The Big Boss (1971)

Written & directed by: Lo Wei
Producer: Raymond Chow
Starring: Bruce Lee, Maria Yi, James Tien, Lee Kwan, Han Ying-Chieh, Lau Wing & Nora Miao

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 The Big Boss-review on me.

Child- and young adult movie experience had been ticked off for Bruce Lee and now in adulthood he had priorities within martial arts filmmaking. Living in America in the 60s, there were signs of traction as Lee got a spotlight shone on him via the role as Kato alongside Van Villiams in the TV series The Green Hornet . Lasting only a season, various guest appearances followed as well as trying to get the project The Silent Flute off the ground along with screenwriter Stirling Silliphant and actor James Coburn (both martial arts students of Lee’s). Working behind the scenes supervising fight choreography for The Wrecking Crew with Dean Martin and Chuck Norris making his first movie appearance, catalysts and forces surrounding Lee certainly believed in his philosophy and style (including mentioned writer who allowed Lee’s own stance on martial arts philosophy to be worked into the TV-series Longstreet where Lee guested on four episodes). Even pitching his own TV-series with a preliminary title of The Warrior that eventually was reworked into KUNG FU without credit given to Bruce, a level headed Lee expressed understanding for the business concern of casting an unknown actor in the role (David Carradine eventually got the role) but when all was said and done, Lee had not been able crack the market. Reportedly advised by either producer Fred Weintraub or James Coburn to head back to Hong Kong and put together a credit or two in order to showcase he could be a martial arts lead and that he would travel, Lee met with Shaw Brothers but ultimately signed a two picture deal with Golden Harvest and made The Big Boss for director Lo Wei on location in Thailand. It would be the break commercially for Bruce Lee and the movie that effectively outdid the kung fu competition (and made Golden Harvest a global player despite not being able to compete budget-wise or with the production facilities with the mentioned Shaw Brothers). The first step towards iconic status was in the books. 

Keeping Bruce’s character out of fight scenes for initially is in retrospect a structural stroke of genius and if one wasn’t there to personally witness kung fu movies change through this choice, you can still imagine that Bruce’s precision and bursts of unique action came off as vastly different from any other performer on the screen at the time. Hong Kong movies taking their act on the road was and always will be a compelling notion too especially between the 70s and 90s but that doesn’t mean Lo Wei’s frame is vibrant. No, rural Thailand isn’t destined to be cinematic but on the flipside the darkness inherited within the story equals a grittier frame so the choice of location certainly doesn’t backfire when its depiction connects to this. The lack of vibrancy comes more from Lo Wei’s stiff direction and staging of dialogue and before any of Brue’s fight scenes, the choreography of the time doesn’t exactly shine either. Stripped of style and leaning more towards loud, swingy arms and legs type of brawls, Han Ying-Chih’s choreography is more compelling when characters meet their deaths in a darker manner and this is where Lo Wei as a filmmaker fares a little bit better as well. The small town gloom, its greed, its allure such as gambling and prostitution is an unexpected, enduring part of the atmosphere of THE BIG BOSS. Saying a Lo Wei movie has an edge is both valid but very unusual considering the filmmaker and he IS pulling some of the load in terms of impact even if Bruce’s efforts is head and shoulders above Lo Wei’s vision. 

His character Cheng Chao-An is often a quiet observer that tries to pick the right time to talk even if he is ultimately seduced and corrupted through his naivety. When his meaningful jade necklace is broken and enough’s enough, Lee bursts onto our screens and heads the now classic ice house sequence through a few precise strikes of power far removed and above any recognizable choreography of the time. None better illustrated than when Peter Chan approaches Lee and the take down is done in a split second, two kick combo. With his non-verbal reaction to both this and later observing the destroyed mental and physical promise not to fight represented by the jade, Lee shows he’s got a good read on the character. That continues to come through via select, very well staged narrative beats as the physically strong man falls for manipulation and that makes us infuriated as viewers (directed towards manipulative forces). Kung fu cinema isn’t constantly throwing punches and kicks at us in this one and yet we shout at the screen anyway. Much is lost and unfair towards the end of The Big Boss and the inexperienced man who witnesses everything go down around him turns into a violent animal. A literal fist of fury and for this to be felt you would need charisma, magnetism and a rare physical presence. That new fist of fury arrives here in The Big Boss.


Not without its production problems, including Lo Wei replacing the original director shortly after filming commenced and it’s either this changing of the guard that made proposed lead James Tien a supporting player instead or he was on standby and backup in case Bruce Lee couldn’t sufficiently carry his first martial arts lead role. Also not afraid of discussing and challenging Lo Wei’s ideas on action- and character-design (including punching villains through a wall that leaves a perfect outline cartoon-style and Bruce’s character engaging in risque sex-scenes), Lee stuck with the proposed narrative of a man being driven towards this revenge-path. Bruce was already carrying the burden of back problems but also sprained his ankle during filming and in particular the end fight was a struggle to complete.

(shooting the finale, photo credit unknown)

The film’s success was instant and it took merely a week to reach 2 million Hong Kong dollars at the box office and appeal across Asia was also undeniable. Because kung fu had not yet made its mark in the West and in particular America, overseas buyers were reluctant initially. It would take ripples caused by its hit-status in Beirut in 1972 for the buyers to arrive in Hong Kong and the film soon got to screen in previously unheard of markets for Chinese films such as South America, Africa and Southern Europe. After the original English dubtrack was re-done at the request of the film’s US distributor National General Pictures, the film got a US release in 1973 as Fists Of Fury (the proposed title was The Chinese Connection to capitalize on the impact of The French Connection and the drug trafficking-content of the plot) but reportedly an accidental title reversal with Lee’s second film (which had come out in America already) meant The Big Boss became Fists Of Fury and Fist Of Fury got The Chinese Connection title. Regardless the American audience were now ready as evident by the box office and the demographic turned out to be broader than just the Mandarin circuit the distributors were eyeing.

The film's American poster, photo credit: Heritage Auctions)

One of the most complicated historical issues surrounding the film has to do with its different versions around the world and varying degree of censorship. Most famously the “saw in the head” shot (Bruce uses one to dispatch of a thug) only exists in still form and was reportedly one of the earliest pieces of footage to be trimmed by Hong Kong censors (and was expectedly not saved and archived either). There are also photos of a lost scene where James Tien and Bruce Lee avoid a cart hurled at them in an alleyway. The original trailer also shows a deleted piece from the latter half of the film where Bruce Lee’s character returns to the Thai brothel for presumably some final, physical pleasures before possible death at the hand of the big boss during the final fight. As cheap as it sounds, it does have a purpose since the character throws away his belongings and has decided on leaving the world behind (because he could either die or be apprehended at the end with a lifetime prison sentence looming). A print screened in the United Kingdom in 1979 reportedly contained said sex scene. Other pieces of gore and grisly sights (such as additional bodies stored in the ice blocks) are visible in various trailers.

(the infamous saw in the head scene, photo credit unknown)

The Big Boss also has an extensive history regarding its soundtracks (as many three different scores throughout its release history). The music composed for the Mandarin language and initial English export version is credited to Wang Fu-Ling, the mentioned re-do of the English has gained popularity due to the lively score by German composer Peter Thomas and the album is a recommended purchase since it’s widely available on digital platforms. Finally as the movie was being given a Cantonese language dub in the early 80s, veteran composer Joseph Koo received credit but reportedly this track is actually a mixture of the score created for the Japanese theatrical version in 1974, mixing Koo’s music, Thomas’ and cues from rock group Pink Floyd. The Bruce Lee yells from other movies were added to this Cantonese track as well, since this was now a famous trademark.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson