Outraged when the Qing dynasty sign the 'Treaty of Aigun' in 1858 ceding land along the Manchurian border to the Russian Empire, a Buddhist monk (Phillip Ko Fei), a Manchurian warrior (Kam Kong) and a Uyghur Muslim (Li Chung-Chien) plot to assassinate the Imperial Regent. Aiding their efforts in secret are a mysterious masked martial arts expert (Yu Tien-Lung), who is actually the Regent's interpreter, and Mr. Ma (Meng Fei) who despite being played by a celebrated kung fu star is all-but forgettable.
5 Kung Fu Daredevil Heroes embodies the state of flux that Hong Kong martial arts cinema was in at the time in that it awkwardly merges tropes that were on the wane (the racial pride Bruce Lee embodied in Fist of Fury (1972), the un-ironic machismo and fierce nationalism of Chang Cheh's historical action epics) with those on the rise. Specifically the comedy kung fu stylings of Jackie Chan who was just starting to break through. These scenes (including a moment where a hero hiding in the grass is unwittingly peed on by an imperial guardsman!) stick out like a sore thumb amidst the film’s otherwise straight-faced patriotic fervour. They lend credence to otherwise unverified claims that additional scenes were later directed by Cheung San-Yee, who made the kung fu Snow White adaptation Thrilling Bloody Sword (1981), and Cheung Ying who made the children's musical The Fantasy of Deer Warrior (1961).
Nevertheless the bulk of the film was directed by Taiwanese playwright turned filmmaker Shen Chiang, a veteran of multiple Shaw Brothers martial arts epics. Unlike the majority of Shaw Brothers' product from this period, 5 Kung Fu Daredevil heroes has a more rough and ready aesthetic. While it does not stint on the period costumes elaborate sets are foregone in favour of gritty on-location shooting. Less polished but perhaps more authentic although the camera going in and out of focus is harder to excuse. Chiang’s script is laden with messages about the importance of China's varied tribal/religious/cultural factions uniting behind a noble cause echoing the sentiment of Chang Cheh's The Assassin (1967) and foreshadowing the more contentious underlining themes of Zhang Yimou's more internationally renowned Hero (2003).
Whatever subtext the script has is skin deep. This time around Chiang was either more interested in crafting a straightforward thrilling action-adventure or else saw the film taken from his hands and remoulded. Either way it’s a slog. It does not help that the film relegates its attention-grabbing trio of Big Martial Arts Movie Stars (the ubiquitous Lo Lieh in a dodgy silver wig, Leung Kar-Yan in a rare villainous turn and Yueh Hua, barely in the movie as the architect of the uprising) to barely more-than-cameo roles leaving the bulk of screen time to less charismatic actors. None of the heroes register much in the way of personality and make little-to-no-impression on the viewer. At least the action choreography by co-star Yu Tien-Lung is of a high standard. No frills but suitably frenetic and exciting.
In the midst of its patriotic fervour 5 Kung Fu Daredevil Heroes curiously breaks from the feminism of Chiang's earlier Shaw Brothers hit Swordswomen Three (1970). The heroes go out of their way to play strange mind games with the film's lone female character (Hong Liang-Yu) and dodge her every attempt at a romantic gesture. Indeed the film echoes an unfortunate tendency in Chang Cheh movies as it sidelines and humiliates the heroine even going so far as to downplay a climactic act of self-sacrifice that goes unnoticed by the heroes. But never mind, check out those badass dudes.