Sometime in the last month or two, a whole pile of Shaw Brothers kung fu movies suddenly appeared on Netflix. The Shaw Brothers studio started making movies in Hong Kong in the ’20s, but it’s most famous for the incredibly huge catalog it cranked out during the ’70s and early ’80s. At its peak, the company was reportedly starting production on a new movie every nine days, and that ’70s run —all period pieces, all starring guys with ponytails getting revenge on one another, all mean and low-budget and generally badass—left a deep impression on any American kid who spent Saturday afternoons watching Black Belt Theater on local UHF channels. A few of the iconic Shaw Brothers movies—The Five Venoms, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin—only just made it to Netflix. But lesser-known but equally great stuff has been there for awhile, and 1978’s The Avenging Eagle is as good a place to start as any.
This movie doesn’t have a huge cast or elaborate sets, the way some of those Shaw Brothers classics did. It doesn’t have Gordon Liu (the studio’s most iconic star), or Jackie Chan or Jet Li (two guys who came up working in that system). But it does have a great little story, a violent and self-contained little parable about what happens when dangerous people face up to the things they’ve done. The cast is so small, and the locations so unimportant, that the movie could almost work as a stage play, so long as the actors could master the fight choreography.
The stars are Ti Lung and Alexander Fu, two recognizable Shaw Brothers utility players. Lung is a killer who grew up in a bandit clan with a merciless master, and he’s been trained to kill without mercy since he was a kid; it’s all he knows. But he’s losing faith. One day, he’s injured on the battlefield and thought to be dead when a rich family comes along, picks him up, and nurses him back to health. Not long after, he returns to his bandit clan and ends up having to kill that whole family. It’s that kind of life. Eventually, he runs away, but all his old friends are after him.
We find all this out later, in flashbacks. As the movie starts, he’s riding a bleeding horse, looking about ready to keel over. Instead, he steals a horse from a mysterious stranger who stops to help. That stranger—they both introduce themselves as bums, nothing more—pursues him, fights him a bit, and ends up joining him in his fights against those bandits. There’s a plot twist that you’ll see coming miles away; Ti Lung is almost certainly the last person to figure it out. But it all leads to a series of bloody showdowns and a satisfying, poetic conclusion. It feels sparse and mythic, like an old Western. It doesn’t have any more story than it absolutely needs to have.
The fights aren’t as hard-hitting as what you see in martial-arts movies today, but they’re graceful and balletic, and director Sun Chung holds the camera steady, keeping all the actors in frame, so we always know exactly what’s happening. The fights move quickly, with a sort of hectic precision, and the actors clearly know exactly what they’re doing. If you’ve seen any Shaw Brothers movies, you basically know what to expect: robes and hair flying around, lots of ducking under flying roundhouse kicks, some obvious but unshowy wire-work. And as fun as those fights may be, the moments right before are often the most memorable. Ti Lung’s most badass line comes after Alexander Fu asks him how many people he’s killed: “I’ve stopped counting. It’s boring.” Fu’s most badass line comes as he’s waiting in the woods for a couple of pursuers to catch up: “I’ve looked around, and this seems like a good place to bury your bodies.”
All the characters, even the most minor ones, get their own signature weapons, which is always fun. One has throwing axes, and another has blades tied to the end of a rope. A couple guys have what look like giant metal hula hoops, which seem ineffective but are apparently feared and respected. There are two enormous musclebound twins with big metal clubs and one arm apiece. One character uses his ponytail to choke out another. Alexander Fu spends most of the movie fighting unarmed, but the moment he finally unveils his weapon of choice is a big one. And Ti Lung gets to use the most badass signature weapon a ’70s kung fu movie can offer: the three-section staff, which is like nunchucks, but even more so.
The Avenging Eagle didn’t leave behind some vaunted legacy, at least as far as I know. There was one remake in Hong Kong in 1993; I’ve never seen it. Two years ago, the Weinstein Company announced that they were going to do an English-language version, but I don’t think anything ever came of it. Ti Lung went on to play a gangster in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow and Jackie Chan’s father in The Legend of the Drunken Master; Alexander Fu died in a 1983 car crash, when he was filming Eight Diagram Pole Fighter. It would be pretty easy to forget that this movie ever existed. But it’s still a hell of a good time, and a great reason to fall back into all those Shaw Brothers flicks that you may or may not have grown up watching.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one. You can read previous installments over here.