09:44 - 22nd January 2016, by David West

Bruce Lee on Blu-ray

In Linda Lee’s biography of her late husband, she recounts Bruce Lee’s first meeting with Raymond Chow, the head of Golden Harvest studios, in 1971. Apparently Lee’s first words to Chow were, “You just wait, I’m going to be the biggest Chinese star in the world.”

How prophetic that turned out to be – and the first step in that journey was The Big Boss. Shot on a very low budget in the Thai countryside, the plot casts Lee as an innocent abroad. Cheng Chao-An (Lee) arrives in Thailand from Hong Kong to work at an ice factory alongside a group of fellow ex-pats (‘Lousy immigrants, coming over here with their kung fu,’ screams the Thai Daily Mail). The ice factory is actually the cover for a heroin operation run by the Big Boss of the title, played by Han Ying-Chieh. Every Chinese worker unlucky enough to uncover the drug ring winds up dead – literally on ice – but Cheng is too tough for the local thugs, forcing the drug lord to take ever more violent measures.

Directed by Lo Wei, The Big Boss rests on Lee’s shoulders. While Han Ying-Chieh is credited as martial arts choreographer, it is obvious that Lee was injecting his own ideas into his fight scenes. Han’s trademark acrobatic leaps, performed with the aid of hidden trampolines, are present and correct, but Lee’s speed and ferocity in his fight scenes were way ahead of their time. The script is underweight but nonetheless racy for the time period, with nudity and a dash of sex to spice things up.

Despite the limits of budget and screenplay, The Big Boss was a smash hit in Hong Kong thanks to Lee’s remarkable dynamism, and that meant that the follow-up, Fist Of Fury, has considerably higher production values. Released in 1972, the film casts Lee as Chen, a member of the Jing Wu Athletic Association, a martial arts club in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. Following the suspicious death of his master Fok Yuen-Gap, Chen is convinced the Japanese are responsible – and of course they are – so he begins a campaign of revenge.

While Han Ying-Chieh returned as choreographer, there is a marked difference in the fight scenes without Lee (which feature Han’s now old-fashioned style of martial arts), and those scenes starring Lee, which he must have choreographed himself. The highlight is Chen’s first assault on the Japanese dojo, when he lays waste to his opponents like a human whirlwind of fists and feet. The sequence gave audiences their first look at what Lee could do with the weapon that became one of his trademarks – the nunchaku – with dazzling results. It’s testament to the power of Fist Of Fury that it has spawned numerous sequels and remakes, with both Jet Li and Donnie Yen taking their turns to try to fill Lee’s shoes.

The Way Of Dragon, also from 1972, saw Lee assume full creative control as writer, director, choreographer and star. His script is decent rather than great, concerning a Chinese restaurant in Rome that has been targeted by a hostile mobster who wants the property. Tan Lung (Lee) is a lad from the Hong Kong countryside sent to help, much to the dismay of Chen Ching-Wa (Nora Miao), who can’t see what use this naive bumpkin can possibly be – right up until the moment Tan Lung effortlessly lays waste to a squad of goons with his unstoppable kung fu. In response, the mobsters hire a trio of karate masters, played by Bob Wall, Wong Ing-Sik and Chuck Norris, to deal with Tan Lung.

The fight scenes, particularly the climactic duel against Norris, are extraordinary. Lee writes an essay in motion to explore his ideas about adaptability and not being confined by any one style in combat. The screenplay definitely has some bumps along the way, particularly the plot twist regarding the greedy uncle at the restaurant, but The Way Of The Dragon is an absolute classic.

Game Of Death might have been a classic, but we’ll never know. Lee never finished shooting the film before his death in 1973. In 1978, Robert Clouse, director of Enter The Dragon, cobbled together a movie using some of Lee’s material and a new screenplay. The production used several doubles, including Yuen Biao and Kim Tai Chung, as well as footage from his earlier films to make it seem like Lee is on the screen. Some of it is just risible – in the old footage, Lee’s hairstyle keeps changing from shot to shot, while sticking a photo of Lee’s face onto a mirror to obscure the identity of a body double is embarrassingly unconvincing. Some of the new fight scenes with Sammo Hung and Bob Wall are fun, but the production shows a regrettable lack of respect for Lee’s memory. Far more interesting than Clouse’s debacle is the restored footage of Lee’s fight scenes with Dan Inosanto, Hapkido master Ji Han-Jae and the towering basketball player, and real life student of Lee, Kareem Abdul Jabaar. This material alone is worth the price of the Blu-ray.

While the films may suffer from weak scripts and Game Of Death is a mess, Lee’s screen magnetism and ground breaking approach to the martial arts make these indispensable for any kung fu fan. And that fight with Chuck is a thing of savage beauty. Anime/Film The Big Boss: 4 Fist Of Fury: 5 Game Of Death: 3 The Way Of The Dragon: 5
SCORE: 0/5
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