‘Judgement of an Assassin’ boasts good action but is guilty of a wonky script
Written by Ni Kuang
Directed by Sun Chung
Hong Kong, 1977
Vengeance, lust for power, bruised egos, noble desire to remain true to one’s better judgement, none of these carry any meaning in when people are the subject of a trial. In the court of law, justice is blind, or should be, and as such anyone who circumvented it will receive due punishment. There are, however, many creative ways to corrupt the courts themselves, thus rendering attempts at shedding light on the all important truth moot. That is when vengeance and lust for power truly carry their weight against all odds. Sun Chung directs a large scale cast of performers in Judgement of an Assassin, a rather epic legal drama and martial arts hybrid where the fighting, both verbal and physical, happens inside and outside the courts.
When they least expect it, the Golden Axe clan, which has tried its very best to preserve a balance of power amongst the various martial arts clans, is viciously assaulted by a mysterious masked as:sassin. 21 people are slaughtered like dogs, including some high ranking members. Shortly thereafter, a skillful fighter named Yu Bao (Goo Goon-Chung) is arrested and kept in a coffin pierced by spikes while awaiting trial . Not everyone is entirely convinced of his guilt, which sends the region’s rival clans in a bit of a fit. Madam Si Gu (Wang Lai) is to preside over the court hearing, but there are many, many other actors in what quickly shapes up to be a vastly complex, such as Chief Jau Loong (Wai Wang) who advocates for Yu Bao’s guilt and execution, Chief Law Qun (Goo Man-Chung) fighting for his innocence, a trio of expert martial artists assigned to the shadows to unravel the truth behind the accusations, Miss Sek (Ching Li), Hei Mo Le (David Chiang) and Man Ying Tai (Chung Wa) and an old foe, Bloody Devil (Michael Chan Wai-Man) who has re-emerged from the past and may have a part to play before a verdict is reached.
Sun Chung’s Judgement of an Assassin is a great case of a film that manages to entertain despite a few obvious handicaps, which itself is a verdict that has come up more than once in the Shaw Brothers column. It has been written more than once that so many of these movies sometimes fail at paying enough attention to solid screenwriting that otherwise would more properly introduce all the necessary characters the story wants to juggle or to simply tell said story in a more comprehensible manner. Ni Kuang, a prolific writer in the 1970s for these martial arts adventures, brings some very compelling ideas to the table, ones that director Sun Chung does at least tries to imbed smoothly into the fabric of the overall plot, yet their combined efforts ultimately leave much to be desired. After so many stories which use as their starting points either revolutions, stolen goods, political turmoil or the rivalries between kung fu schools, seeing one in which everything seems to hinge on the trial of a single man is refreshing. Tossed into the mix are ideas of officials who were bought off, the proper way of handling the court case and fear of condemning an innocent person to his death. Of course, this being an action movie first and foremost, none of those ideas are allotted a tremendous amount of time to develop, each falling prey to the movie’s desire to provide constant action, which is a shame considering the potential the film had to become something different from the norm. In fact, by the picture’s final third, it does not feel as though the filmmakers are genuinely concerned with the court case at all seeing how they have the fighting between enemies, of which their has already been plenty, erupt in the magnificent outside court.
Staying with the issue of the mediocre script, the film struggles to juggle the enormous amount of characters that all seem to have hugely important roles to play, or so the filmmakers would like the viewer to believe. Judgement of an Assassin simply has too many heroes and villains for its own good, which makes it even worse when some incredibly talented cast members, like Ku Feng, play characters who ultimately come off as needless to the story. Feng plays a shrewd elderly man named Old Hedgehog who used to be romantically involved with Madam Si Gu. Their early scenes together carry some wry comedic value, yet the character is superficial to say the least, only adding to an already large cast. Bloody Devil, eventually revealed as the true antagonist pulling the strings behind the scenes, is poorly written on the whole, his plot and its reasons muddy at best. That is certainly not a knock against the actor playing him, Michael Chan Wai-Man, who is doing the best he can with what iffy material was given to him.
In all honesty, the cast is really quite good in addition to being impressively eclectic. As previously stated, Wang Lai and Ku Feng have an amusing rapport. Ching Li, despite being underused (the logical result of a script stretching itself too wide), is a lot of fun Miss Sek, a female martial artist who can legitimately carry her own weight but is continuously undervalued and assigned help from the men. Chung Wa is appropriately stoic as Man Ying Tai and David Chiang does, well, what he usually does: a lively and brash fighter who can hold his own against anybody and mostly finds all forms of opposition amusing more than he does threatening. It is nothing new from Chiang, who made a career playing this sort of character, but there is no denying he is terrific. As the saying goes: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’
Equally, if not more impressive is the fighting, which has an especially brutal feel to it in Judgement of an Assassin. The punches and kicks come in at a rapid fire pace, providing an extra thrill to the many contests. Either the editing process makes the fighting only look as though it happens quicker than it actually does or the actors and stunt doubles put in all the stops to produce the best possible martial arts mayhem their minds and bodies were capable of. The actual choreography is nothing out of the ordinary, serving up the requisite ducks, jumps pushes and blocks, but it all happens so quickly that the fights end up being much more thrilling than they otherwise would have been.
One final comment should be made about the title sequence, probably the the most creative aspect about the entire film. Much like King Cat, the scene is almost entirely animated, which is a nice touch, with the real kicker being that the credits themselves, written in red, arrive on screen like splashes of blood from the killings that occurred in the opening scene with the Golden Axe clan. Very nice.
Judgement of an Assassin is not up to par in the script department even though the potential was there for something special. That said, the cast is having a lot of fun, even those who are playing useless characters and the battles are spirited enough for those craving for adrenaline .