a whole person (the movie's words, not mine). United, they stand. Apart, they fall. One of the few times I can actually say literally AND figuratively and have it make sense. These two need each other.
Our story begins with Lee Ho being punished for having turned against his bosses (Tang & Lin). His arms are severed as Tang tells him, "you broke the rules here, you deserve everything you get. You should be grateful." Armless, Lee stumbles into the town and walks up to a restaurant, where he is mistaken for a begger. Amazingly, he didn't have to go to the ER. Perhaps he cauterized the wounds with a hot poker or something. Those scenes may be in the director's cut that I'm hoping is in the works. The scene in the restaurant is a sad one as the other diners are clearly disgusted by him. It becomes even worse when the propieter holds some chicken just out of Lee's "reach" as the sound guys employ some looney tunes-like sound effects. At this point, I considered the possibility that I might be going to hell. Thankfully, Lee bit the propieter in the balls and, I knew, all was well. Of course, the ball biting leads to a no holds barred brouhaha, leaving poor Lee in worse shape than when he entered. Mistaken for dead, he is taken in by the friendly old coffin maker, named Jin. Jin tells Lee that he can change his course in life. He's too young to let his evil beginnings ruin what he has left.
Lee takes these words to heart and leaves the town. He does this by somehow swimming down a river. Again, inspirational. When he's not swimming, he's crawling. A little confusing, since his legs seem to work fine. He ends up at a farming community, eating out of a pig trough. A farmer asks him if he's a man or a ghost. His reply; "If I were a ghost, would I be eating pig swill?" I suppose he has a point. Suddenly, we have the first of many montages in this picture. As flute music plays, we see Lee watering the fields with his feet, playing with children, using his nub to haul buckets roped to the ends of a bamboo pole. Yes, he has a nub. You're right. Those bastards must have used a dull blade. Fuckers. Anyway, back to the montage. Lee even plays hackey sack. The world, for the first time in a long time, seems like a good place to be.
Unfortunately, we are plunged back into the dark world of Master Lin's corrupt town. Lin (the evil humpbacked one) has ordered his cronies to disable Tang, for no apparent reason, except to make the movie good. They do this by pouring acid on his legs and laughing as they melt. Lin tells his former servant, "All I know is, those against me die". His message is timely. Tang is pushed down a hill. Does anyone want to guess which farming community he ends up in?
We now have the buildup. What follows is a story of redemption and revenge. Who knew the two could go hand in hand? Sorry Mr. Lee. Hand to toe? Lee and Tang are able to put aside their differences with the help of an old kung fu master, an old coot that makes Pai-Mei look like...well.....Bruce Lee. The old guy in this story isn't very good. The scene where they encounter him is, surprisingly, the first legitimate "what the fuck" moment of the film. He brings Lee and Tang together by imploring them to forgive each other. "I think the both of you could be a very good couple." I think he went on to say something about how together they could almost be one person and therefore, could maybe defeat Mr. Lin. Lee and Tang didn't seem too insulted by this, so why should I be? Of course, this scene leads into a brilliant training montage, which culminates with the teacher playing keep away with his disabled students (shaking my head). I was going to say "crippled", but I think disabled is slightly less offensive? They both kind of imply that something is wrong, don't they? Fuck it, I'm sticking with crippled. What am I going to call them? Disabled Masters? Handicapped Masters? Fuck that.
Up until this point, there really hasn't been much kung fu (we're about 30 minutes in). I started to check my watch when I noticed the "crippled" masters strolling...um....walking...no, um....inching there way towards the restaurant, the same one where Lee got his ass handed to him earlier. What follows, and really every fight scene beyond this point, is sheer brilliance. I really don't have the words to describe it, so here's an image of Tang in training to tide you over. Notice, he has legs? Trust me, he can't use them.
You really don't want to mess with Tang. Aside from being named after a soft drink favored by astronauts, this guy has the upper body strength of a mule. Not a handicapped mule, an actual mule that people might use to haul shit. Nobody is putting Tang "out to pasture".
Strangely, about 2/3 of the way in, this becomes a heist picture. Lee and Tang's teacher, it turns out, has been training them so he can use them to steal the "8 Jade Horses" from the town's temple, or something. Lee is offended. "Gold, treasure mean nothinig against life. Why do we have to fight for it?" Teacher's response: "so I can die easy". Lee: "Ok, if you insist then we'll do it." This further demonstrates how selfless Lee and Tang have become. After years of terrorizing a town under orders of Mr. Lin, they are now at the point where they can rob the same town, simply so their old teacher can die with some money. This kind of character development makes me all weepy inside. Let's move on.
After retrieving the horses, which simply appear to be little figurines, our heroes bring them to teacher's farmhouse (it's not really a farmhouse, simply just a couple of sticks propped up together). It is revealed by teacher that the horses hold the key to a magnificent brand of kung fu, one that could even defeat Master Lin. Suddenly, Lee puts one of the horses on top of another horse, "now I have found the secret". It's that simple. Have you guys seen Voltron? This is better.
The final battle between Master Lin and Lee/Tang is an epic confrontation, lasting nearly ten minutes. Eight of those minutes are spent with Lee fighting as Lee and Tang fighting as Tang. They're not very effective, minimal blows are actually landed on Lin, but they've learned enough to keep him occupied. At the eight minute mark, things go slo-mo as Tang jumps on Lee's back and ,suddenly, Mr. Lin and his fucking hump, whose one move is to arch his back at his opponent as the sound technicians bang two steel rods together, doesn't look so good. Leetang, as I will now call them, finish him off in two or three moves. The final shot is a freeze frame, and certainly one worth the wait. What? Did you actually think for a minute that the filmmakers might actually let the crippled masters lose?? You might be joining me in eternal damnation, but at least this movie will be playing non stop.
I had a blast with Crippled Masters. The first time I watched it, I confess I was not myself. I was smashed, so I really didn't remember too much. I loved the fight scenes, the setting, even the dubbing was not awful. The lighting was pretty decent I suppose, considering this was transferred from an old video tape. I loved several characters. My favorites were Master Lin's two henchmen, simply named Black and White. White was a talking mime. These guys were pretty good at the kung fu, but not as good as my next favorite character, the mysterious stranger named Po. This is a guy who we're not really sure about. Is he good or evil? He's a commentary on the duality of man. First, he hates Lin and then he's working for him. Does he now like Lee and Tang? They seem to think so, but why is he now kicking their asses? Of course, Lee and Tang were, by far, my favorites. They taught me so much. I learned that if I ever lose my arms OR my legs (dear god, don't let it be both), whether by the sword or sulfuric acid, that I can still live on. Well, as long as I find a partner, someone who lost the opposite appendages of me, I can. Two guys with no legs is probably comparable to having two left feet. If I should happen to lose my arms, as long as I've maintained some sort of nub (for face smacking and bamboo pole twirling) I'll be ok. It wouldn't hurt to find a good teacher either. Life is full of possibilities.
Thankfully, Life is also full of good movies. This one put a smile on my face.
It's not funny.