What's the big deal?
Fist Of Fury (also known as The Chinese Connection) is an action martial-arts film released in 1972 and features Bruce Lee in only his second lead role. Produced by Hong Kong movie mogul and founder of Golden Harvest Productions Raymond Chow, the film was one of a number of films that introduced not just martial arts but stars like Lee and Jackie Chan to a global audience. Lee plays Chen Zhen, a young martial-arts student who not only fights to protect the honour of his school against Japanese oppression but also embarks on a quest to avenge the death of his master. The film also stars Nora Miao, Riki Hashimoto, Robert Baker and Tien Feng and was directed by Lo Wei. The film proved hugely influential as many martial-art stars like Donnie Yen, Jet Li and Bruce Leung would play the role of Chen in various remakes and sequels. It was also successful at the box office, breaking the Hong Kong box office record previously set by Lee's first film The Big Boss.
What's it about?
Set in the early twentieth century, the film opens as Chen Zhen returns to Jingwu School in order to marry his fiancée Yuan. Unfortunately, his return coincides with the funeral of his old teacher Huo Yuanjia which causes Chen to be overcome with grief. After learning that Huo apparently died from illness, Chen believes that the truth is more sinister - which is apparently confirmed after the school is visited by Japanese representatives of a rival dojo in Hongkou who insult the students and disrespect the memory of Huo himself.
Determined to avenge the potential murder of his teacher, Chen decides to investigate further and discovers a possible link between Huo's demise and the leader of Hongkou school, Hiroshi Suzuki. After visiting the Hongkou school and violently making his intentions clear, Chen unwittingly sparks a confrontation between the two schools as well as finding himself hunted by police who are partly in the pocket of the Japanese during politically turbulent times.
Wu En, Suzuki's translator
Yoshida, Hongkou's instructor
Release Date (UK)
20th July, 1973
Action, Drama, Romance
What's to like?
One of the curious things I find about martial-arts films is that despite the obvious improvements in quality and recording, older efforts still have an innate watchability despite the crummy dubbing and more basic action sequences. Sure enough, Fist Of Fury is one such film that overcomes its flaws and this is mainly due to the performance of Lee. In spite of his relative inexperience, he is a magnetic presence on screen that is impossible to ignore. Whether he's kicking several colours of crap out of the bad guys or tormented over his conflicted feelings for his lover, Lee oozes charisma that makes this far more enjoyable than it has any right to be.
Naturally, his best moments are during the fight scenes and although these were filmed almost three decades before The Matrix digitally revolutionised such action, it's amazing to see how truly gifted Lee is as a performer - his impossibly dextrous use of nunchaku is as breath-taking today as it ever was. Naturally, his opponents can't hold a candle to him with the possible exception of Hashimoto as the katana-wielding antagonist. Fans of martial arts will delight at the film's old-school charm, frequent action scenes and Lee's ground-breaking performance before his international breakthrough in Enter The Dragon.
- The film was originally released in the US as The Chinese Connection in an attempt to gather similar success seen by Gene Hackman's The French Connection, despite no link between the two films. Ironically, the suggested title was to be used for The Big Boss for its US release and that film was released as Fists Of Fury.
- Not only was it the first time Lee was seen on film using nunchaku, it was also the first time they had ever been used for a film. However, Lee was seen using them in the 1960's TV series The Green Hornet.
- Baker, who played the hulking Russian Petrov, was a student of Lee's at the time and recommended by him for the role. Not only was it Baker's first role in a film but Lee also dubbed the part for the Chinese and Mandarin versions.
What's not to like?
Viewers today are spoilt for choice when it comes to martial-arts cinema, from the whimsical fantasy of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the hard-hitting urban assault of The Raid. Films like Fist Of Fury run the risk of looking old-fashioned with fights that lack much of the complexity and precision of more modern films. Sure enough, most of the action seems to consist of one enemy running into a kick from Lee before being replaced by another. Only when weapons are involved does the formula change - as much as Lee is a performer to be admired, I felt he acquitted himself better in Enter The Dragon. Plot-wise, it's also far better suited to Asian viewers than Western audiences who won't be familiar with the political tensions running through of the story although the heavy-handed racism is still a little unpleasant to swallow. It almost reminded me of Mickey Rooney's disastrous racist caricature in Breakfast At Tiffany's.
I think part of the reason why Lee's performance stands out as much as it does is because he lacks any sort of support from his fellow cast members. Only Tien Feng and Nora Miao seem to give the film any effort, which is doubly unfortunate for Miao because her character's name is never mentioned once and after a tender reunion between her and the fugitive Zhen, she seems to disappear from the film entirely. I feel that the film would have benefitted from a more engaging narrative, a stronger supporting cast and more polished direction from Lo Wei as the film occasionally wanders off the path for something pointless or needlessly comic.
Should I watch it?
Fist Of Fury has all the dubbed charm and hokey appeal of many classic martial arts films from the time but benefits from a towering performance from the iconic Bruce Lee. It's full of chop-socky action and gaps in the story that dubbed inevitably creates but if you're in the market for old-school action then this will work a treat. Of course, it suffers in comparison to more modern movies but nothing can detract from Lee's presence in the film.
Great For: fans of Bruce Lee, martial-arts fans, home commentaries, Asian audiences (especially Chinese)
Not So Great For: anyone expecting wire-work, viewers born after 1990, Japanese viewers
What else should I watch?
The 1970s saw an explosion of interest in martial arts films when English-dubbed versions of many ninja and kung fu films produced by the Shaw Brothers, Golden Harvest, Godfrey Ho and the late Raymond Chow began to circulate in the West. With films like The Big Boss, Drunken Master and King Boxer, the sudden interest in martial arts even translated into other films at the time - Roger Moore's The Man With The Golden Gun is a notable example for trying to exploit the trend with several prominent kung fu scenes.
With Lee's untimely death in 1973, there have been many attempting to step up and fulfil his position as the greatest martial-arts star in cinema. The likes of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Jet Li and Donnie Yen have all enjoyed successful careers bringing their talents to the fore in films like Police Story, The Man From Hong Kong, Hero and Ip Man respectively. And while Hollywood has adapted and begun producing its own martial arts films, I personally prefer those made in the Far East which don't just feel more authentic but will have Asian actors cast instead of the likes of box office draws like Jason Statham.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox