Thursday, February 3, 2011

Bruce Lee explodes with 'Fists of Fury'

Fists of Fury (aka "The Big Boss") (1971)
Starring: Bruce Lee, James Tien, Maria Yi, Ying-Chieh Han, and Tso Chen
Director: Wei Lo
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Country-boy Cheng (Lee) travels to the city to live with relatives and to take a job at an ice factory. But the business is a front for vicious drug smugglers, and when his friends and family start to run afoul their evil, Cheng must choose to join them or fight them. Either choice will cost him dearly.

"Fists of Fury" is the of four films that legendary actor and martial artist Bruce Lee made in Hong Kong, and it's the one that made him an international super-star. While some parts of the film haven't weathered the passage of four decades since its release very well, one can still understand why it was such a big hit in its day. One can also enjoy it tremendously if one likes well-crafted martial arts films.

First, the film's modern setting would have been a startling change of pace for movie audiences as this was the first martial arts film to be set in modern times. Secondly, the film presents a number of surprising twists as it unfolds, not the least of which is the surprising death of a major supporting character who was neck-in-neck with Lee's character to be the film's main hero... not to mention the shocking massacre of virtually every other supporting character as the film heads toward its climax, as well as the climax itself (which is one of the most successfully executed downer endings I've ever witnessed in an action movie). Finally, there are the two set-piece martial arts battles of the film that remain thrilling to this day... fight sequences that are equally good showcases for Bruce Lee's fighting skills and his charm as an actor.

Speaking of Bruce Lee's acting skills and charm, they are both what carry the film through its slow first half, particularly during the clumsy attempts at levity and/or scenes designed to show the camaraderie between the factory workers that probably were unique to the 1970s audiences who were used to martial arts melodramas set during various historical periods in China but who had never experienced one taking place "down the street". Lee outshines everyone he shares the screen with, with the exception of James Tien. Tien shared Lee's good looks and on-screen radiance, so they are believable as buddies during the film's early part. (Tien would go onto appear in Lee's other Hong Kong movies as well.)

Lee's acting skills are also what makes the film's climax so moving and effective. As brutal and shocking as the violence in the fights at the factory and on the lawn in front of the Big Boss's house are, it is the way Lee effective portrays the shock that gives way to rage when he discovers the dual secrets of the ice factory, followed by the horror when he later realizes that he had only seen the tiniest sliver of the Big Boss's depravity. The sense of resignation and defeat in victory that Lee exudes during the film's final moments also demonstrate strongly how tragic it was that he was to die a mere two years later with much promise unfulfilled.

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