Distributed by Shaw Brothers Studio
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
Ah, the Shaw Brothers, creators of some of the best kung fu action films of the 1970s. It was a Shaw Brothers movie that got me hooked on Black Belt Theatre when I was a kid. All these years later, I still find myself glued to the screen when one of those movies are on and I still find myself collecting them whenever I have a chance My most recent acquisition: The Duel.
In The Duel, Ren Jie (Ti Lung) is a young man whose godfather, Mr. Shen (Yeung Chi Hing), is leader of an organized crime family. His family is well-known and well-situated in town. Even the local senator has visited and expressed interest in their activities. Blamed for the murder of a rival crime family member, Mr. Shen decides to lend credence to this untrue rumor by attacking the enemy in his final act before retirement. Aiding him in this attack is the assassin known as The Rambler (David Chiang).
The attack is bloody, but incomplete. Despite the aide of some of the most able swordsmen in Ren Jie, his best friend Shao (Cheng Hong Yip) and The Rambler, the leaders of the rival gang escape. They leave, planning their revenge. Revenge is bloody and sweet when they attack Mr. Shen at his own retirement celebration. Mr. Shen is killed and Ren Jie is persuaded to take the blame for his godfather's death by the clan's accountant Mr. Gan (Chuen Yen). Ren Jie has no choice but to remain in hiding until sent for by Mr. Gan, leaving behind his family, best friend and the woman he loves, Hu Die, AKA: Butterfly (Wong Ping). Fortunately, he has a memento of their love tattooed on his chest: a butterfly so Hu Die will always be near him.
After a year without any word from his family and an attempt on his life, Ren Jie heads back to town to learn the truth. Reunited with his best friend, Ren Jie learns that his brother, Ren Lin (Ku Feng), has been run out of the clan after Mr. Gan's claims that Ren Lin was taking bribes from a rival gang. Ren Lin is now living on the streets, a drunken beggar. Hu Die's father has died and his restaurant has been turned into a brothel, where Hu Die is one of the most sought after prostitutes. Mr. Gan has joined forces with the enemy and Ren Jie discovers that he had planned Mr. Shen's death all along, hiring The Rambler to complete the job at the retirement dinner.
Incensed by all he has learned, Ren Jie vows revenge. He is aided by his best friend, his recovering brother and an unexpected source: The Rambler.
As far as 70s martial arts movies are concerned, The Duel is not one of the Shaw Brother's greatest films, but it's not one of their worst either. Ti Lung's acting is quite believable as is the storyline. The viewer truly believes in Ren Jie's grieving over the loss of his godfather, his girlfriend and all he holds dear, although I was a tad annoyed when, every time he was reminded of his girlfriend, his hand immediately went to his abdomen before sliding up to his chest where the tattoo of the butterfly resided. It made me laugh, wondering if the actor remembered where the tattoo was, sliding his hand up and once reaching his heart, thinking, "Oh, yeah, there it is!"
David Chiang's portrayal of The Rambler makes his character a rival with that of Ren Jie as to who is the coolest in the film. This guy can get wet, be caught up in some nasty fighting and still look polished with barely a hair out of place and his clothing in perfect condition. The character's only flaw is that ever present cough of his that always gets him into trouble, but is never truly explained.
The fight scenes of The Duel are beautifully choreographed and The Rambler's scenes were especially fluid in motion, as if the combatants were engaged in some sort of elaborate, yet deadly, dance. However, the special effects were laughable. The blood was way too red, sometimes spurting out in an explosive burst long after the victim had been killed. And those puckered gunshot wounds and silly bamboo pole stabbings - seriously not believable in the slightest.
That being said, I did enjoy watching the subtle nuances of the story, trying to figure out who was behind the murder and attempt on Ren Jie's life along with the main character. I also loved the surprise revelation about The Rambler towards the end of the film. The Duel brought back terrific memories - I vaguely remember watching this film as a kid, not understanding all that was taking place, but loving the swordplay just the same. Fans of these old martial arts films will find The Duel quite enjoyable and be happy to add this to their film collection.