Friday, April 22, 2011

Capsule reviews: The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, Way of the Dragon

For all the martial arts themed films I have watched over the years, prior to last weekend I had never seen a Bruce Lee film. Never, not even his famous Enter the Dragon. While I have yet to see that one, last weekend was put to good use via a quick Bruce Lee marathon featuring three films. The bulk of his work, such as the television shows he was on and the aforementioned Enter the Dragon, remain unseen, but at least now I don’t look like a complete moron when I say ‘Sorry, I haven’t seen any Bruce Lee.’

The Big Boss (1971, Wei Lo)

Bruce Lee disembarks a passenger boat with a family member (uncle, I think?) at a small town for work. He is given the chance to stay in a house where a bunch of his uncle’s friends live and works with them at a local ice carving plant, if I understood correctly what it is they do there. Of course, the ‘big boss’ is a tough cookie, to the point where whenever employees visit his home to complain about the poor labour conditions, they disappear… When push comes to shove, Bruce Lee takes on the mandate of investigating, slowly but surely, what exactly happened to his fellow co-workers.

Heading into this brief marathon, I was unaware that Bruce Lee films were rated R. For whatever reason I always believed them to be PG-13 fair. Man, there is some good stuff in this movie, such as finding decapitated heads in ice blocks, knives piercing into peoples chests, and a sequence in Bruce Lee gets piss drunk and sleeps with a call girl who shows off her boobs. The Big Boss definitely is not a kids film, which was a fun discovery in of itself. Another thing that struck me was how charismatic Lee was as a performer. As expected, his martial arts moves are out of this world and the physicality he displays with his body (flexibility, strength of legs and hips) is extraordinary, but it was his will to make himself look a bit silly at times and enjoy the crazy nature of the story which impressed me most. He was clearly having fun on the set and, thankfully, didn’t take everything, including himself, so seriously. Also, I now know where the inspiration for the Mortal Kombat character Liu Kang comes from. During virtually every fight scene, the film’s soundtrack would add growls and high-pitched yells to Lee’s movements in screen, making him seem like a wild beast licking his chops before the kill. The effect is two-fold: at first, it was pretty much just funny, but the more the sounds were played, the greater the sense of a raw, unstoppable power moments away from bursting out. All in all, my favourite of the three films I watched.

Fist of Fury (1972, Wei Lo)

Considered to be the best of Lee’s work, Fist of Fury sees a young martial arts student (Lee) in Shanghai have his thirst for vengeance guide him following the vicious murder of a former master. The story takes places in the early 20th century, when Japan unscrupulously tried to expand its empire, including into China, so it goes without saying that the Japanese are the villains in this film. They think kung fu is stupid and karate is the best since cooked rice and insult the Lee and his fellow school mates till no end. Damn straight there’s a fist of fury coming along!

It was strange watching this movie because I had already scene Jet Li’s Fist of Legend, which is the remake, numerous times and have a deep love for that film. I kept comparing this original version to the remake which I already adored and, having now finally seen Fist of Fury, I still like Legend more. The title is very à propos though. While in the previous film Lee was basically investigating and fighting whenever attacked, this time he is the one attacking. In fact, there are a handful of scenes where Lee really comes off more as a villain than a hero, which I found especially interesting. I mean, this guy is really, really angry and basically as ethnocentric as his Japanese opposites are. The viewer gets some of the charm from Big Boss though, as Lee frequently puts on cheesy disguises and impersonates a bunch of people to infiltrate Japanese ranks and find out what they’re up to. I don’t recall him discovering anything that would have made much of a difference in the end, but the scenes are fun. One theme-related inclusion into the story that I felt was pertinent was the danger Lee puts his own school into by refusing to either leave Shanghai or give himself up to the Japanese. An ultimatum is given to his school to hand him over otherwise it will be closed down. I honestly didn’t expect the film to go into that a territory where his own classmates would be tempted to turn on him for the sake of their school.

Way of the Dragon (1973, Bruce Lee)

Yup, the Lee writes and directs this one. Lee arrives in Rome to help out some family friends whose restaurant is under threat from a local group of thugs who wish to take over the property. Fights ensue. One of those friends is a really cute Chinese girl, but this is a martial arts film, so obviously they don’t get together…

From the outset it felt rather clear to me that Lee was unsure how to approach his story or how to set it in motion. It feels like a good 20 minutes go by before anything related to the actual plot, if it can be called that, occurs. Seriously, the first 20 minutes are just a bunch of jokes, like Lee scaring off a little kid at the airport upon arriving in Rome (for really no reason at all other than that it is funny), or him going off to a hooker’s place without realizing who it is he’s with until too late. Admittedly, a lot of it is indeed pretty funny even though it has strictly nothing to do with what’s coming. When the plot does finally kick in, well, there isn’t much to it. The restaurant is constantly under duress for reasons that remain unexplained for the entirety of the picture. I mean, really, how much is it worth, after all? In this film Bruce Lee practices what he called Chinese boxing. Naturally a bunch of people scoff at his because apparently Chinese boxing looks like dancing (so say a couple of characters in the film), but Lee, uh, proves them wrong. I’m making sound as if I hated this movie whereas in truth I had a blast. It’s just that it’s so stupid. Oh, and a young and hairy Chuck Norris is called in from the States to liquidate Lee and his restaurant buddies (again, the bad guys really want that property! Wow! Phucking Chuck Norris is in town!). Fight!

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