When Bruce Lee returned to Hong Kong in 1971 on a two picture deal with Golden Harvest his career was at a crossroads. The first of these films, The Big Boss was a huge success, breaking all Hong Kong box office records (You can read our review here). Despite its low budget, flimsy plot, and lets say relatively raw approach to filmmaking it was clear that they had uncovered a star. Understandably the second film, 1972’s Fist of Fury had considerably more money thrown at it, and is blessed with a greater sense of purpose. Whilst its impossible to not have a soft spot for the naivety of it’s predecessor, Fist of Fury sees greater influence from Lee, both in terms of thematic content and the complexity of the fight scenes.
He plays Chen Zen, a martial arts student who returns home to Shanghai, arriving during the funeral of his teacher. When it’s crashed by some cocky Japanese from a rival school intent on goading them into fighting, Lee is restrained by his classmates who remind him that his teacher espoused non violence. This is a common theme for Lee. Despite his ridiculous arsenal of fists and kicks, he is always (initially) held back and prevented from doling out (highly deserved) punishment due to a promise or the expectations of someone close to him. It’s a technique that makes the ass whipping when it inevitably comes all so sweet.
It doesn’t take long before Lee finds himself at the dojo of the offending school, defending his masters honour, and taking them all on. Literally about 20 people or so – much of the fight is in one long take and its impossible not to marvel at not only his extreme fitness, but the strength of his technique. By now Lee has learnt to ham it up. Mid fight he takes off his top with the care and focus of someone diffusing a bomb – and its treated that way by his attackers. From his exaggerated stance to his peculiar vocal mannerisms – even his facial expressions, he comes across as this exacting master to be admired, studied and imitated. He is a weapon. Everybody watching this film wants to be him.
Aside from the creation of this enigma, what I love about Fist of Fury is these odd humorous, almost slapstick moments that feel like they belong in another film entirely – perhaps a Pink Panther film. Demonstrating his versatility (and yen for comedy), Lee dresses up as an old newspaper seller at one point. Later he is all teeth and glasses as a Nutty Professor style telephone repairmen – all in the guise of surreptitiously gathering information from the Japanese. Then he goes full vengeance in some exhilarating fights/ duels.
This diversity in tone shouldn’t work, but it does, for one reason – Lee. He can ham it up or beat the stuffing out of his attackers and its all captivating. Whether it’s a naïve PG love scene, a brutal fight scene or some random social commentary you can’t keep your eyes off him. He owns this film both physically and morally. The extra features articulate Lee’s desire to tackle issues like racism in his films, and the need to use his skills for good, protecting the honour and welfare of his friends or family, which we see this here repeatedly – and for the remainder of his career.
The feature documentary, Bruce Lee The Legend shows us some remarkable footage, in particular his early childhood film career, and a Hollywood screen test where he speaks about himself and demonstrates some of his moves. There’s also interviews with colleagues as well alternate endings and openings.
Bruce Lee is of course an icon, and this ‘Films Of Fury’ reissue series provides a fascinating opportunity to experience both Fists of Fury and The Big Boss some fifty years later, to witness his development and realise that even back then he was a compelling and unstoppable force.