Chik Ming Sing (Ti Lung) is riding through the desert on a horse with no name, and the beast is beginning to buckle under the strain, its legs bloody and mouth foaming. Eventually neither it nor its master can take anymore and Chik tumbles from the saddle, rolling down an embankment to rest in the sand, without food or water. It is now that he has a stroke of luck when a passing traveller (Alexander Fu Sheng) stops and acts the Good Samaritan, offering the beleaguered man sustenance, though once Chik has had a few gulps of water he overpowers his helper and steals his horse, leaving him with the injured steed to continue his travels without supplies...
Well, there's a fine thankyou, but this opening scene to what is considered one of the more underrated martial arts movies to emerge from the heyday of the Shaw Brothers studios quite accurately sums up the shifting moral ground the plot inhabits. It was a notable teaming of two of the more popular Shaw stars, the photogenic Ti Lung and the charismatic Alexander Fu Sheng, the latter a performer whose career was cruelly cut short after his untimely death in a car crash, aged just twenty-eight. This has some of the films he did appear in with the reputation of neglected gems, and many is the kung fu fan who have discovered what a fine actor he was dramatically, only to lament he never really broke through internationally thanks to his premature demise.
It goes without saying Fu was a huge admirer of Bruce Lee, but he was not a slavish imitator on this evidence, and The Avenging Eagle offered him a man of mystery to play, one who does not reveal his identity until late in the film. But that simply contributes to a work with an interestingly ambivalent attitude to the de rigueur violence of martial arts movies, with all those deaths which in many a movie were thrown away without much ethical weight to them whatsoever. When the stranger catches up with Chik in an abandoned shack, there don't appear to be any hard feelings when he is offered water and food in turn - well, they were his in the first place - although a fight breaks out when the stranger wants to light a fire, commencing a run of superbly choreographed combat.
However, they put their differences behind them when the men following Chik catch up with him and the stranger assists in killing them, but Chik does not appear pleased at all about this state of affairs, not simply the fact that he was being tracked by his enemies, but that death had to occur at all. It is then we are treated to a lengthy flashback to fill in the character's background where it turns out he was a member of the Iron Boat Clan, a gang of assassins and thieves who were trained from infancy to have no compassion and think nothing of executing anyone who stood in their way. Chik was content to carry out the wishes of coldhearted and manipulative Yo Xi-hung (Ku Feng), but then his conscience began to make its presence felt.
Thus a captivating moral quandary is brought out in what could have been your basic series of fighting setpieces, a martial arts movie which questions the whole impetus for their action. Even as you admire the skills of the performers on display, you are placed in a position of pondering whether all this death is really fair, not only for the heroes but for the villains as well, with the decency of those two heroes queried continually throughout the narrative. It's a fascinating method of putting a different spin on a traditional form, and a mark of how the genre was adapting that something this provocative was allowed through the usual heroic bloodshed stylings, as long as there was a plethora of action. Make no mistake, director Sun Chung handled the skirmishes with quite some achievement - watch for the long shot where about fifteen battles are going on at once for a director in full command of his work - and they were essential to the scruples the themes concentrated on, but for a work such as this to reach redemption with such regret and poignancy was undeniably powerful. Music by Chen Yung-Yu.