Many years ago in ancient China, the tyrant ruler of the Peacock kingdom died in battle and the so-called Happy King (Lo Lieh) took his place. Given he spends his days gambling and partying with beautiful women, it is little wonder he is so happy. Meanwhile, a secret cadre of martial arts experts gather to plot his downfall. Righteous hero Shen Lang (David Chiang) spies on their activities until his cover is blown by his feisty fiancé, Zhu Qi Qi (Ching Li). Both are embroiled in a conspiracy orchestrated by scheming Madame Wang (Chen Ping) and her lecherous son Wang Lian Hua (Goo Goon-Chung) while Shen Lang finds a friend in Jin Wu Wang (Wong Chung), a decent man who just happens to be the Happy King’s sworn bodyguard. When Qi Qi is held captive, slovenly swordsman Panda (Danny Lee), chief of the Beggar’s Clan, leads the good guys to her rescue alongside Bai Fei Fei (Candice Yu), a sweet and demure young lady with a secret to hide.
Another tangled wu xia mystery from Shaw Brothers maestro Chu Yuan. Murder Plot bears all his trademarks: sumptuous sets, candy-coloured lighting, surreal plot twists involving dozens of characters. It has been said that individually Chu’s films are dazzling yet viewed collectively their repetitive aspects seep through. His favourite trick is to bombard viewers with information whilst keeping his heroes on the run. The pace is so furious we have few chances to scrutinize the plot. Nonetheless, Murder Plot ranks among Chu’s most insanely inventive efforts and is worth bearing with through its more convoluted episodes because the payoff proves so wildly entertaining.
In a break from the director’s usual leading men (Ti Lung, Derek Yee, Liu Yung), superstar David Chiang essays the traditional role of the unflappably intrepid hero, always two steps ahead of the dastardly villains, no matter what tricks they pull. “Death means nothing when one helps a friend” runs his mantra. Which is why when his friends are held captive by the despicable Wang Lian Hua, Shen Lang agrees to serve as an undercover stooge in their assassination attempt on the Happy King. Thereafter the plot grows reminiscent of early Ian Fleming as Shen Lang and Happy King have a showdown at the gambling table. Sadly this sequence drags interminably as Chu Yuan exhibits no flair for shooting gambling sequences comparible with, say, Wong Jing in God of Gamblers (1989). More impressive is the finale wherein the entire cast converge on the Happy King’s subterranean lair where Chu springs a veritable volley of shock twists and stages a cracking sword fight.
Around this time Chu Yuan made the comical The Proud Twins (1979) and, despite being a more serious affair, Murder Plot retains a certain snappy, lighthearted wit including a running gag where our heroes keep getting drugged unconscious. While David Chiang takes the lead it is actually Ching Li (Chu Yuan’s favourite actress) and Danny Lee who shine making the most of the comic potential in their respective roles as the delightfully scrappy girl sidekick and Robin Hood style rogue - albeit saddled with a ridiculous nickname. Why is he called Panda? “Because I look like one!” replies the future macho star of The Killer (1989) and City on Fire (1987). Meanwhile, Chiang’s charisma serves him ably. Born into an acting dynasty (both his parents were movie stars as are his brothers Paul Chun Pu, Law Wai-Chu and art-house auteur Derek Yee), Chiang became a martial arts movie icon thanks to director Chang Cheh. He went on to direct fourteen films himself, including Legend of the Owl (1981) a zany spoof of exactly the kind of movies Chu Yuan made.