A person would be hard pressed to find anything that is like 18 Bronzemen. It has some of the familiar elements of a kung fu movie: much of it consists of a training montage before the plot morphs into the standard “you killed my father so I must avenge him” story. It is what happens during the course of the film that makes it stand out from similar movies.
The training consists of the familiar 36 chambers of Shaolin, before proceeding to a trial involving the titular characters. The tests in 18 Bronzemen are rough compared to other movies. (Look close and you will see a version of the 35th Chamber used two years later in the 1978 classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.) Usually, the training is shown as difficult tests to improve aspects of kung fu. Here, they are a matter of life and death.
Being shot at and almost crushed between two walls of spikes are just two of the chambers shown. The Bronzemen are even tougher, with one of the final tests involving a fight with an armed opponent. The difference between this and the others is the person doing the challenge cannot fight back or defend themselves.
At this point, the brutality is not surprising. The main character has gone through training since he was a young child. This consisted of heavy stones being placed on him, being hit with sticks as he rolls through sticks, and sitting on a hot pan while powder is poured over him. Keep in mind, this is all before he turns six.
It sounds horrible, but 18 Bronzemen plays it off like any other training montage – and it works! While it is comical to see, by the time Shaolung gets to the Shaolin Temple, the audience is convinced he is a badass. It turns out he is not, but he seems like one up until that point.
What is odd is Shaolung seems to have reached his fighting skills peak before reaching puberty. He gets less impressive as 18 Bronzemen progresses and becomes more of a weak sidekick than an actual hero. It is odd since the plot revolves around him and he continues to regress instead of progress.
This is seen in the final battle that includes one of the best finishing sequences ever. It involves a heroic sacrifice that turns the tide. Shaolung watches as his friend valiantly dies and even gets in the best shot in the fight. It is odd to see the main character seem so unimportant.
Through all the strange decisions and wacky training, 18 Bronzemen remains of the best old school kung fu movies out there. The training sessions are wild and watching a young Shaolung is amazing. The finale is hard to describe, and ends with a combo attack that will leave audiences impressed as they wince in pain.
18 Bronzemen will be screening at the Old School Kung Fu Fest on December 11
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