It is the nineteen-twenties in Shanghai, and dark deeds are afoot. One patriot, Mr Gau (Chiang Ming), has taken it upon himself to expose a conspiracy to hand over the region to the Japanese, not something the residents would readily agree to since that would place them under a tyranny, so teaming up with a safecracker (Jimmy Wang Yu) he breaks into an office, sees to it that the black-hatted thief bumps off the guard, then commit a heist where they secure documents outlining the plans. However, once the traitors get wind of this they are less than pleased about Gau spilling the beans, and set about sending a group of expert assassins after him, known as the Shanghai Thirteen. Can his fellow patriots save him and allow the non-violent diplomat safe passage?
This unassuming little item of martial arts mayhem was one of the films directed by Chang Cheh away from his more usual home of Shaw Brothers, who by this time were winding down operations, and as if to pay tribute to the filmmaker who had shown so many stars off to their best advantage, he managed to recruit a goodly amount of faces who would be familiar to domestic audiences for their ability to headline movies where they got to pretend to beat seven bells out of their opponents, all in the name of entertainment. That said, for the first half hour you could be forgiven for supposing the director had turned over a new leaf and was relying on his skills for drama, as most of it was talk rather than action, indeed not very much happened.
When Jimmy Wang Yu shows up you expect mayhem from minute one, but in effect he was only in the first five minutes and apparently not wishing to get his hair mussed (hence the hat?) he indulged in no combat whatsoever. Putting that disappointment to one side (well, okay, he did garrotte one bloke) we are then plunged into... a long conversation with the head of a martial arts school who discusses what is to be done with Mr Gau, a sequence complicated by the presence of Danny Lee skulking around on a nearby rooftop with a rifle, posing as a sniper. The sensible thing to do, you would have thought, would be to send out a party to sneak up on him, but that would be far too obvious, so what they do instead is dispatch a decoy as a stand-in.
Said decoy promptly gets shot, to nobody's surprise except himself, but at least they can pinpoint the sniper now in an example of logic that may well appear farcical to the viewer, but then there was no shortage of laughs in a film that took itself very seriously. The upshot of this has Mr Gau passed down a line of bodyguards under the orders of Mr Shen (Chen Kuan Tai) which effectively creates what has been come to be known as the computer game plot, leading to setpiece after setpiece of cast members beating each other up until the big boss is reached at the finale for a great showdown. To be fair, once that staid opening was over with, inadvertently proving Chang was most adept at the action over the melodrama, in this case at least, we then were rewarded with a full hour of practically non-stop battles.
For kung fu cinema fans, there would be at least a few faces to recognise, even if only for one scene, with say Ti Lung rocking up for the dockyard denouement complete with pipe clenched between his teeth and giving the surprise villain what for, though it had to be said the casualty rate was alarmingly high, a gallon of stage blood used on wounds caused by various sharp implements the bad guys use on the good guys. It was really these fisticuffs where the movie sprang to life, and not before time if you were considering giving up on its laughable dubbing/unhelpful subtitles, as such sequences as smooth hero Leung Kar Lan having his romance with a gaggle of ladies thwarted real highlights as he refuses to allow the violence to interrupt his mission to relax: much use of easy chairs and sofas ensues. If this was a lot sillier than seems to have been planned, that was a boon to the entertainment seeker no matter that the production looked so cheap they couldn't afford anything specific to the period it was meant to be set; better to let the hands and feet do the talking. Music by Huang Mou Shan.