AKA: Deadly Mantis, Deadly Shaolin Mantis
Year of release: 1978
Genre: martial arts
Director: Lau Kar-Leung
Action directors: Lau Kar-Leung, Wilson Tong
Producer: Runme Shaw
Writer: Sze-To On
Cinematography: Arthur Wong
Music: Frankie Chan
Editors: Lee Yim-Hoi, Chiang Hsing-Lung
Stars: David Chiang, Cecilia Wong, Lau Kar-Wing, Lily Li, Wilson Tong, Norman Chu, John Cheung, Teresa Ha, Wai Wang, Cheung Miu. Gordon Liu
Unrated; contains IIB-level violence
Movie review index
Martial arts fisticuffs takes a backseat to the story in the Shaw Brothers picture Shaolin Mantis, which has caused division among fans of old school kung fu movies, some of whom see this as one of the best of the genre produced during the period, while others think it should be regulated to the lower echelon of Shaw Brothers releases. This particular reviewer falls somewhere in the middle -- while the attention to the story is appreciated, it still would have been nice to have a few more fight scenes thrown into the mix.
The basic story itself takes a different path from many Shaw Brothers films, since the Ching ruling class -- usually the defacto villains in these sorts of releases -- are the heroes, at least initially. David Chiang plays Fung, a scholar who is skilled in kung fu who's sent by the emperor to spy on the Tien family, who are suspected of being rebels. Fung decides the best way to accomplish his mission is to become the teacher to the clan's young grand-daughter, Gi Gi (Cecilia Wong). Eventually, Fung and Gi Gi develop feelings for each other, which starts to split Fung's loyalties, since if he doesn't get any evidence on the Tiens, his own family will be executed.
The payoff for all of this, as you might expect, are a series of fights, While they're solid and well-made, the fights are just missing that special something that really makes them pop off the screen, which makes the long lead-up to them a bit disappointing. A big factor in this is David Chiang himself. He was never really the best on-screen fighter in the Shaw Brothers stable, and asking him to shoulder the load was perhaps asking too much. He doesn't look horrible by any means, but he doesn't produce any moves that will really floor you, either. When you also factor in an abrupt ending that adds in a twist many people find unnecessary, one can see why Shaolin Mantis isn't a favorite movie of many Shaw Brothers fans.
While I personally wouldn't rank Shaolin Mantis as high as other Shaw Brothers kung fu releases like Five Deadly Venoms and 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, it's still a satisfying run down the old-school road. While some viewers will might not appreciate the relatively deeper story elements, it was a refreshing change of pace to these tired eyes to see a kung fu movie deviate at least somewhat from your usual plot. And, keeping the third act in mind, there's plenty of hard-hitting action that's still worlds above a lot of the overly-CGIed crud many studios seem to content with pandering to the masses nowadays.