All Men Are Brothers is another huge Chang Cheh-directed production from Shaws when they were at the height of their powers, with just about all their action stars and four of their action choreographers (including my favourite, Lau Kar Leung). It picks up its story from the same source as The Water Margin and doesn’t go to much trouble introducing the characters… so you’re advised to watch The Water Margin first, so you know why David Chiang has his own sound effect.
The film opens very quietly, with a clandestine meeting in a high-class brothel between the Sung Emperor and wrestler and hero-about-town Yen Qing (David Chiang), where a bargain is struck: the emperor will pardon the 108 heroes of Liangshan, and the heroes will busy themselves dealing with the rebel armies that challenge the kingdom. We’re then presented with a series of quick scenes showing us the heroes doing battle with rebel forces, losing a few men but obviously proving to be the superior side.
The rebels, however, are led by a false emperor named Fang La (played by Chu Mu) and his puppet court, holed up in a heavily fortified city called Yongjinmen. The heroes try an assault against the city by water, but fail miserably, losing many men in the ensuing fight. It’s up to wonderboy Yen Qing and his heroic buddies to find a successful way to take the fortress and survive, destroying Fang La and his supporters.
This film’s a little more focused than its predecessor, coming very quickly to the problem of taking Yongjinmen and presenting us with a relatively small group of characters to focus on. The strategy involved in the story is not as well presented as it could be, though: the first attempt to take the city by sea looks fairly dodgy, as the heroes are caught in a trap that looks, really, quite pathetically easy to escape. Still, things become more interesting when the leading actors sneak into town, skulking around incognito while they devise a plan. Fans of The Black Whirlwind (Fan Mei-sheng) from the first film will see him take center stage for a bit, since he’s not so good at subterfuge. It’s the way he cries out, “The Black Whirlwind is here!” and lays about him with two axes that makes him a terrible hidden spy. There’s a great flashback introducing him at the start of the film, though: he really does get a lot of screen time here, and it’s great to watch.
Chen Kuan-tai gets the best fight sequence in the two films, facing off against several generals and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of the period epic film equivalent of garden-variety militia. Bolo Yueng turns up as an enormous, fur pelt-wearing general, intent on wrestling with David Chiang and Fan Mei-sheng. Though he’s prominent in the cast list, Ti Lung lurks on the outside of town for most of the film, making a suprise entrance in quite for the last scene.
Overall, All Men Are Brothers isn’t quite as tight or as much fun as the The Water Margin, but it’s still pretty solid. Recommended for anyone who enjoyed the first film (do see it, really!), or likes Chang Cheh’s stories of epic bloodshed and heroism.