An old man speaks directly to camera. As the camera pulls back we see he is covered in blood and pleading with his killer: a masked man who identifies himself as Yu Bao, of the Sin Ha clan. This cruel killer swiftly slaughters the old man along with twenty-one other men, women and children from the famed Golden Axe clan. When other clans learn of this despicable crime they track down Yu Bao (Goo Man-Chung). Ignoring his protests of innocence, they imprison him in a coffin lined with iron spikes (ouch!) and summon the whole Sin Ha clan, including gutsy swordswoman Miss Sek (Ching Li), to a grand hearing presided over by respected elder Madame Fa (Wang Lai).
However, it is all a ruse orchestrated by Chief Jau Loong (Wai Wang) of the Bai Du clan and his sexy girlfriend Yin Gi (Lau Wai-Ling) to manipulate the judicial system and thus divide and conquer the Martial World. To aid their plan the pair try to woo ace hero Swift Sword Hei Mo Lei (superstar David Chiang with hippie hairdo), whose chance encounter with the coffin-bound Yu Bao convinces him otherwise, and his opposite number Golden Whip Man Ying Tai (Chung Wa) who proves more susceptible. While Man Ying Tai obligingly sets about slaughtering more enemies of the Bai Du clan, Hei Mo Lei joins Miss Sek in attempting to expose the kangaroo court. But a slew of surprises await them, not least when Bloody Devil (Michael Chan Wai-Man), a hitherto meditating mystical martial arts master enters the fray.
This superb Shaw Brothers martial arts adventure deserves to be far better known. Judgement of an Assassin was made by Sun Chung, a pioneering experimental filmmaker at the studio and among the most technically gifted in Hong Kong cinema. His masterly hand is evident in the fluid camerawork that perfectly compliments the amazing action choreography by Tang Chia. Chung weaves a complex plot packing a fair few surprise twists yet primarily distinguished by the deft characterisation and nuanced performances. It is a sly socio-political satire meditating on how easily the law can be perverted to help the strong conquer the weak. Chung generally held a more fatalistic outlook than his contemporaries at Shaw Brothers and so, although the bad guys get their just desserts, the heroes are nevertheless powerless to prevent tragedy because of their belligerent elders.
Madame Fa is so assured of her own omnipotence she cannot conceive that anyone could manipulate her court, and fatally ignores the sage counsel of her old friend Cha Wang (Ku Feng). Chung draws amusing parallels between these bickering old timers and the scrappy relationship between Hei Mo Lei and Miss Sek. David Chiang plays an interestingly peppery hero who goes out of his way to antagonise others, but always aiming to impart a lesson. He is rude and unpredictable, but utterly honest and decent, contrasted with other outwardly polite but devious characters. A refreshing change from all those stoic, chivalrous types he played again and again in the films of Chang Cheh. Veteran actor Cheng Miu is also endearing as He Mo Lei’s merrily drunken master who memorably feigns meditation in the midst of a fight and gripes for his student to “just get on with it” in his showdown with one villain.
Oddly enough the film’s sole weakness stems from its strongest performance. Lau Wai-Ling delivers a standout turn as Yin Gi, the icy femme fatale who rips her lover to shreds with lethal finger nails, but her subplot ends so abruptly you wonder why her character was even included. Otherwise, it’s a top-notch kung fu film with a thrillingly visceral climax involving a death-dealing Buddha statue that shoots flying knives.