Thursday 25 March 2010

Fist of Fear, Touch of Death (1980)

Director: Matthew Mallinson
Stars: Bruce Lee, Fred Williamson and Ron Van Clief

I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

Bruceploitation is a wild and crazy world, one conjured into existence by filmmakers in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan after the death of Bruce Lee in 1973. Lee had been the breakthrough to whole new markets for them, becoming an international superstar and iconic figure around the globe, especially after Enter the Dragon, which was a Hollywood production shot mostly in English. Everyone knew who Bruce Lee was in the same way everyone knew who Charlie Chaplin was. Yet now he was dead and so couldn't make another movie. So they conjured up a successor. Actually they conjured up a lot of successors. What seemed like everyone in Asian cinema suddenly changed their name to either Bruce or Lee and they suddenly starred in films with portmanteau titles of other Bruce Lee movies.

There was Bronson Lee and Conan Lee and Dragon Lee. There was Bruce Chen and Bruce Liang and Bruce Thai. The really extravagant took both names, merely changing the spelling, like Bruce Le, Bruce Li or Bruce Ly. There may even have a Lee Bruce and a Bluce Ree, though I can't swear to those. They made films like Enter the Game of Death, Return of the Fists of Fury or Re-enter the Dragon. Even a pre-fame Jackie Chan was stuck inheriting the throne in New Fists of Fury but his attempt to wave his arms the way Bruce did was ludicrous. The most unlikely were titles like The Dragon Lives Again and The Clones of Bruce Lee, both of which are perfect candidates for this series of reviews if only I can track them down.

The Clones of Bruce Lee has been described as 'the Mount Rushmore of Bruceploitation films' for its use of a whole slew of these Bruce Lee imitators, including Bruce Le, Bruce Thai, Bruce Lai, Bruce Liang and Dragon Lee, all trained by Bolo Yeung who the real Bruce beat in Enter the Dragon. If that wasn't enough, it also has men made of bronze, poisonous plants and a beach full of naked women. The Dragon Lives Again has the soul of Bruce Lee travel to the Underworld where he teams up with Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu and Popeye the Sailor Man to prevent Dracula, Clint Eastwood and James Bond from mounting a coup and deposing the King of the Underworld. Oh, and there's the Godfather, the Exorcist and even Emmanuelle in there for good measure. How did I not know this film existed?

In comparison Fist of Fear, Touch of Death has no such wackiness, it's just really awful. It opens in New York outside the Madison Square Garden for the 1979 World Karate Championships. We know this because TV presenter Adolph Caesar tells us so, regardless of the fact that he's standing underneath a marquee that reads 'The Oriental World of Self Defense'. That's the sort of movie this is, the sort that happily tells us black is white and expects us to believe it. Just to explain how unlikely this all is, the World Karate Championships are apparently fought to find a successor to the title of Bruce Lee and we know it's really serious business because we're shown footage of the previous year when black belt champion Bill Louis plucked out his opponent's eyes and threw them into the crowd to the magical accompaniment of laser sound effects. And you thought UFC was tough? You ain't seen nothin' yet.

Given that this is supposed to be a new Bruce Lee movie but the filmmakers had the slight problem that he had been dead for seven years, they had to conjure up new ways of fitting him into the story. So the fight for his title is one way and another is to have Caesar rattle on about whatever comes to mind in connection with Bruce Lee. Quite why we're supposed to care about Adolph Caesar we really don't know, given that at this point he was best known for having narrated the trailer to Dawn of the Dead, in other words not particularly known for anything. He did get nominated for an Oscar for his next role, as an abusive black sergeant in Norman Jewison's A Soldier's Story, but that was four years away yet. At this point he was nobody so we're supposed to believe he's a TV anchorman.

First off he interviews promoter Aaron Banks about whether he thinks Bruce Lee died of natural causes, because naturally that's the first question that springs to mind when talking about a karate tournament. Banks is convinced that Lee was really murdered through use of the touch of death, also known as the vibrating palm. Apparently the technique is simple, but he can't tell us what it is because it's a martial arts secret and all martial artists have to sign some sort of vow of secrecy like conjurers. So instead of telling us what it is, he tells us what it is, even demonstrating it in video footage. You just hold your fist really close to the target and punch really hard, using all the chi you can muster. Quite what this has to do with a vibrating palm and how it would leave no trace when it can snap inch thick boards we have no idea, but that's the secret of martial arts, ladies and gentlemen. Three weeks later you're dead. I can kill you by looking at you.

Somehow Caesar did a series of interviews with Bruce Lee. How could that be, you ask? Well, given that Caesar is in black and white and Lee is in sepia, they're never shown on screen at the same time and Bruce has obviously been redubbed to say whatever fits remotely with Caesar's questions, I'd say he didn't interview him at all, but that's just me being cynical. Of course he discovered Bruce Lee's talents. How could I doubt him? He's an important man. He even drives a Rolls Royce and we get no less than two lingering close ups of the Spirit of Ecstasy on the front to ram that point home. Why has a Rolls Royce suddenly entered the story? Because he has to randomly drive by the Hotel Mayflower twenty minutes before the match begins so he can give Fred Williamson a lift when he gets cheated out of a cab.

What is Fred Williamson doing in this movie? Well, I think he's still wondering about that too. He plays himself, and apparently signed up for some sort of early reality TV contract because the camera is there at his bedside when he gets a wake up call at 10.00am for Harry Belafonte instead of 8.00am for Fred Williamson. Mistaking the Hammer for Harry Belafonte is a running gag in this film and you can just tell we're all splitting our sides at how hilarious that is. Can you tell? Anyway, good old Fred has spent the night with some cheap ass ugly hooker acting like Marilyn Monroe in pancake makeup. Apparently he hasn't satisfied her, because five times isn't enough, so he gets to take care of business one more time before heading out. Man, he must be quick! 'Whoever heard of fighting for a Bruce Lee title that doesn't even exist!' he tells Caesar and while he's got a point, we can't help but wonder why someone would actually begin poking holes in this movie when they're in this movie.

Everyone is being talked about as the next Bruce Lee, of course. What sort of Bruceploitation film would this be without everyone being touted as Bruce Lee's successor. Bill Louie is the next Bruce Lee because he looks like him, you know, he's Asian and has two arms. Later we'll see him save a girl from being raped while dressed up as Kato from The Green Hornet. That's Louie, not the rape victim. Trust me, the other way round would have been far more interesting. Two cute joggers have unfortunately attracted unwelcome attention. 'Please, somebody!' cries jogger number one turned rape victim one, so Kato number two saunters over at the slowest speed possible to kick everyone's ass and save the day, all while failing dismally at some of Bruce's recognisable animal noises. 'Who was that masked man?' her friend asks. No, I'm not kidding. I wish I was.

Ron Van Clief is the next Bruce Lee too because he works out for five hours a day and is a three time world champion. He can even demonstrate a crucial martial arts technique via videolink, the ability to cut carrots held over his students' throats with a blunt sword but without killing them. Judging from the scars on the throat of one, he's had a lot of practice. He can save girls in the park too, especially cute ones in white who are followed by four foul mouthed thugs. 'How can I ever repay you?' she asks, after he fights them off. He looks at the camera and smiles. I really should be paid to watch this garbage but whatever you can come up with really wouldn't be enough.

If you can bear it, it gets worse. We have a dramatisation of Bruce's life story up next. Apparently Bruce's great-grandfather was Chan Li, a master swordsman in the 19th century, the greatest samurai warrior of his era, and because Bruce was born on the very same day he romanticises his great-grandfather's achievements and so practices karate all the time, even though his parents don't like it. Now, anyone who's made it this far is either an idiot, a masochist or someone who has to review this thing as part of a series on the worst films ever made, perhaps all three, so I'd have to point out to the first two categories that Bruce Lee was of Chinese heritage and karate and samurai are both Japanese. Never the twain and all that.

What's more, we see this story unfold through the redubbing of one of Bruce's old Chinese movies, 1957's The Thunderstorm, a rare dramatic role for him in a film made when he was seventeen years old. I really don't know much about what The Thunderstorm was about, other than it's based on the same play as Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower, but it's patently not about Bruce Lee's early life. Apparently because Bruce is karate crazy his girlfriend is sleeping with the delivery boy and his mother thinks he should grow up. 'I'm not a baby any more,' Bruce tells her. 'I can kill with my bare hands. You don't understand me.' 'All boys go through this stage,' she replies. Personally I don't remember going through the being able to kill with my bare hands stage myself but then I'm not Japanese. Or Chinese. Or whichever we're supposed to be right now. Anyway, wasn't Bruce born in San Francisco?

What I love most about these scenes is that they're all shot in black and white because the footage is stolen from a 1957 movie, but when the characters go into flashbacks, as they frequently do, they find that they're in colour because they're all stolen from a 1971 movie called Invincible Super Chan. The only good thing about Invincible Super Chan is that it looks so insane that I need to watch it outside of this ridiculous framework, especially as it seems to be banned in West Germany. Invincible Super Chan, I mean Bruce Lee's great-grandfather, takes on people with bizarre weapons, throws people into trees and sideswipes people with iron heads into huge rocks. He's so tough that he can withstand a midget poking at him with a stick, while a couple of other guys hit him with an abacus and a sword that's kept in its scabbard. All at once. What a guy!

Anyway, what this is all supposed to teach us is that Bruce runs away from home 'to pursue his dream, never to return again.' He gets into films because it's 'the quickest way to become a samurai soldier of fortune' and sure enough, the promoter tells him that if he doesn't get seriously injured from hitting people, one film could be enough to get him into a supporting role in an American TV series called The Green Hornet. You think I'm making this up, right? Well we even see a clip from this one film. Ah crap, I blinked so I missed it and had to rewind. We see half a second worth of somebody jumping off a roof. I can't be bothered to rewind again to see if it was Bruce because I never believed it was to begin with.

And as we return to Madison Square Garden having learned precisely nothing except that we shouldn't have watched this film, we find that we have a bunch more crap to watch. We still have Fred the Hammer complaining again about the upcoming title fight being pointless because nobody can follow Bruce Lee. Oh, and Fred is fantastic. He tells us so. We still have Teruyuki Higa and his Okinawa Kenpo students strutting their stuff in the Madison Square Garden ring, including a bizarre demonstration of power where Higa gets to have his arm knocked through a stack of boards with a sledgehammer. We still have Richard Barathy kicking someone in the chest and breaking a bunch of boards even though he had a blood disease when he was seventeen. Everyone has to break boards. Didn't they see Enter the Dragon? I saw Enter the Dragon. 'Boards don't hit back,' Bruce taught us. Remember?

Oh and we still have the World Welterweight Karate Championship, full contact over twelve rounds, between Louis Neglia and John 'Cyclone' Flood to determine who will inherit the title of Bruce Lee but frankly, I don't care any more. Someone won. You want to find out who, you watch this piece of trash. I'd watch Manos: The Hands of Fate a dozen times without pause before I'd watch this again. There really is a difference between bad filmmaking and deliberately bad filmmaking. This film isn't just an insult to Bruce, because it was always going to be that and it's hardly alone, but it's also an insult to us. Exploitation mavens have been handing us a heap of crap for years through slick marketing and innovative gimmicks. We know they're likely to be bad films but they're often enjoyable bad films. I don't know how anyone could find enjoyment in this.


David A. Zuzelo said...

So true, I am a hardcore Brucesploitation fan myself...frankly I far prefer Bruce Le movies to the actual Lee films! But I have never even been able to finish this film. You are a brave Cinesludger sir-now I will never try to watch it again!
I have too many tales of LeeALikes and Kung Fu Gorillas to revist.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

I revisited Fist of Fear, Touch of Death for Cinematic Hell because I remembered it as being utterly abysmal. I was surprised to find that my brain hadn't quite kept the horror of it intact, perhaps diluting it to avoid nightmares.

It really is an endurance test, though I have to admit the skill the dubbers used in turning an early Bruce Lee character into the real Bruce Lee acting out his own life story was surprisingly good, albeit unintentionally hilarious.

I picked up a couple of Bruce Le films and I have a few sitting around anyway. I'll definitely get to them at some point, though not likely too soon. More likely will be the two utterly outrageous films I mentioned in the review that are just too irresistible to describe.