The insidious Mask Gang terrorize the countryside, slaughtering entire families and stealing their wealth. Young hero Zeng Jun (Chin Siu Ho) and his kung fu brother Qi Shanyun (Chiang Sheng) are determined to expose their identities. Their prime suspect is Ling Yunzi (Lu Feng) a wealthy, smarmy gad-about-town. While investigating Ling and his associates, Zeng Jun befriends Gao Yao (Philip Kwok Tsui), a lowly, taciturn cook with secret badass kung fu skills. As the Mask Gang bump off members of Zeng Jun's clan, Gao Yao proves an invaluable ally. However, Zeng Jun has a hard time convincing his brothers Gao Yao can be trusted once it turns out he himself is a former member of the Mask Gang.
Part of a run of films famed Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh made with the stars of his kung fu classic Five Deadly Venoms (1978), Masked Avengers recycles that movie's central gimmick. Once again the members of a secret martial arts cult conceal their identities behind masks, not just from enemies but also each other. Hence Zeng Jun is forced to rely on Gao Yao's martial arts knowledge in order to spot the guilty culprits, although the film milks a lot less out of this concept than Five Deadly Venoms. Ostensibly a martial arts whodunnit, Masked Avengers is almost a slasher movie, only instead of nubile young women the masked psychos stalk buff martial arts experts. The film features a lot of gory murders where the Mask Gang strap young men into absurdly elaborate torture devices that either turn them into human pincushions or drain their blood for the gang to quaff down as a tasty beverage. While sure to delight splatter fans, many viewers will find the scene with a real live chicken skewered to a wall where it slowly bleeds to death far less amusing.
Between the bloodshed and brawling Masked Avengers attempts to weave an intriguing murder mystery but fails largely because the characters are so very bland. Not helping matters is Chang's typical no-frills direction with its over-reliance on haphazard zooms to punctuate every plot point and simplistic celebration of raw machismo. The closest this gets to a theme or ideological conflict is when Zeng Jun slams Gao Yao for seeming to go out of his way to avoid trouble, even though the man-of-mystery is secretly a righteous hero. Or as Zeng Jun puts it: "A man must be upright." True to form yet contrary to the conventions of Chinese martial arts cinema at the time, Chang sidelines women entirely, relegating them to bit-part damsels in distress that do not contribute so much as a romantic subplot. The real romance here is the flickers of burning manly passion between the male leads as they scowl, snarl and trade blows until someone expires in a near-orgasmic spurt of blood. Genre veteran and joint choreographer of the action sequences Philip Kwok Tsui is a likable sardonic presence but his co-stars prove nowhere as quirky or charismatic. Their athleticism is their lone distinguishing feature. Nonetheless the film features an early role for future star Chin Siu Ho. He went on to grace such wacky Shaw Brothers offerings as Ghosts Galore (1983) and Demon of the Lute (1983) (a personal favorite) but remains best known for the successful Mr. Vampire (1985) franchise and cult horror classic The Seventh Curse (1986). More recently he made a postmodern comeback portraying himself in horror film Rigor Mortis (2013).
Devoid of the otherworldly atmosphere and ingenious plotting of Chu Yuan's superior wu xia mysteries (e.g. The Magic Blade (1976), Web of Death (1976), Clans of Intrigue (1977), Murder Plot (1979)), Masked Avengers remains a typical example of Chang Cheh's blood-and-testosterone soaked output towards the early Eighties. While popular in their day and still beloved by martial arts purists like Quentin Tarantino, Chang's work has arguably dated poorly by comparison with that of contemporaries like Chu Yuan, Lu Chin Ku and Lau Kar-Leung. His defenders maintain these films succeed for the same reason they bore skeptics like myself: no-frills, raw kung fu action, no-nonsense heroism and macho values. If you are in it for the blood, guts and furious slaughter, at least Masked Avengers delivers on that front. Especially the finale which trots out a spectacular pageant of frenzied fight action, spear-twirling and death-dealing gadgetry whilst racking up a near-genocidal body-count. Just don't go expecting anything beyond the most perfunctory emotional layer or any tangible hook to make us give a damn.