Part 1: Introductions
Welcome one and all to this series of retrospectives focused on the feature films of the late great martial arts legend; Bruce Lee.
I was born the year Lee’s action debut The Big Boss, came out in Hong Kong cinemas, and thus, I am not quite old enough to have been aware of him while he was still alive. I was all but two years old when he died. It was as a kid, growing up in the late 70s, that I became interested in him in the way that most schoolboys probably did (and no doubt, still do). Fast forward forty odd years, and I find that my fascination in the man has not diminished one iota, quite the opposite in fact. What began as mere schoolboy idolisation of the undisputed king of Kung Fu has grown via teenage fandom, personal martial arts study and extensive further reading; into a more holistic appreciation of the many faceted nature of a very interesting human being. The movies, of course represent just one of these facets (albeit a culturally significant one), and this brings us right back to the nature of these retrospectives. I will of course be covering all the films myself, so we can therefore expect, extensive brain splurges on Lee’s four completed, starring role movies, plus a special (and I predict, rather lengthy and confusing), fifth piece, covering the strange fruit that is the ever bizarre Game of Death. A film still generally considered canon, despite its terribly dubious credentials; we will discuss the special circumstances surrounding its creation, and posthumous 1978 release in as much detail as we can stand. As is my wont, there will be personal memories, and anecdotes here and there, as and when it feels good to share, and the usual unstable equilibrium of objectivity and subjectivity will wiggle around throughout I’m sure.
So, four bonafide classic movies plus one sort of crazy concept experiment, or whatever Game of Death is. I am one excited and very honoured writer, and with your good selves along for the ride, I’m looking forward to completing the task with an entertaining read. I hope that my long standing status as a fan, and my familiarity and love for these movies, as well as a certain acquired knowledge of the history and background surrounding them; gives me insight enough to pull it all together. I guess we’ll all find out by the end.
Part 2: Setting the scene
Introductions, and mission statement over, I feel a little contextual scene setting is required, just to get us all in the mood:
It’s well documented that, after a frustrating period in the 60s almost (but not quite), making it in Hollywood as an actor; Bruce Lee moved his young family to Hong Kong. One really cannot give Bruce, or indeed, his wife Linda, enough credit for making this brave move, particularly when we consider how remote and disconnected the world still was back then. The Hollywood of the late 60s, and early 70s was still a depressingly non-progressive reflection of much of America’s equally non-progressive, and long established attitudes to racial stereotypes. As an actor, Bruce’s Chinese ethnicity meant that there were very few options he could (or would), explore. Few (if any), roles offered him, were the kind of positive, powerful or heroic characters that would suit what Bruce so naturally brought to the equation. As a result, things had somewhat lost momentum for him there. Various documentaries and biographies over the years, have asserted that the lead role of ‘Caine’ in the ground breaking TV series Kung-Fu, being given to (non-Chinese) actor David Carradine, was one frustrating disappointment too many. Linda strenuously asserts that Lee’s original martial arts/wild west concept; The Warrior, which he pitched to various studios, was lifted wholesale, and became Kung Fu. Other biographies have muddied the water yet further (think Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story), with their depictions of the subject. These things may make good dramatic beats in the movies, but the truth of them is always much more complex, and nuanced (as things in real life usually are). However, we mustn’t get bogged down further in the particulars of it all here. I urge those of you interested, to research it yourselves, and make up your own minds what you believe. It’s certainly true, that Bruce was considered (and officially rejected), for the role of Caine. Make of all this what you will, but one thing is certain; Kung Fu would have been a very different show, had Bruce been cast instead of the soft spoken Carradine. I’d like to have seen that show, but it wouldn’t have been the same.
OK, moving on.
Suffice to say, for one reason or another, Bruce found himself the wrong side of thirty, and massively disenchanted with Hollywood, to the point where a kind of critical mass was reached. He became convinced that fully relocating to Hong Kong (rather than just visiting), could well be the answer he was looking for. There, he believed he might find a movie making environment more conducive and welcoming to him, and his ethnicity no hindrance. The opportunity being to hone his acting craft, and gain invaluable moviemaking experience. Writing, Directing and Producing were also more attainable skills there.
I’m not sure if he had further insight in this way, but he would also be building a professional and public profile that in a few years, Hollywood might just find a little harder to ignore. Once in Hong Kong; rather than having to start from scratch, Bruce found that he was already somewhat famous. The old US Green Hornet TV show had been successfully syndicated there, and was even ‘unofficially’ known as ‘The Kato Show‘ (a nod to the emphasis and popularity of Bruce’s character on the show). Evidently, he had his foot in the door before shooting a single frame. He soon hooked up with film producer Raymond Chow, and so began the next stage in his remarkable professional evolution.
So, without any further historical procrastination; Let us focus the time machine sharply on 1971, and jump straight into the first fruit of Bruce’s association with Mr. Chow. His first starring role movie: The Big Boss (also known as Fists of Fury for many of our American readers, I’ll explain why some other time).
Part 3: The movie
A brief observation, if you’ll beg the indulgence:
Over the years, I have noticed, while talking to folks about Bruce Lee’s movies, that for those folks less familiar with them than yours truly; the first three (if not all of them), can blend together quite profusely, lacking distinction in the mind. The previously mentioned confusion over some of the film’s titles in different territories, muddying the water still further. Growing up, I had the same problem with Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry movies. Until I became properly familiar with all of them individually; certain scenes, lines, situations and characters tended to merge together and form a kind of fluid, indistinct whole. I would remember the gigantic .44 calibre AutoMag handgun for instance (as distinct from the more famous classic Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum), but wouldn’t remember if it was The Enforcer, Sudden Impact, or Magnum Force that it appeared in (Trivia fans: it was actually Sudden Impact). Staying with the Dirty Harry analogy; I’m sure many folks would be surprised to learn, that the famous catchphrase “Go ahead, make my day”, was also from Sudden Impact, and did not appear in the three (yes three), previous Dirty Harry films. Hard to believe now that catchphrase is so indelibly linked to the character. For those of you that might be experiencing exactly this type of confusion when considering Bruce Lee’s filmography in general, and The Big Boss specifically, or those who perhaps have never even seen the movie; here’s a super quick capsule recap of the plot:
Bruce plays Cheng, a young man of high moral fortitude, yet fragile temperament; who discovers, he’s working for some very bad men, engaged in very bad things on the down low. People die, and Cheng awesomely begins kicking all the ass required to make them pay.
Now, if you require a little more detail than that (and I suspect some of you would appreciate it), here’s a slightly more descriptive plot recap:
Bruce plays Cheng, a Chinese Shaolin dude (and for Shaolin, read ‘very very skilled in kicking 16 kinds of ass, but sworn to non-violence’). Cheng has come to live with his uncle and cousins in Thailand. He takes a job at a local ice factory (one of those iconic movie locations folks always seem to remember), as many of his aforementioned cousins also work there. Turns out, said ice factory is a front for a ruthless drug smuggling operation. Some employees are complicit, and others are not (most notably, Cheng’s cousins, of course). Naturally, things soon go heavily pear shaped, when a shipment of drugs is discovered in one of the ice blocks. Very soon, folks (including Cheng’s cousins), begin mysteriously disappearing (bumped off by the gangsters for daring to confront the owner about the drugs). Cheng himself is promoted (as I guess one or two job positions above him just became vacant). He is later told of his missing cousin’s fate by a local ‘lady of the night’ who’s in the know. He subsequently breaks into the factory, and after discovering some of the bodies for himself; ends up somewhat tarnishing his vow of non-violence, by engaging in savage poundings against just about everyone complicit in the operation. The whole shooting match is run by the powerful, and formidable Hsiao Mi (the literal ‘Big Boss’ of the title, if not the subtextual one). Things ramp up rather quickly, and after brutally taking care of pretty much everyone at the factory, the film climaxes with the inevitable showdown with Hsiao Mi, at his opulent place of residence. Our man wins the day of course, and violently kills Boss man after a protracted and spectacular fight. He then, heroically hands himself over to the otherwise fairly useless authorities; he is, after all, an honourable man, and guilty of manslaughter at the very least. Cheng is carted off to an unknown fate, and the credits role.
Even though (as mentioned earlier), Bruce was indeed, already pretty well known in Hong Kong; when it came to making his first film, he was still very much the new boy in school, and as yet, unproven. As such, he did not have full artistic control on The Big Boss, and it shows. Despite this, it is remarkable just how much of what would become staples of his on-screen persona, are already present here. The character of Cheng very nearly conforms to what would become the Bruce Lee archetype. He of incorruptible moral fortitude and an irresistible drive to make wrongdoers pay, the hard way (usually in defiance of some kind of pacifistic vow, or promise). However, certain traits were a little looser than later characters would be, once Lee had more creative input and professional clout. For instance; the fights Cheng gets involved with here, are often extremely violent, and involve some brutal fatalities (the most infamous being the now deleted ice-saw in the head gag). Depending on which cut of the movie you originally got to see, the level of graphic gore could actually vary quite a bit, but they’re all noticeably more bloody and gratuitous than later films, so the point is well made. As you progress through the movies, you do see a shift away from this type of bloody violence (particularly at Lee’s hands). Instances of his characters actually taking a human life, become relatively few, and (quite significantly), are often framed as absolute ‘last resort’ options when they do occur (a good example would be Colt’s death in Way of the Dragon).
Another area that evolved is that of romantic interests, and sex in general. Lee’s later characters become almost puritanically asexual, completely disinterested in the mattress mambo, in a way that no doubt, he felt supported his character’s incorruptible single mindedness and moral fortitude. He would also introduce more light hearted, comedic beats, and some very witty banter (if not out and out slapstick comedy in the way Jackie Chan would a few years later). One wonders if, had Bruce been able to finish The Game of Death himself, before passing away in 1973; would he have written himself a love interest of any sort? Hmmm….I tend to think not.
Finally, as would often repeatedly be the case in his movies; his characters unwavering defiance, inability to deal with either grief, unfairness, criminal behaviour or betrayal, coupled with his unmatched talent for raining down whoop-ass; brings all the more tragedy upon those innocents within his sphere of influence. His victories seldom come cheap in terms of human cost. One feels there may even be an intentional subtext running through, that actually condemns reactive violence on all fronts (although, with it being Bruce Lee, this could be a bit of a stretch). Maybe in the case of The Big Boss, this subtext is less obvious, as the plot simply doesn’t allow for zero fatalities. However, Bruce’s character’s actions in always tending to range an unstoppable force, against an immovable object, ultimately exacts a heavier toll in collateral damage, than if he had not acted at all. While it is certainly the case that innocent people tend to die as a direct result of his character’s actions, it’s debatable as what the deeper critique of this might really be, if any. I am of course being purely subjective in my own analysis in this respect. However, it must be said that, in Way of the Dragon two movies on from here; it is eminently arguable that no-one would have died at all, had Lee’s character not been there to offer such pro-active resistance to what begins as merely low level antagonism and coercion. We will discuss that, when we get to that particular film.
To be brutally honest, The Big Boss is arguably not Lee’s greatest work, and I think it is unlikely to be too many fan’s favourite movie. However, in the same way that we cannot judge the pilot episode of a TV show by the harshest of standards, or even the standards by which you would later judge the subsequent show, maybe two seasons in; The Big Boss must be seen, weighed, and counted with a nod to what it ultimately represents i.e. a very bold first step. A first step that successfully attempted to shake up the established scene, and do something radically different. It dispensed with the usual sword and sorcery, artifice, wire flying foolery, and silly wigs of Hong Kong cinema, and instead presented a gritty, realistic tone, and a flesh and blood, incorruptible army of one. A new hero, and man of the people. I think the film is shot quite nicely too, with some interesting camera set-ups and angles, however some film grammar naivety is also quite obvious, even compared to later titles. The fight choreography though, is brilliantly covered, and immensely kinetic. Bruce is an immediately charismatic presence that makes you sit up and take notice, even despite some uncomfortably clunky dialogue, and slightly unrefined line deliveries here and there. He certainly became king of the exaggerated gesture. A mistake that he would not make too often was to miscast bossman Hsiao Mi a little, in terms of his toe to toe potential as an adversary. Maybe it’s that lovely ’tash he’s sporting, coupled with a lack of threatening physicality, but you don’t really get the sense that this guy should pose too much of a problem for Bruce. Arnold would encounter the same obstacle over a decade later, until someone realised that the best way around it is to cast people even bigger than he was, to play the villains. Bruce would become rather good at cherry picking the right opponents later on.
The movie sported a tinny but memorable theme by Wang Fu-Ling, which is constantly in danger of being spoiled by the almost comical overuse of it in cue after cue. Some of this could possibly be the result of the copious chopping around and re-recording of the movie’s audio track for different territories, and releases etc. The overall effect certainly impacts the film’s production value.
It was seemingly as much by sheer force of personality, as it was his sublime martial arts credentials that ensured Bruce got bumped up from supporting co-star James Tien, to top billing in The Big Boss. He also become fight choreographer (he was not specifically hired as such), and garnered a co-writing credit with director Lo Wei in the process. To those around him, particularly established, or ascendant co-stars like the aforementioned Tien; Bruce Lee’s arrival on the Hong Kong movie scene, must have seemed like a bolt from the blue. Who was this upstart?!
One wonders if, during this early stage, some of the folks working with him, or (like Tien), having to literally move aside for him; might have had real trouble acclimatising to it all. It surely can’t have been easy for them watching it happen, while their careers possible faltered. The flip side of this is also true; certainly, there would have been many in and around the business, who would not have recognised the significance of what they were witnessing. Such was the speed, and intensity of this young man’s ascension to greatness, it would not be very long before no-one was in any doubt about Bruce Lee’s warp speed trajectory.
Here was an incandescent game changer, a super charismatic human fireball, and ‘historical arsonist’ (if you will), coming along and destroying what went before in order to rebuild it better. He didn’t know it, but Bruce was a legend in the making, who was about to begin burning his masterful sigil into the history books to a degree rarely seen. I can’t think of too many other movie stars that one can say this type of thing about, without it sounding like purest hyperbole. Bruce Lee is practically unique in this respect.
Of course, the folks in Hong Kong loved every minute of the movie, and The Big Boss began breaking all manner of box office records. People lined the streets waiting to see it, and cheered its star wherever he went. In the process; establishing Bruce Lee as a vital, bonafide new star on the ascendance. Apart from fame, and money; the most significant thing the success of The Big Boss would accomplish; would be to not only ensure there would be a second movie, but gain him a fair bit more creative clout when it came to shooting it.
Part 4: The next chapter
Things were only going to get even crazier and more spectacular in the life and career of Bruce Lee, and his next film would further cement him as Hong Kong’s biggest, most bankable star. In 1972, Fist of Fury would break all of Bruce’s previous box office records, and in the process, become many a Lee fan’s favourite movie to this day. It would also (along with The Big Boss), begin filtering back to the USA, and Europe in limited cinema distributions, and begin a groundswell of both grass roots, and celebrity support, massively raising public awareness of Bruce Lee again. All this would eventually whet Hollywood’s appetite for his work sufficiently, for them to make Bruce’s dream of Tinsel Town stardom come true (but we’ll get to that in good time).
So, All of this, and more, next time.