Noble revolutionary Chin Cheng-Feng (Yu Chung-Chiu) is caught and imprisoned by brutal blonde-haired warlord Lu Ping (Robert Tai). Chin's friend Lo Tung (Alan Chui) promptly tasks high-kicking hero Shao Ting Kang (John Liu) to spring him out of Lu Ping's fortified prison camp. A job Shao insists cannot be pulled off without a small army. So Lo Tung connects Shao with a so-called crack team of kung fu experts who unfortunately turn out to be a ragtag band of brawlers, clowns and wiseass wannabes. In order to pull off a seemingly impossible mission, tough taskmaster Shao sets about whipping these big-mouthed bozos into fighting shape.
Laced with an atrocious (inexplicably cockney flavoured) English dub and a cartoonish one-dimensional machismo in the Chang Cheh mold, Incredible Kung Fu Mission is tough to take seriously. Nevertheless it slots into that handful of films, along with Five Deadly Venoms (1978), Shogun Assassin (1980) and 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) that endeared themselves to a generation of martial arts fans thanks to frequent screenings as part of the Black Belt Theater TV package. Though supposedly inspired by the classic Burt Lancaster swashbuckler The Flame and the Arrow (1950) the plot more closely resembles the definitive misfits-on-a-mission movie: The Dirty Dozen (1967) with poker-faced John Liu attempting to channel Lee Marvin's badass authority.
As such the first half of the film sees our motley crew (who include a juggler, brothel keeper and undertaker) put through their paces in Shao's brutal training regime, enduring exhausting cross-country runs, a deadly obstacle course, mountain climbing and repeated ass kickings from their invincible leader. Later, to boost morale, Shao takes his men to visit a local brothel where they get into the inevitable brawl that, just as inevitably, serves to finally bond them together as a team. Along with portraying a memorable comic book villain, eccentric actor-action choreographer-auteur Robert Tai (sporting a blond mullet and moustache that make him look like a Dutch porn star) staged the impressive fights. While most of the action is played straight Tai's dynamic choreography adds the occasional slapstick flourish, reflecting the increasing influence of then-nascent superstar Jackie Chan.
Ol' Flash Legs Liu lands ample opportunity to show off his physical gifts. Feted by fans for his amazing flexibility and expert kicking technique he maintains an impressive physical presence despite proving more rigid as an actor. He later branched out into writing and directing his own wildly eccentric star vehicles with Zen Kwan Do Strikes Paris (1979) and In the Claws of the C.I.A. (1981). Co-star Alexander Lo Rei, a staple of straight-to-video ninja films throughout the Eighties, exhibits the charisma and athleticism that later made him a star in his own right, enduring a gruesome torture scene involving a hot branding iron. Cheung San-Yee directed only ten films, including Thrilling Bloody Sword (1981), a wildly surreal martial arts take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, but was a very prolific screenwriter from the Seventies into the early Nineties, specializing in the more fantastical end of the genre: e.g. 18 Bronzemen (1978), Little Hero (1978) with Polly Shan Kwan, Challenge of the Lady Ninja (1984) and The Magic Amethyst (1990). Cheung vents more creativity on the film's fight sequences than its plot yet throws the odd quirky touch to keep viewers interested. Interestingly Incredible Kung Fu Mission is even more nihilistic than The Dirty Dozen with a cynical third act twist infusing the plot with a whole other layer of futility.