The Heroic Ones
AKA: 13 Fighters, Shaolin Masters
Year of release: 1970
Genre: martial arts
Director: Chang Cheh
Action directors: Lau Kar-Leung, Lau Kar-Wing, Tong Gai
Producer: Run Run Shaw
Writers: Chang Cheh, Ni Kuang
Cinematography: Kung Mu-To
Editing: Chiang Hsing-Lung
Music: Wang Fu-Ling
Stars: David Chiang, Ti Lung, Ku Feng, Chan Sing, Chin Han, Wong Chung, James Nam, Pao Chia-Wen, Lo Wai, Lau Gong, Sung Tuan, Wong Pau-Gei, Wang Kuang-Yu, Chan Chuen, Lau Kar-Wing, Lily Li
Not rated; contains IIB-level violence
Movie Review Index
Chang Cheh's The Heroic Ones veers a bit from your usual kung fu movie of the time. Taking place during the Tang dynasty, the story revolves around a clan of Mongols led by King Jin (Ku Feng). Despite their penchant for being continuously drunk and rowdy, Jin's men have gained a reputation for being the toughest warriors around, and so the Emperor has forged an uneasy alliance with them, which he looks to break as soon as possible by playing on the rivalries within the clan's leaders. Of course, as with all good kung fu movies, this leads to a bloody confrontation where most of the people involved aren't going to be walking away happily into the sunset.
For a movie called The Heroic Ones, there are actually very few heroic characters. It's to be expected that any representation of the Emperor (as essayed here through a weaselly warlord played by Chan Sing) won't be in a positive light, but here, even the protagonists are really anything but heroic. This sort of "gray area hero" is commonplace in modern action movies -- in fact, it's increasingly rare to have a protagonist that is truly "good" -- but at the time in Chinese film-making, this sort of portrayal of heroes (or, rather, so-called heroes) was something many audiences had not yet seen.
This is not to say that the protagonists are unlikable. It's actually quite the opposite, at least to this reviewer's eyes. Yes, many of the characters featured here are flawed, but there is a truthfulness and earnestness on display here that makes them compelling to watch, unlike many modern film that over-employ faux "extreme" attitude and childish behavior in order to make matters look or feel more "edgy". While ultimately, the story here is not all that deep, it is still quite interesting to watch, mostly because there's never really a sense of deja vu. Each new scene is a fairly unique take on the usual tropes of the kung fu genre, making The Heroic Ones stand far apart from many of the releases of a similar ilk made before and since.
Oh, and yes, there is a lot of action on display here, and, as you might expect from a Chang Cheh production that employs Lau Kar-Leung and Lau Kar-Wing as the action directors, it's very good stuff. Younger viewers who have cinematic ADD after being weaned on overstuffed CGI might find the fisticuffs on the boring side, but anyone with a lick of sense and iota of love for classic old-school kung fu are going to find a lot to like here. Of particular note is the ending, which is quite bloody, even by Chang Cheh's claret-stained standards. Sure, it's not Category III level hijinks, but the violence is jarring enough to further excite the viewer, and is the cherry on top of this outstanding example of how to do a kung fu movie the right way.