Following The Magic Blade (1976), this is another Shaw Brothers swordplay mystery featuring Fu Hung Hsueh (Ti Lung), the hero whose laconic, unshaven, poncho-clad style was seemingly modelled on Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. Newly arrived in town, Fu befriends debonair, happy-go-lucky Ye Kai (Liu Yung), shortly before both heroes are invited to a gathering of sword experts at the fabled Wan Ma School. The leader of the school, Ma Kong-Qun (Paul Chang Chung) believes one of them is responsible for recent attempts made on his life. That night, Fu rebuffs the advances of Ma’s seductive wife (Chen Ping) while Ye Kai flirts with his feisty daughter (Shih Szu). The following morning, the pair are alarmed to discover Ma Kong Qun’s headless corpse. Suspicion falls on Fu, especially once it comes to light the dead man was among six mysterious killers responsible for the death of Bai Tian Yu, a legendary hero many believe to be Fu’s father. On the run with Ye Kai in tow, Fu sets out to clear his name and solve an increasingly complex mystery.
Quite often critics lambast martial arts films for having simplistic plots. Such accusations are typically levelled by those with only a passing familiarity with the genre, encompassing Bruce Lee brawl-fests or cheap chop-socky efforts. Simplicity is not a criticism one could ever level at the output of Chu Yuan. Rather than revenge-based plots, his films favoured dense, borderline impenetrable mysteries where outrageous twists and complex counter-schemes are routinely the order of the day. Pursuit of Vengeance upholds this tradition with a mind-bogglingly complex murder mystery. Like a Chinese puzzle box the conspiracy continually unearths one surprise villain after another.
Whilst the wildly convoluted proceedings do not bear up under close scrutiny and arguably lacks the madcap imagination of its predecessor, the film still weaves an agreeable line in dry humour. Fu Hung Hsueh and Ye Kai react with increasing incredulity to each zany twist yet make time to trade good-natured quips and banter over sword stances or philosophy. There are running gags wherein each of our intrepid, unflappable heroes take turns sitting out a fight (“When one of you guys are killed, I’ll step in!”) or keep stripping Miss Ma’s clothes off in battle. At one point when one villain is revealed as a master of disguise, the pair grab at each other’s faces suspecting them to be rubber masks. Midway, the dashing duo become a terrific trio. Versatile Shaw star Lo Lieh joins the act as an affable assassin so cocky he strips buck naked to bathe in front of his enemies! Hired to eliminate Fu Hung Hsueh, he ends up lending his quarry a helping hand because he does not want anyone else to claim the bounty.
Super-suave leading men Ti Lung and Liu Yung exude effortless cool as the heroes constantly out to one-up each other. However it is disheartening the usually progressive Chu Yuan relegated accomplished swordplay starlet Shih Szu, best known for her role in the Shaw Brothers/Hammer Films co-production Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) a.k.a. Seven Brothers Against Dracula, to the role of hapless female. Actor-director Derek Yee pops up in a special guest star cameo as the one hero able to match Fu Hung Hsueh’s swordplay, stroke for stroke. Ti Lung repayed the favour with a brief appearance as Fu in the Yee vehicle Death Duel (1977), which was also directed by the prolific Chu Yuan.
Pursuit of Vengeance climaxes with an audacious surprise finale akin to the slasher film April Fool’s Day (1986) but throws in a thrilling showdown with the heroes trapped inside a whirling web of swords and a hilarious coda wherein the heroes argue over who gets to kill the main villain. It is settled in most amusing fashion and proves probably the only Shaw Brothers martial arts film to end with a camera zoom onto one main character’s bare behind! Composer turned actor-director Frankie Chan later remade the film as the accomplished A Warrior’s Tragedy (1993) with Ti Lung reprising his role.