Well, here we are again; fresh from the fairly lengthy business of not only introducing this series of retrospectives, but discussing ground zero, numero uno movie The Big Boss, we now move our focus on to Bruce Lee’s second completed, starring role film.
A word of warning. This retrospective began in the mind as a much shorter piece, but it actually turned out to be unexpectedly epic in length. I really should have known.
Released in 1972; Fist of Fury (also known stateside as The Chinese Connection, as well as one or two other titles), is Bruce Lee’s second Raymond Chow produced, Hong Kong feature for Golden Harvest.
Once again, Lo Wei directs (as well as playing a significant acting role as the police chief). Although this continuation of much of the previous movie’s cast and crew, would seem to indicate a certain desire to repeat the ‘Boss’ formula exactly; we will see that in many ways ‘Fist’ is a new beast entirely, and definitely moved Bruce’s professional clout and screen persona into previously rarefied air.
I must at this stage declare that, much of what I write about this movie, may well turn out to be a few degrees more subjective than perhaps I would wish, or that which readers may have become accustomed to in my retrospectives. Such is the nature of my relationship with it however, that I’m rather under the impression that this is unavoidable. So if you’re still up for the ride, let’s get going.
Fist of Fury quite rightly, counts itself as a firm front running favourite among legions of Lee fans to this day, and still has the power to create a few new converts too. Now, as alluded to in my opening statement; I have to be honest and admit that it’s not one of mine. As you might imagine from a slightly soft middle aged fan who has seen the coming and going of several home video formats; I’ve owned multiple Bruce Lee box set collections over the many years I’ve been a fan (beginning of course with a cheap and cheerful VHS pan and scan set way back in the late 80s); Fist of Fury was probably the tape that got taken out of the box the least…there, I said it.
I have theories as to why this was, but I’m not 100% sure of any of them as ‘explain all’ solutions. It remains to this day, the Lee movie I am both, least familiar with (although be aware that this is a relative term, I’ve watched it many dozens of times), and least in love with as a result. The others, particularly Way of the Dragon, Enter the Dragon, and (trust me, I can’t believe I’m even saying this), even bonkers old Game of Death; I watched time and time and time again, over and over and over.
The only video that possibly had these two or three beat in terms of repeat views was Star Wars (sorry youngsters, Episode IV: A New Hope). Maybe it was because, back then, during that very influential, incredibly impressionable stage of my young life, the VHS tapes I owned; featured the heavily BBFC censored UK versions of the films, that removed every single frame of Bruce’s famous Nunchaku weapon from sight. Now then, I will talk more about the severity of this butchery, and the impact it had on Lee’s movies in the retrospective for Way of the Dragon. But for now, let’s just say that, as a result of this insane slice and dice, some key fight scenes in Fist of Fury were rendered notoriously toothless, not to mention horribly disjointed too. One or two were so heavily scourged, that they all but disappeared completely; leaving terrible continuity issues, and hideous mismatching frame cuts. Of course, here in the UK, all 5 movies got the same treatment, but subjectively ‘Fist’ seemed hit harder than some, and this certainly contributed to my (relative) neglect of the film, at least in the pre-DVD era.
In addition to the BBFC butchery, there’s something else that impacted my fascination with Fist of Fury (and for me still slightly affects it too). It’s to do with an element of the bodybuilding physique nut in me, being invoked.
I call this section: Ben gets obsessed with Bruce Lee's physique for a while.
While it is a given that Bruce could never be described as ‘out of shape’, he most definitely brought a somewhat flatter, less muscular, softer lined physique to the table in this film. Even though Fist of Fury gave us many iconic images, It is probably fair to say that today, most shirtless images of Bruce that proliferate in abundance tend to show the physique we would all become so familiar with in the movies that followed this one (cemented for European and American audiences of course mostly by Enter the Dragon's famous mirrored finale). Whether it’s the famous and quite unreal lat-spread workout, and Colosseum fight in ‘Way’, or any number of stills from ‘Enter’, Lee’s physicality and his prowess in displaying it became incredible.
For me, this is something that carries some significance, and could also have a bearing on Fist of Fury’s repeat watchability even now (albeit an admittedly strange and idiosyncratic one on my part).
At the risk of furthering how odd I may be coming across right now (I warned you that this one might get a bit grumbly); If you’re a physique nut like me, you would not (for example), get your muscle yuks from watching Sylvester Stallone in Rocky or even Rocky II. However, by the 1980s, the fitness revolution was in full tilt boogie, Arnold had shown everybody that it wasn’t just about how good your stunt double was anymore, and as a result; Rocky III, and then Rocky IV got very serious indeed in that department; bringing plenty of oiled up, 2% body-fat, ripped, vein popping muscle for us gym nuts to all gawk at and envy.
Bruce’s look in Fist of Fury is comparatively flat, and in my opinion; the whole movie suffers from a certain lighting and colour palette that doesn’t do his muscularity or definition any favours either. This is especially unforgivable considering that of all of Lee’s films; Fury was the one shot almost entirely on sound stages rather than locations. So you would expect better, more controllable lighting solutions designed to flatter and enhance the body, rather than the flatness in evidence here.
This could again be a part of the situation still not being fully under Lee’s control. It is worth noting in addition to this point, that in a similar way to Stallone’s aforementioned ability to dial in a particular physique for a movie, Bruce indeed stepped up his physique regimen after Fist of Fury, and brought an incredible ripped muscularity next time round...and great lighting.
Anyway, enough about all that censorship and muscle stuff, I only really wanted to explain why the movie might have missed it’s mark with me back in the day, and I’ve somehow blathered on for ages about it.
Moving on, I suppose I had better tell you what the film is all about.
Fist of Fury is set in pre-WWII Shanghai (possibly early 1930s). This period setting is unique in the Bruce Lee canon, with all other films being ‘present day’.
The drama takes place within what was known at the time as the Shanghai International Settlement. Without getting in to too much of a history lesson, this area was essentially a treaty port (one of several), which had existed since the mid 19th century, and the treaty of Nanjing. Various countries had interests there, including the ubiquitous British (of course), the French, and the US, as well as China herself.
The movie is set during a non-specified period where Imperial Japan had a very dominant interest there; which sets up the recipe for cultural friction between Chinese and Japanese living in close proximity. This friction forms the framework for the story to take place, and provides a historically legitimate way to put protagonists and antagonists together.
Having said that, we mustn’t imbue the film with social depth and meaning that frankly isn’t really there. It’s a pretty straight up tale, and solidly blocked out, with as much attention given to the drama, dialogue and characterisation of the lead players, as it does the fight scenes. This last point is underscored by the fact that there is very nearly an hour between major fight scenes featuring Bruce’s character Chen. The tone is so much this way, that it deservedly gets the ‘action/drama’ genre tag, rather than straight up action, or thriller etc.
Chen is a high level martial arts student from the Jingwu martial arts school, who returns home to find his beloved master and mentor dead under mysterious circumstances. Like Cheng from the The Big Boss, Chen is a further rough mix of elements that go to make up the slowly emerging Lee archetype. He is defiant, wilful, rebellious, and unable to cope with any situation where he feels slighted, offended or wronged without uncontrollably kicking plenty of ass. Couple this with the fact that, life in the settlement is legitimately difficult for all Chinese, and particularly Chen. After the local Japanese karate school insults the Jingwu school at their dead master’s wake (for reasons at the time unknown); he becomes a walking time bomb. The Chinese at this time, are considered a weak and subservient underclass (the famous ‘Sick man of Asia’ slight is used against them here). Chen, does not fit this stereotype at all; being both proud and strong……and of course, able to wipe the deck with pretty much anyone that puts him down.
He’s quite a troubled guy actually, and takes it upon himself to not only try and root out the truth of his master’s death, but to rain some serious humiliation and pain down on the Japanese that, not only have offended him, but that he believes are responsible.
As with The Big Boss, there is high body count in this movie, and although perhaps not quite as bloody; certainly maintains a violent sensibility on the part of Bruce’s character that would dissipate further once he had more creative control. Chen is a very angry and frustrated young man indeed, and there are many moments in his conflicts with the Japanese thugs where mercy could be shown to them, and isn’t.
Anyway, after discovering who poisoned the old master, and assuming the role of judge, jury and executioner; Chen goes into hiding. Police want to arrest him, the Japanese want to kill him, and the Jingwu folks have no idea where he is. The situation ramps up considerably, and the big boss (sorry), of the Japanese antagonists, a certain impressively moustachioed Mr Suzuki (Riki Hashimoto), sends his men in one night to kill all of the Jingwu students and teachers in a gigantic ruckus (and, almost to a man and woman, they do). Incidentally, I always felt that this development was one of those cinematic/dramatic beats that doesn’t quite play 100% believably, as it feels like a jump in seriousness that’s missing a few steps in between; like it’s gone from name calling and roughhousing, to y’know mass murder at the Jingwu school! In actual fact, there is a more graduated progression than that, but the feeling of an unrealistic jump in intensity remains vivid.
Meanwhile Chen has used various disguises to keep abreast of what’s going on, and ends up missing this massacre at Jingwu, because he is busy confronting both Mr Suzuki (who, incidentally always reminded me of my late uncle Bill), and his crime lord bud ‘Petrov the Russian’ (Robert Baker), at Suzuki’s pad behind the dojo. After demolishing pretty much everybody, many fatally, including the infamous impalement on his own katana of the dojo master, Yoshida; Chen fights and slays both Petrov, and Suzuki.
Here, for me; Chen’s actions in causing quite so many fatalities is a little extreme.
If you bear in mind that, although Chen (dressed as the comedic bespectacled telephone repair man), overhears that ‘something’ might be going down against the Jingwu school, he is ushered out before the Yoshida actually suggests to Suzuki that they massacre everyone. So, at the point at which Chen returns and lays waste to the Japanese thugs and bosses; he is not specifically aware of the kill order against the Jingwu, which would otherwise be at least a legitimate means of provoking his subsequent wrath and mercilessness. It is in areas like this, that Lee would make some of the biggest changes to his character’s actions in the next movie.
Chen eventually returns to the school to find almost everyone dead. Realising the weight of his own responsibility in all that has happened, and understanding that if he does not give himself up, the surviving members of the school will be arrested, Chen surrenders on condition that no-one else from the Jingwu school face any charges. Instead of the usual head down, handcuffs and carting off to an unknown future ending; we have instead a very Butch & Sundance final scene.
Certain in the knowledge he would never get a fair deal from the co-opted law enforcement gathered outside the school, never mind the Japanese overlords, Chen opts for a warrior’s death.
Exiting the building, he charges the legions of police in a hopeless full tilt attack. The movie freeze frames on Chen mid flying kick, we hear the sound of a dozen pistols exploding in gunfire, and the credits role.
In more recent years, I have certainly come to appreciate Fist of Fury a good deal more for its abundant natural gifts, and unique attributes within Lee’s filmography, as well as its profound influence on Hong Kong cinema throughout the 1970s. It’s a solid story, and holds its own internal logic pretty well. It has an intensity in its central performance that is not so vividly woven into his other film’s DNA. This is aided by the rare inclusion of a proper love interest character in the shape of Nora Miao (playing Chen’s fiancé Yuan).
The film also contains some bonafide iconic Lee imagery.
Some of these visual components have; like so many others, long become embedded in some kind of separate cultural headspace in a way that perhaps the movie as a whole, has not (except with fans of course). I know I am possibly straying back into a little too much subjectivity here, based on my earlier comments, but I think Fist of Fury owns some of the ‘blending’ phenomenon I mentioned in my introduction to this series of retrospectives. Having said that, it would be hard to make a case that this ownership is objectively any more prominent here than the other movies.
Regardless, the amazing scene of Bruce hypnotically performing those graceful ‘kata’ style arm movements for example, enhanced with the now famous, oft imitated, but never bettered, motion blur/ghosting effect is still awesome, and properly mesmerising even today, even for the briefest moment. For a lot of people; these images have become somewhat divorced from the specific movies they appear in, but I think I've made that point already.
To counter some of these truly amazing images, one must also remember the comedy Japanese wigs on some of the bad guys, and the clearly 70s afros, sideburns, and fashions of various extras involved in the handful of location shots (the scene where Bruce tries to enter the park is a good example).
The movie is now of course a much more pleasant viewing experience than it was when I was growing up; modern DVD prints of them all, released since James ’No Nunchaku’ Ferman retired from the BBFC, offer a restored 235:1 aspect ratio, and all that crazy nunchuck action safely put back in place where it always belonged.
In terms of my personal appreciation of it, Fist of Fury has never looked or played better. As a more seasoned (read: older and wiser), film lover; the movie offers a great deal more than I originally gave it credit for way back in the day. Watching it several times again for the sake of writing this retrospective with a fresh mental impression to draw on; I am simultaneously convinced more than ever, of two things:
1. That for reasons copiously explained earlier; I had massively underrated the movie as a teenager, and that in fact it is a unique, fascinating entry in Lee's filmography, and very worthy of being the fan favourite it is for so many.
2. Despite this revisionist admission, It’s still never going to climb too high up on my Bruce Lee laminated list (I now place it third).
I guess when it comes down to it, you can only deconstruct decades of dyed in the wool thought patterns to a certain degree, and one’s first contact with a film is a terribly critical thing to balls up (you listening Ferman, damn you?!), especially when the viewer is young.
Onwards and Upwards
Fist of Fury came out in 1972, broke all known Hong Kong box office records (previously set by The Big Boss), propelled Bruce Lee further towards his ultimate destiny, and elevated him even higher in terms of star status. But it wasn’t really the kind of film Bruce himself wanted to make.
Luckily, success can bring many things; creative control, and power of veto being two of them.
After Fist of Fury, Bruce was out of contract, and free to navigate his own trajectory. His next movie would be made through a new production company he would form (Concord Productions Inc), although ties with Golden Harvest also remained.
This time though, he would write, direct, produce, choreograph and star in the project. He would also have absolute creative control, and final cut. Not only that, but in the making of this next film, Bruce would push the boundaries of what could be expected from Hong Kong cinema, generate many many indelible, iconic images, launch a certain hairy backed karate bloke’s movie career, bear the first on-screen fruit of Bruce’s emergent martial arts philosophy, and create what would become his personal favourite of all four films he completed.
Yes, we are talking about Way of the Dragon.
I hope you’ll join me in what should be a fun ride discussing that one. I for one can’t wait to get stuck in, as it is a long standing favourite.
Ben Pegley - Originally written for Filmwerk - December 2013