Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bruce Lee's Kung Fu Classic "Fist of Fury"

Although Enter the Dragon was the best movie starring Bruce Lee, the best Bruce Lee movie remains the seldom-shown Fist of Fury. Most American viewers compare it unfavorably with Enter the Dragon, because it lacks the latter film's colorful production, James Bond-style plot, and supporting English-language performers. But Fist of Fury doesn't need those trappings—it provides an ideal showcase for Lee's graceful athletic prowess, simmering fury, and surprising adeptness at humor.

Fist of Fury is also Lee’s most traditional genre picture. It even recycles the vintage plot of two martial arts schools pitted against one another. In this case, the setting is Shanghai 1908 and the basis of the conflict is nationality—a Japanese school wants a Chinese school closed and will go to any length.

The film opens with the funeral of the Chinese school’s teacher and the return of Chen (Lee), a former pupil. As the students honor their former teacher, thugs from the Japanese school interrupt the proceedings to deliver a framed sign proclaiming the Chinese martial artists “The Sick Men of Asia.” Several Chinese students, including a smoldering Chen, want to fight the Japanese intruders, but the new teacher convinces them to hold back their anger.

Chen (Lee) takes on a whole school of martial arts students.
Chen complies—initially—but later he returns the sign to the Japanese school and challenges the whole class to a fight. In a spectacular display of cat-like quickness and balletic movement, Chen demolishes the student body. The sequence rates as Lee’s best large-scale fight. The precise choreography and exaggerated camera effects (e.g., cant shots, quick zooms) enhance Lee’s natural charisma. He teases opponents, then stuns them with lightening-fast kicks and sudden blows to the face. He finishes the scene by making his defeated opponents eat the offending sign.

Lee stages a fight with former real-life student Bob Wall.
Later in the film, he duels with the Japanese school’s chief instructor, a promising student from Russia, and the head teacher. This three-fight sequence works with the efficiency of a swift combination punch. Each martial arts match is framed by its surroundings (a room, a courtyard, another room), giving the effect of Chen moving through a game of progressively more difficult levels. The chief instructor is a weak opponent. The Russian puts up a decent fight. The teacher manages to cut Chen with a sword (prompting the famous reaction of Lee’s character tasting his own blood). But none of these opponents can match Chen when he channels his uncontrollable fury into a flurry of lethal blows and kicks.

Lee in disguise in Fist of Fury.
Fist of Fury exploded on the international boxoffice when first released. It was retitled The Chinese Connection in the U.S., apparently so as not to confuse it with an earlier Lee film (The Big Boss which had been retitled Fists of Fury for its U.S. distribution). Naturally, the the film's producers also wanted to capitalize on the popularity of The French Connection (1971).

A tender scene with Nora Miao.
Bruce Lee's path to martial arts film stardom was one with many pit stops. Although he was born in San Francisco in 1940, Lee grew up in Hong Kong and appeared in several films as a child actor. He moved to the U.S. in the late 1950s and eventually became a martial arts teacher. In 1964, Lee's exciting fighting style attracted attention at the Long Beach International Karate Championships and resulted in a TV deal from producer William Dozier. Lee was eventually cast as Kato in the short-lived Green Hornet TV series starring Van Williams. During that time, Lee also befriended two of his martial arts pupils: actor James Coburn and screenwriter-producer Stirling Silliphant.

Silliphant kept Bruce busy with supporting roles in:  Marlowe (1969) with James Garner; A Walk in the Spring starring Ingrid Bergman; and several episodes of the James Franciscus TV series Longstreet. Concurrently, Lee developed his own concept for a TV series called The Warrior, which mixed the martial arts and Western genres. Although a pilot for The Warrior was never produced, the similar Kung Fu TV series premiered a year later. Bruce Lee was considered for the starring role that went to David Carradine.

Lee as Kato in The Green Hornet.
Frustrated with his acting career in the U.S., Bruce Lee returned to Hong Kong where he discovered that The Green Hornet had made him a star (the series had even been retitled The Kato Show). Producer Raymond Chow, who had recently started his own film company called Golden Harvest, convinced Lee to sign a two-picture deal. The resulting kung fu classics--The Big Boss and Fist of Fury--made Lee a worldwide superstar.

Today, Fist of Fury remains one of the few martial arts films to survive the “kung fu craze” of 1973-75. Although relegated to videotape showings for the most part, it has become a staple for Bruce Lee fans, martial arts enthusiasts, and film historians interested in the cinema of the 1970s. There have been several official and unofficial remakes and sequels, with the best one being 1994's Fist of Legend starring Jet Li.


  1. Since my new-found interest in martial arts movies, my oldest son has been compiling a list of films for me, of which this is one. I prefer story and character to action in most films, but I am interested in seeing Lee's movements and style here. I liked you description of the three fight scene in three parts of the set, and loved the funny touch of having Lee have his defeated enemies eat the sign!

    What a shame Lee's idea for a series did not pan out. It sounds like it could have been good. At that time in TV, I suppose the suits felt that viewers would rather have a Caucasian playing an oriental rather than an actual Chinese playing Chinese. Shades of Charlie Chan! Things had not changed enough yet, I guess, and that was a shame for Lee. Very interesting article, Rick!

  2. A most excellent write-up, Rick, of a most excellent movie. I've read that Bruce Lee always considered himself a martial artist first, and an actor second. That may be true, but he was a solid performer, and studios sometimes struggle to find a person with fighting prowess AND acting ability. FIST OF FURY, as with other Bruce Lee films, is undoubtedly influential: one fighter against many, the different "levels" you described with increasingly stronger opponents, and the sheer showmanship of it all. What Bruce Lee did best, however, was play to the camera. Yes, he performed his moves a little slower so that audiences would actually be able to see what he was doing, but what sticks in people's memories is Bruce Lee before the fight, posed and ready to strike. He had charisma, a necessity if a martial artist/actor wants to become a star. Ask someone to imitate Bruce Lee's punches or kicks, and most people will just stare at you. Ask them to imitate Bruce Lee tasting the blood from his wound or mocking his opponents, and you'll have a lot of people trying to be Bruce Lee. But, of course, as numerous actors have shown, there is no other.

  3. Hi Rick,
    I have to admit that I've not seen but a couple of Bruce Lee's films so I'm trying to change that. It's really interesting that he was considered for the lead in Kung Fu. That certainly would have changed both his and Carradines careers.

    I saw the remake of Green Hornet recently at the urging of my fiancée and boy was it a letdown. Some things are better off left alone.
    Another enjoyable and informative write-up on a talented actor who left us with so much more left to give.

  4. Rick, "Fists of Fury" is classic Bruce Lee. His school fight is masterful and sends up a strong message: you don't mess around with Lee. It would have been fascinating if "Kung Fu" had taken the chance to cast him. A decade later maybe it would have. Of course Lee's death in 1973 would have required recasting the show any way. You have paid a great tribute to a fine performer and not dishonored his family and a Shaolin Temple. Wrong movie but right sentiment. Excellent review, Rick!

  5. Rick, really nice review. In a way, his early lackluster career in the United States ended up being a blessing, since when he returned to Hong Kong and hooked up with Chow he became an international success. Bruce Lee really epitomizes the martial arts/kung-fu genre.

  6. Rick, this is an outstanding review of a movie I really like. I have seen it several times though I have never owned it on video or DVD. Bruce Lee was the best actor in this genre of movies. Hey, he could really act too!! The plot is your typical karate movie kind but the ending is explosive and memorable. Lee really had such charisma on screen, no one could dislike him except of course the evil guy and his men. It was such a tradegy he died so young. I still miss seeing him on screen. You used to see his movies on TV all the time, but now you rarely see one of his movies. That is a shame for the younger generation because he was awesome on screen and really studied the martial arts.