Sunday, September 9, 2012

Fist of Fury (AKA The Chinese Connection)

I've always had a hard time with the Bruce Lee catalog.  He's awesome (obviously), but trying to track down his movies in the days before smartphones and constant internet access was kind of a pain.  Several of his movies had multiple titles and all of his movies had similarly-titled sequels, starring knock-off Bruce Lee lookalikes.  Even worse, most of these had Lee's picture on the cover and credit him as the star, only to have "Bruce Li" or "Bruce Lei" or "Dragon Lee" as the actual star.
Burn in hell, Bruce Li.  Or refund my $2.99 Blockbuster rental.  Your choice.
Thankfully, somebody got their act together and has streamlined most of Bruce Lee's filmography, correcting titles and gathering all his non-Enter the Dragon work into a variety of DVD collections.  The upside to these is that we now have consistent titling for Bruce Lee's films.  The downside is that the movie I remember as "The Chinese Connection" is now Fist of Fury.  I don't know why that makes me a little sad --- there's really no reason for this story to be called "The Chinese Connection," aside from having Chinese people in it --- but it somehow does.  Luckily, I have a remedy for that kind of depression: watch Bruce Lee beat up an entire dojo in Fist of Fury.
Fist of Fury opens with Chen Zen (Bruce Lee) returning to his martial arts school.  Where is he returning from and why did he leave?  "You know" and "Because," respectively.  Chen is greeted with terrible news; his beloved teacher has died.  Chen handles the news like a man selfish child, screaming and clawing at the grave during the funeral and accusing his fellow martial arts students of idiocy for believing that their teacher could die of natural causes.  That metallic taste in your mouth is the irony of Bruce Lee's character making that argument.  Soon after the funeral, some Japanese jerks show up and taunt the students at Chen's school.  Why are they trying to pick a fight?  Apparently, you missed the whole "jerks" explanation.  Led by a weaselly businessman, the Japanese guys present Chen's school with a framed sign, and it is apparently quite the insult; I've never seen a great print of this movie, but sometimes the sign is translated for English-reading audiences and sometimes not --- the gist of the message is that the Chinese are weak sick men and their school should close. 
"...and people who wear white after Labor Day have no kung-fu skills.  Nyaah!"
Chen would have fought the intruders, but was told to stand down because his beloved teacher would not have approved of needless violence.  Chen reluctantly agreed...until the next scene, when he traveled to the Japanese dojo and smashes their sign.
Quickly followed by every Japanese bone and internal organ he could find
Chen effortlessly beats the living hell out of every single student (and one portly teacher) at the dojo.  And then he gets his hands on some nunchucks.  In the earliest memory I have of laughing at a movie instead of with it, my dad loved to point out the nunchuck scene in this movie when I was little.  Let's say you've just watched Bruce Lee decimate a few dozen people with his hands and feet (picture piles of Asian guys, bleeding and moaning on the floor) and then he gets a weapon!  And not just any weapon --- this weapon moves faster than the human eye can see!  How stupid are the guys who attack him at this point? 
THIS is what Bill Paxton was saying "Game over!" about in Aliens
As entertaining as kicking the crap out of a few dozen men may be, it started some serious trouble for Chen and his school.  The Japanese villains will obviously strike back, and they have the local police in their pocket.  But that's only a minor inconvenience for Chen, who is intent on uncovering the circumstances surrounding his teacher's death, no matter the cost.
How?  With his telephone repairman disguise.  Really.

There isn't a whole lot of acting in Fist of Fury, aside from Bruce Lee.  Even Lee isn't all that great here (acting-wise); the most common trait his non-action scenes share is melodrama.  I will admit that he played up the goofiness of his disguises pretty well.  Still, Lee has the greatest martial arts moves, the best kung-fu noises, and some of the best facial expressions in the genre.
Exhibit A
While this certainly isn't his best work as far as acting goes, you can't deny how much fun it is to see him hit people.  Nobody really stands out in the supporting cast, which is due to the quantity-over-quality approach this film took.

That approach is both the strength and weakness of Fist of Fury.  Writer/director Wei Lo went against the grain by having Bruce Lee kick the ass of absolutely everyone in this movie, and that was glorious.  Unfortunately, the biggest challenge Chen Zen faces comes from a white guy with a curly 'fro.
He looks like a poodle with a bow tie
Even the main villain in the movie hardly slows Chen down.  Once he gets his hands on nunchucks, I start to feel a little sorry for the bad guys.  There are certainly parts of this movie that conform to martial arts movie formulas --- the hero refusing to fight in the first third of the film, for example --- but having a classic boss battle is one that I would have loved to see.
...and he would have ended the fight by dropping his drumsticks

Overall, Fist of Fury is an impressive, but flawed martial arts picture.  The amount of action scenes is impressive, and their scope is pretty much unparalleled (unless I've simply missed out on some truly bad-ass movies).  I loved that his feats were only limited by how furious he was at any given time.  Beating up a dojo because they insulted you?  Easy.  Killing everyone you encounter when you feel threatened?  Even better.  That awesomeness gets lost a bit, though, among some of the film's problems.  First of all, the editing is pretty wretched; if it's not an action scene that Lee probably set up himself, the movie looks bad and can be difficult to follow.  That's inept and annoying, but the action scenes are left intact, so it's not the end of the world.  But the bad guys are awfully stupid in this story.  Even if you ignore the ridiculous (and effective!) disguises Chen wears, there are still some unexplained concepts in play.  For instance, Chen Zen is constantly underestimated by his opponents.  When he first arrives at the dojo, that is understandable.  Once he is public enemy number one?  That just doesn't make sense.  Perhaps even odder is the film's ending; while I agree that it makes sense (to a degree) within the plot, it seems like an odd choice for a story that was written by the director.  Why involve the police at all?  Why not simply keep it a revenge flick?  Why did the bad guys kill Teacher?  And why end in a freeze frame?
Jump kicks are far less impressive when they aren't aimed
If you're going to go happy, end after Mr. Mustache dies.  If you want to go Debbie Downer on everybody, just keep rolling the film for another minute or two.  The freeze frame straddles the mega-happy and mega-sad endings and accomplishes neither.  Luckily, the action essentially negates the plot problems and besides, if you're paying attention to the plot in a classic 70's martial arts movie, then you're wasting perfectly good drinking time.  It's not perfect, but Bruce Lee kicks a dojo's ass.  What else do you want?


  1. Equally comical is the scene in Total Recall, when Arnie is accosted by his former co-worker and two other toughs. He kills the first two and takes their gun. The third guy continues the assault despite the fact that a now armed Schwarzenegger just killed two armed men with his bare hands. Classic henchmen syndrome.