Fist Of Fury (1972, Hong Kong)
Director: Lo Wei Starring: Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, James Tien, Robert Baker
Bruce Lee. He has his critics, but it’s fair to say he is widely regarded as one of, if not the greatest martial arts star of all time. By the time he made Fist Of Fury, Lee had clearly started to raise his acting game to support his already phenomenal fighting chops, although sadly he would not get to flex his acting muscles much more before his untimely death in 1973 at the ridiculously young age of 32. I find it difficult to pick a favourite Bruce Lee film but if I was pushed to choose one it would probably have to be Fist Of Fury. I’ve always thought it a much more fitting legacy to the master than the slick Hollywood crossover of Enter the Dragon or the half finished Game Of Death that followed it.
Lee plays Chen Zhen (or Chen Jun, Chen Chen, Chen Jen or any of the other spelling permutations), a favoured disciple of a martial arts school who has returned from his travels to find his Sifu in the process of being buried. With their leader dead, the school find themselves under increasing pressure from a neighbouring Karate Dojo, their Sensei Suzuki intent on goading them into picking a fight so he can have them closed down by the authorities. Mad with grief and lacking his master’s calming influence Chen obliges them discovering that there is much more to his master’s death than they at first thought.
It’s an absolute triumph. It doesn’t take long for it to all kick off and when it does boy does it kick off! You want to see Bruce Lee tackle an entire Dojo single handledly? You got it! You want to see an awesome display of brutal nunchuckery? Thanks to a more relaxed BBFC and this 2000 reissue by HK Legends you got it! You want to see Bruce take on a comedy Russian gangster and Samurai sword wielding martial artists? Well, yes, you can have that too. What’s more it’s all tied in with a healthy dose of martial arts philosophy and probably the best acting performance of Bruce Lee’s career. Okay, so there are the occasional flaws, mostly technical issues involving poor effects work to enable Chen Zhen to perform superhuman acts of physical prowess, but these are easily forgiven and actually add a touch of humour to what could otherwise be a rather bleak film.
Set in the Shanghai International Settlement in the early twentieth century there is, like in so many Chinese martial arts films, a potent air of patriotism and national pride about it. The Japanese are shown as persecutors, Chen Zhen as a national hero for standing up to their repression and bullying. When Chen smites the Karate Dojo single handedly and returns the insulting “The Chinese Are The Sick Men of Asia” sign to whence it came it’s very much a national as well as personal victory. Kung Fu fans will be familiar with this recurring theme in the genre. The need to show Chinese superiority over foreigners, especially the Japanese, is very much alive and well in todays Kung Fu movies (have a look at Donnie Yen’s Ip Man movies if you don’t believe me) and is a big hit with domestic audiences although I have to admit, even I find the constant jingoism grating at times. Fist Of Fury gets away with it more than some others as it puts it into proper context but it’s still there.
While Chinese nationalism is obviously a driving force for Chen, it’s insiginificant compared to his burning desire to avenge the death of his master and end the bullying and cajoling from the Japanese school. This is revenge with a capital R, merciless and complete and very satisfying to watch. Don’t be fooled though. This is not mindless revenge where the good guys win and the bad guys get what’s coming to them. There is a moral lesson here, that retaliation results in more retaliation and an escalation of the problem. Justice is served but the cost is high with every blow struck against the Japanese being returned manifold on the kung fu school. If you set off on the road to revenge, you must be prepared to pay the price. It’s a plain message, without being heavy handed and an important one that is inkeeping with the majority of martial arts philosophy.
Highly influential (you can trace a straight and quite short line from Fist Of Fury to Kill Bill or the likes of the aforementioned Ip Man films) Fist Of Fury is essential viewing for Kung Fu fans and an excellent introduction to the genre if you don’t consider yourself a fan. Spectacular fight scenes are coupled with dramatic depth and a great story, with the whole thing being well executed from a technical standpoint. The vibrancy of the HK Legends DVD special edition is a powerful argument that the whole Bruce Lee back catalogue is due for a hi-def remaster job. I’d kill for a complete Bruce Blu Ray box set. Until someone puts one together though I am more than happy to watch the master at work in Fist Of Fury.