AKA TANG SHAN DA XIONG, FISTS OF FURY
AVAILABLE OB BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 96 min [cut from 104 min]
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Cheng Chao-an moves from mainland China to Thailand to live with his cousins and work in an ice factory. He swore to his mother that he would resist participating in any fighting. When a block of ice is accidentally broken at the factory, a bag of white powder falls out. Two of Cheng’s workmates pick up the bag, and are asked to see the manager. The factory is really a front for a drug smuggling ring led by Hsiao Mi, also known as the Big Boss. When the two workers refuse to cooperate, they are killed and their bodies disposed of in the ice. Cheng’s cousin Hsu Chien and another investigate their deaths….
I’ve been wanting to revisit and review the five main Bruce Lee movies for some time, and buying Medium Rare’s box set [the only one to include Enter The Dragon] was the kick start that I needed! The Big Boss, which due to an accidental switch of labels was [confusingly] called Fists Of Fury in the US and originally in the UK too, is an extremely rough and unpolished film, and can be said to be poorly made in some respects, while Lee doesn’t even do much fighting, but it has an approach and feel to it that makes it stand out from his others. Rather than being a straight martial arts movie, it seems to be more of an attempt at an On The Waterfront-type drama, but done in an exploitative grindhouse fashion, and its sheer rawness helps to give it some power. It’s also a rather dark and downbeat affair, probably more so than the successive films even if it can be said that all three of Lee’s Hong Kong films seem to have a message that violence is not really the answer and often just begets more violence, and despite Lee having the least influence on the production. And Lee, if sometimes a little awkward [certain aspects of his character here would turn up, refined and/or developed, in The Way Of The Dragon], totally dominates when on the screen – you can’t take your eyes off him even when he’s not doing anything – though the fighting side of things is weakened by all of his opponents clearly being nowhere near him in skill.
James Tien was initially the star of what was first called King Of Boxers, with Lee, in his first Hong Kong film since being a child after failing to break into Hollywood, in a supporting role. When writer/director Ng Kar-Suen was fired due to his temper, his replacement Lo Wei saw Lee’s potential and rewrote the script to increase his role during production, though Wei was more interested in gambling than the movie and even had horse racing commentaries booming across the set while actors were attempting to rehearse. The film was shot entirely in the Packchan district of Thailand on a tiny budget amidst much animosity between the Thai and the Chinese crews, with Lee often being challenged – and of course always winning. Lee battled over control of his fight scenes and was allowed to choreograph the ice factory sequence on his own, though he sprained his ankle and some of his scenes were shot in close-up while he dragged his injured leg. The Thai brothel featured in the film was actually a genuine functioning brothel, the extras being prostitutes who were paid more than they would normally receive. When The Big Boss was first screened in Hong Kong, a stunned silence followed for a few seconds, then complete uproar. Lee was then mobbed as he tried to leave the cinema. It became the highest-grossing film in there. The original release had to lose some violent details [notably a saw in the head] and Cheng sleeping with a second prostitute due to a crackdown on violence, but some small dialogue bits were cut too and other scenes shortened. Most of this material was supposedly present in a print shown in London in 1979, but haven’t turned up since. The UK version was cut further by nearly a minute and a half for violence.
Though this was probably in part due to the script rewriting, the way Lee’s character is presented in terms of fighting works really well for the film. Cheng has sworn not to fight, so the first brawl, where Hsu beats some thugs harassing the [unnamed] drink stand owner [a tiny part played by the beautiful Nora Miao, though she originally had a bit more footage in the first cut of the movie], just has him standing there, even though you know that he’s itching to let loose. During the second brawl where Hsu and some other workers take on some of Hsiao’s goons, he delivers two punches and helps Hsu take a leap to safety, but still restrains himself, and it’s Hsu who seems to be the hero of the piece, the one who’s investigating why two co-workers have mysteriously disappeared. A couple of fights then occur where Cheng isn’t present, but the excitement builds and builds until it’s almost unbearable, and finally, in the next battle between good guys and bad guys, Cheng suddenly bursts into action and punches and kicks with deadly accuracy, a moment which must have stunned audiences used to lengthy, elaborate fights. With Hsu also having just disappeared, we know that Cheng will now be the hero, but he’s broken his promise, and may have set himself – and indeed everyone else on the side of the angels – on the wrong path. This film seems to bravely suggest that ignorance is sometimes the best option.
Hsiao and company get Cheng drunk and he sleeps with a prostitute [and I mean sleep….he seems to be out for the count], which for a while diverts him from his mission to find out what’s happened to Hsu and others. Lee’s character – a kind of everyman who may have amazing martial arts skills but who makes mistakes and can be corrupted – is probably his most relatable. He and even Wei bemoaned the removal of his second visit to the brothel, saying that as he could be going to his death it would make sense that he enjoy himself one more time, though he’s shy when in the company of Chow Mei, the woman who seems to ‘house keep’ for the workers, always rushing off [and leaving her on her own despite bad guys being about]. Their ‘meeting cute’ scene is very sweet, he pulling faces of boredom while she looks longingly at him, before he turns and grins at her. But Mei is soon kidnapped by Hsaio’s son so she can be one of Hsaio’s sex slaves, though far worse, in a really dark turn of events which shocked me on my first viewing, is that Cheng returns from a fight to find that every worker, plus Mei and a young boy who lives with them, has been bloodily murdered. The shot of him cradling the body of Ah Kun is a very moving one, and the following moment of Cheng contemplating revenge and seeing the images of some of the dead people is nicely done too. Of course we then get the showdown with Hsaio, but it’s patently obvious that Ying-Chieh Han isn’t much of a martial artist, which could be why Cheng has the upper hand throughout most of it as it would have looked ridiculous if Cheng seemed outclassed by him in any way.
Lee, a brilliant fusion of power and precision, dispatches bad guys with unbridled brutality in this film, using whatever’s to hand be it an ice pick, ice clamp, knife or saw, while the clumsier earlier brawls without him are still notable for their sheer viciousness [I love it in these films when people suddenly sport iron bars and the like], but even Lee’s fights have some wirework where folk do huge trampoline leaps over others. These moments seem out of place and goofy in this supposedly realistic environment, the most notable of these being when Cheng dodges charging Alsatisans, and then there’s him punching a guy through a wall leaving a man-shaped hole. There’s an astoundingly noticeable goof when somebody is murdered by someone else approaching them from behind but we then cut to a knife in the stomach, plus some other things to chuckle at, like the way Ah, despite being the most portly of all the workers, constantly walks around topless, and the exaggerated acting of many of the extras. By Hollywood standards Hong Kong filmmaking at this time was quite primitive, but they really tried to do something a bit different with The Big Boss, to have a story and then add martial arts to it rather than the opposite, even if they just didn’t have the know how to totally realise their ambitions. Wei is a fairly workmanlike filmmaker, but does sometimes attempt more artistic shots then many of his contemporaries, and the red lit scene where Cheng finds bodies and body parts stored in ice has a good dark atmosphere similar to that of a horror film.
Aside from Lee, Tony Liu stands out as Hsiao’s eager to please son, though the character is virtually ruined if you watch the film in English where his lines and delivery are just funny throughout. It’s actually hard to decide which of the three main [there are others] versions of this film is best. The cast are mostly speaking Cantonese, but the original Cantonese track was lost and the replacement they did in 1983 adds lots of Lee’s war cries which weren’t originally in the film. On the other hand, Joseph Koo’s score, while it sometimes retains some of Wang Fu-ling’s score for the Mandarin version [and even originally ‘borrowed’ some music from Pink Floyd!], is far superior and focused than Wang’s effort which is all over the place, a variety of cues seemingly randomly placed over the film. However it’s the Peter Thomas one for the English version that’s the best score; it’s cheesy and vibrant and so 70’s in the best way. Both the Koo and Thomas scores retain a really poignant Fu-ling piece. Despite sloppiness in some areas, The Big Boss still seems quite fresh and it’s easy to see why it was such a sensation, partly because of the way they hold Lee back for ages to introduce him, then turn him loose. If I could travel back in time to any film screening of my choice, the premiere of The Big Boss would be near the top of my list.