Saturday 14 June 2008

The Big Boss (1971)

I recently pointed out to my stepson that he really doesn't have the right to call himself a martial arts film fan when he hasn't seen Enter the Dragon, which is about as definitive a martial arts film as you're ever likely to see. I've seen that film a bunch of times, along with a whole slew of authentic kung fu movies from both before and after Bruce, as often in the original language as possible, but I don't really have much of a case to call myself a martial arts film fan either. While I've seen Enter the Dragon, I haven't seen much of the rest of Bruce Lee's filmography and that's not good.

I've seen half of Fists of Fury, a bunch of Green Hornet episodes, small roles in non-martial arts films like Marlowe and a lot of clips from the big ones but that's not enough. It's about time I worked through my Bruce Lee Ultimate Collection and caught up with the classics I have no excuse not having seen already. First on the list is his first leading role, The Big Boss, later rereleased as Fists of Fury. It's a Golden Harvest release, made in 1971 by Lo Wei and co-starring Maria Yi, James Tien and Ying-Chieh Han as the Big Boss of the title.

Hindsight enables us to see things very clearly now that must have been apparent in 1971 but not quite to the same degree. Bruce Lee is as dominant here from moment one as James Cagney was in The Doorway to Hell and The Public Enemy and Edward G Robinson was in Little Caesar. Yet James Tien is the martial arts guy and champion of the underdog! He's Hsu Chien and he works at an ice factory in Thailand which is, unknown to the workers, just a front for running drugs. Bruce Lee is the new arrival, Cheng Chao-an, brought over by his uncle to find work with his cousin.

What makes us laugh is that when the inevitable first conflicts arise, Hsu Chien leaps in to protect Cheng Chao-an who has promised his mother not to fight any more. James Tien isn't bad at all, but he's protecting Bruce Lee, for God's sakes! 'You're pretty good,' Hsu Chien tells him when he fails to get hurt in one fracas he finds himself in the middle of, even though he's not actually fighting. A thug foreman even has the temerity to push him around and hit him and, while Bruce Lee does precisely nothing because of his vow to not fight, there's no doubt in anyone's mind who's in charge here.

Even in his first starring role he's already the Bruce Lee everyone remembers. The thing is that every other martial arts actor out there, from the beginning of the genre to the present day, has been just that: a martial arts actor. However good they are at what they do, they're men. They may have trained themselves and honed their skills to amazing degrees, and they may be able to stun and awe us with what they can do, but they're still men. Bruce Lee always appeared more like an animal than a man, so natural at what he did that it would appear that training had nothing to do with it, being that good was merely inherent in who he was.

As our story progresses and we discover that workers are going missing after having discovered what's really going on behind the scenes, there's a big fight at the ice factory that he stands by and watches and it's painfully obvious that even doing absolutely nothing he's the most dangerous man there. When the bad guys accidentally rip off and break the charm that represents his vow to his mother and he joins the fight, he's so far into a different class that it ceases to even having anything to do with classes. He's so good that any comparison is pointless yet it always comes up and Bruce Lee is always going to be that comparison.

I see a lot of people do amazing things on film. The last of many for me was a Thai boxer called Tony Jaa in Ong Bak: Thai Warrior. What he did in that film was truly awesome and felt so much better than anyone else had done for a long while. He even had some stylistic similarities to Bruce Lee, so it was easy to bring up that old comparison again. Now Tony Jaa is the new Bruce Lee, like many others before him. The thing is that when you go back to the original, that comparison suddenly seems stupid. Even remembering someone as the best doesn't substitute for going back once in a while to see it.

And back to the film, there's really not much story here. There's a clean delineation between the dumb good guys and the clever bad guys, and we spend an hour and a half watching the good guys discover how bad the bad guys are and for Bruce Lee to do something about it. There's attention paid to subtleties and diversionary tactics and it all moves along very capably, but it's story that matters here. It's all about Bruce Lee proving himself in a lead role and beginning a legend in the process, even though he does surprisingly little actual fighting here until the finale. There would be more fighting in later films and better choreography but this one still carries a heck of a punch to it.

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