A security team escorting a cache of jewels and gold bound for the Imperial government are slain by bandits working for Hsu (Lung Fei), a ruthless criminal hiding behind a respectable facade. The sole survivor, Hsun (Kam Kong), barely escapes with his life. He is rescued by Hung (Chang Yu), a noble merchant in western garb who also happens to be a skilled fighter. The duo cross paths with Master Wu (Chan Sing) who was once Hsun's teacher but now a miserable drunk burdened with guilt for having killed a man in a duel. Meanwhile the bandits foolishly lose a chunk of their loot at the gambling table to wily con man Hsiao Bao (Jimmy Wang Yu) who thus also becomes a target of Hsu. Pursued relentlessly by Hsu's psychotic Japanese ally Chin (Luk Chuen) and his whicker basket-masked ninja assassins, the four heroes must team up to exact revenge. That is if they can set aside their macho pride.
Released to American grindhouse theatres as Dragon Squad, Four Real Friends is another Jimmy Wang Yu joint about macho men doing manly things in a suitably masculine fashion. Grrr! Indeed the film places an almost comical emphasis on male pride, the preservation of which proves more important than retrieving the stolen jewels. The protagonists are men too tough to admit weakness, accept charity or back down when faced with impossible odds. Nevertheless the central theme is that no man is an island and friendship is worth more than gold. Viewed outside the context of mid-Seventies martial arts cinema, the tone and thematic preoccupations of Four Real Friends can seem somewhat camp, yet they echo ideas prevalent in the films of Bruce Lee and Jimmy Wang Yu's old mentor Chang Cheh. Which is probably no accident since the film was scripted by Chang's regular writer, the insanely prolific Ni Kuang.
As a narrative the film has two primary flaws. Firstly the story consistently strains for a pathos it never truly earns. Secondly the heroes' chest-beating machismo and prickliness makes them hard to empathize with. Chan Sing, more often typecast as a scowling villain, lands the strongest character arc as a self-loathing drunk redeemed by the love of a good woman. However, the film's idea of a motivational speech is having characters constantly berate Wu as 'useless' until he eventually relents. Meanwhile Jimmy Wang Yu upholds his bad boy image as a selfish scoundrel who can't help mouthing off to his allies. There is no scene in the film where the heroes develop any kind of mutual respect and yet come the big showdown they all stand together. Additionally each hero proves such a badass in their solo confrontations with Hsu's men they do not seem to need much help in the final fight, which sort of undoes the message inherent in the story.
On a more positive note the first two thirds of the plot are appreciably intricate and well handled by Jimmy Wang Yu. His fluid direction employs a number of artful compositions and devices such as jump-cuts and slow-motion to keep the story compelling and pacy. The film showcases the actor-director's range of influences from Japanese chanbara, Italian westerns, elements of the crime thriller genre mixed with a whole lot of old-fashioned, unpretentious chopsocky action. Although not a classic on the same level as Beach of the War Gods (1973) or Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976), Four Real Friends remains a product of Wang Yu at the peak of his powers as a director of action. The star gives himself a big solo centre-piece but for the most part generously shares the spotlight with an ensemble cast, giving them opportunities to shine. In particular the final fight with against Chin in a hut full of frantically flapping chickens encapsulates the awkward beauty of Jimmy Wang Yu's unique, rough and ready action style.
Chinese actor/director born Yu Wang, who has worked almost entirely in the martial arts genre. A former swimming champion, Yu became one of the biggest stars of 70s kung fu for his work in films such as the The Magnificent Trio, One Armed Swordsmen and Dragon Squad. Often directed himself in his films and produced the Jackie Chan-starrer Island on Fire.