Just as the Emperor’s party is becoming a drunken orgy, a bearer of bad news walks in – Meng and his warriors are outside the city gates. Nonplussed by this, the Emperor wakes one of his 13 sons, Chun Xiao, who’s currently sleeping off a night on the piss. Chun seems even more nonplussed; calmly he nips outside, and before the clock strikes noon he’s returned dragging Meng’s strangled corpse behind him. When Chun leads his brothers into battle against an enemy emperor, the simmering sibling rivalry begins to boil, and Brothers 4 and 12 (they often refer to each other by number) sneak off to a rival warlord, treacherous Ming-er Lord Zhu, and rebel against their own flesh and blood…
And that’s just half the story – almost as soon as this two-hour epic crosses the half-way mark, Chang Cheh’s The Heroic Ones starts to degenerate into absolute chaos. Yeah, sure, the first part is littered with super-fast displays of sword, spear, arrow and pitchfork-play here and there, but it’s nothing compared to what’s later in store. Fighting off chain-wielding ninjas… twenty of Zhu’s finest swordsmen… Chun’s ludicrous, gory, spaghetti-western demise… the final, explosive battle. It’s hard to believe this was made in 1970, long before kung-fu made complex, high-octane fighting mandatory.
But The Heroic Ones’ main problem lies with its somewhat mediocre script. In fact it just about manages to hold together the first half’s comparatively few action sequences. It isn’t a particularly complex plot, and has no intention of being either – the most obvious example being a half-baked attempt to introduce a little romantic interest for Chun, which quickly proves itself to be completely inconsequential. And humour – forget it! Roy Walker would no doubt offer an entire week’s wage to get his hands on the few middle-of-the-road stinkers on offer here!
But then, a mediocre script can usually be saved by a variety of interesting, colourful characters, something that The Heroic Ones is blatantly lacking. Apart from the Mongolian Dick Dastardly, General Zhu, all the characters are incredibly dull – the brothers themselves being the worst offenders; they look the same, dress the same and refer to each other by number – Jesus, I’ve seen better examples of individuality during Brownshirt night at the local Conservative club! And whilst the mammoth battle scenes are admittedly impressive, their huge scale makes them kind-of impersonal, nothing like your typical one-on-one kung-fu duel. So much is going on at once, it’s hard to single out favourite fights and fighters, and it all becomes one adrenaline-pumped blur. Like a bad night on the piss – you have a great time but when its over you don’t have a fucking clue what happened.
If you’re a die-hard martial-arts fan with the strength and courage to chew through a plateful of plain-noodles before getting the sizzling stir-fry, then The Heroic Ones could be for you – but everyone else looking for more orthodox, straightforward chop-sockey action would be advised to try something a lot less adventurous.
Aka Sap Saam Taai Bo, Shaolin Masters, Shi San Tai Bao, Thirteen Fighters, Thirteen Warlords