Kenneth's note: Although this looks and feels like a regular review, I do wish to provide some context for its appearance here (after initially posting it amidst the quick-takes). A few years ago I took on the personal challenge of writing pieces (long form or not) on genre classics that would also act as research pieces since I tend to want to include any making of-notes, talk of the movie's place in the context of a genre, its reception, legacy etc. By making it an excercise but also putting notes in writing I might have to look up in the future, this approch to writing served multiple purposes. The ones on Bruce Lee in particular have a lot of history connected to them, some of which I have included in the body of the review and some is located in the 'ADDITIONAL NOTES' section below. The point is, I approached these differently, even to the point where I excluded a regular plot synopsis, and it's a different review to me. Even if not to you. But they were always meant for public consumption so have a Fist Of Fury -review on me.
With momentum in the form of box office records and its star Bruce Lee concluding his two movie deal, Golden Harvest reunited the new kung fu king with the director in a more lavish production (from the rural and gritty Thai locations to the studios of Golden Harvest is quite a welcome step up in production quality), taking on the avenge my master storyline and producing what is considered Bruce Lee’s best Hong Kong martial arts picture.
This would arguably still be early in the life of the kung fu movie (excluding the still largely out of circulation run of Wong Fei-Hung movies starring Kwan Tak-Hing) so the clichéd plotting was not exhausted in 1972. At the same time Fist Of Fury also feels like a fresh revenge piece featuring a devastated, partly unhinged student at center. Add to this a performer in Bruce Lee that is convincingly favoring the non-verbal as he switches between his states and you have something that has endured. Whether sitting by his Master’s altar with a blank stare on his face or when we see the emergence of the detective and killing machine navigating his environments accordingly, the film still feels like a fresh take via this characterization and performance. Even when Bruce turns verbal, there’s an effective anger present that’s questioning the reasons for his Master’s passing and it certainly brightens up Lo Wei’s otherwise static direction. It is reported that directing duty was shared by Lo Wei, Bruce Lee and even fight choreographer Han Ying-Chieh to a degree but regardless what was the case, we certainly see a good merging of a more seasoned filmmaker, a fighting instructor that had worked for King Hu and a superstar with instincts of his own. Leading to setting up the Japanese characters in an exaggerated way but if you want to escalate conflict and craft hatred against the other side, that is how. But it’s only classic because of how Lo Wei shows his lead’s internalized rage in one moment (he reveals he knows tension within the beat where Bruce must resist leaping into action despite the disrespect by the Japanese towards his Master) and then turns the page to more externalized and cinematically iconic rage. There’s an aura here of a director feeling inspired to be working with what Lee brings and by the time Chenzhen enters the Japanese dojo, his intentions are laid out splendidly clear to the point where audiences would instantly know this entrance means pending hurt. An audience with The Big Boss in the back of their minds were about to be served up a classic, even nuanced showdown. The quick to the point takedowns are still present in Lee’s action akin to The Big Boss (even in the choreography that seems like all Han Ying-Chieh’s work there’s a decent sense of gritty brawling, loud sound effects and echoes of the basher genre) and he continues to be a standout amidst action output and performers of the time. Whether short punches, kicks, going one on two dozens and in this movie we also get our first taste of Bruce with the nunchucks, its power and the bloodshed it causes. It’s genre- and performer perfection and the manifestation of Chinese fighting spirit. The Chinese who are not sick men.
Even when there’s obvious evidence of his straightforward direction, where Lo Wei lines up performers in the widescreen frame like a stage play, because emotions are running high, the action is intense and running time is slim, it’s one his films where you get this better impression of his choices (which again might’ve been fueled by the collaborative effort in the movie). It’s basic but Lo Wei continues to nicely fuel who to root for, who is relentless, who is relentlessly devoted and even moments like James Tien protecting the portrait of his Master walks the balance of poignant devotion and stock melodrama well. What’s also dramatically effective is that Bruce’s character furthers a cycle of violence. His shame is understated, his rage understandable to a degree and that depth is achieved without the need to paint the screen in expository dialogue. Simply put, whenever the focus is on Bruce, his choices and character beats it makes you forget the stale nature of Lo Wei’s filmmaking (he would’ve never come up with the more subtle idea of Bruce refusing to tell Nora Miao of his plans by blankly staring and shaking his head super slowly).
Bruce Lee’s opponents are also varied, which includes his fight with Robert Baker (one of Bruce’s martial arts students and reportedly Bruce himself recorded Baker’s English lines for the Mandarin language version) and this opens up the film’s sense of the grand looking at the set and production design again as well as the desire to make the genre content and characters take a step up as well. Getting increasingly darker dealing with the evolving, sad cycle of violence includes Bruce showing mercy but is still forced into action and he loathes his target for making him do it. Maybe not unusual but a very felt moment. It’s quite eerie as well seeing a huge group of Japanese getting ready to walk into Jing Wu school while an unsuspecting Bruce a few moments later arrive to battle whoever is left in the Japanese school. We see here that revenge can be achieved but the spiral is ongoing and it’s a wise choice (using on- an off-screen violence) that services the underlying message. Lo Wei actually knew how to use that atmosphere to his advantage already in The Big Boss and this furthers his eye in this department. Having set up Baker’s power via his demonstration bending steel rods and bars, the actual fight sees him keeping up well and it’s believable he can outmuscle and outpower Lee in certain moments. Which is then followed by Lee taking on Riki Hashimoto’s ferocity and you come to realize there’s a lot of variety and standout moments in each fight scene in Fist Of Fury. The Big Boss was the emergence of the new Fist Of Fury and this second go confirms it wasn’t a fluke. The canvas was now larger in terms of production standards, performance technique, skill, desire to be better and this is why Bruce then took his filmmaking fate into his own hands by directing The Way Of The Dragon. It would be his only completed film in that capacity.
Chenzhen’s master in Fist Of Fury was the real life martial artist Huo Yuanjia and one of the founders of the Chin Woo Athletic Association in Shanghai. Known for having fought and defeating foreign fighters in organized matches during a time when foreign influence was highly present in China, his story was renowned and it led to widespread myth to the degree that a definite historical account is not easy to nail down (some of these known events, fully true or not, were transferred into Bruce Lee’s fictional character of Chenzhen for Fist Of Fury as he does fight the Japanese and a Russian in the movie after all). Having suffered from jaundice and tuberculosis in his life, Huo Yuanjia died at the age of 42 reportedly from hemoptysis disease. He had been treated by a Japanese physician but the prescribed medicine worsened his condition and it is speculated Huo was poisoned. An excavation in 1989 of Huo’s grave and subsequent analysis of his remains did confirm they contained arsenic but whether it was caused by poisoning or present due to the prescription could not be determined (arsenic had been used in Chinese medicine for over 2000 years). It’s a distinguished life of a Chinese legend and fighter, enhanced by myth or not, and popular culture latched onto it as you would expect. Jet Li essayed the role of student in the Fist Of Fury remake Fist Of Legend but he also got to play Master Huo Yuanjia in the acclaimed 2006 movie Fearless. As did Leung Kar-Yan in Yuen Woo-Ping’s Legend of A Fighter (1982) and Ekin Cheng in the 2008 TV series Huo Yuanjia (Jordan Chan plays Chenzhen).
(American poster, via gottahaverockandroll.com)
As for the reception of Fist Of Fury, it beat The Big Boss record gross from the year before in Hong Kong. When the film reached Japan, audiences clearly saw past the anti-Japanese sentiments and it was one of the top 10 movies when released in 1974. In America, it actually came out before Bruce Lee’s martial arts debut The Big Boss (possibly due to the English dubtrack of Boss being rewritten and re-recorded) but due to an inadvertent title swap, Fist Of Fury became The Chinese Connection in the US while said debut was released as Fists Of Fury (the drug smuggling element of William Friedkin’s 1971 film The French Connection was the inspiration behind the intended US title). A National General Pictures TV spot seems to indicate the release order was planned to be the same as in Hong Kong since it’s being advertised as a second, a follow up, Bruce Lee’s next film etc. In the end Fist Of Fury (as The Chinese Connection) was put out in America in November 1972 while The Big Boss (as Fists Of Fury ) followed in April 1973.
(possible promotional still of Bruce Lee and Robert Baker, photo credit unknown)
Jackie Chan appears briefly as a Jing Wu student and does stunts for the film (doubling Riki Hashimot’s fall across the courtyard during the finale) but his first starring vehicle under contract with Lo Wei was an overlong and poor sequel to this called New Fist Of Fury (released in 1976). Fist Of Fury was remade to critical acclaim by director Gordan Chan in 1994 as Fist Of Legend (starring Jet Li), Donnie Yen was the lead character Chenzhen in a 1995 TV-series and he returned in the role for the big screen in Legend Of The Fist: The Return Of Chen Zhen (2010). Suzuki is played by Riki Hashimoto whose eyes are very recognizable to Japanese cinema fans as he was the actor embodying the stone god Daimajin in that trilogy of movies (all released in 1966). The Big Boss was quite littered with deleted and lost footage but no such stories for Fist Of Fury except evidence of a trailer or a stills promo shoot involving Robert Baker taking on presumably members of the Jing Wu school before Bruce steps in. The two end up shoulder to shoulder and all that’s left of this is a still. Whether this was ever assembled into teaser or not I can’t confirm.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson