Fist of Fury (1972)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2005-09-04
Summary: Maybe not THE classic, but a classic nevertheless
“Fist of Fury” succeeds on a number of levels, including some that its makers would never think of. Urban audiences in the United States loved it—loved anything with Bruce Lee, who they saw as the hardest of the hard men, the toughest of the tough guys, one who always extracted vengeance from his enemies and was loyal to his friends. Lee never backed down from authority—he broke rules when he had to and made his own rules when necessary. He was not in the least cool—he was red hot, a bomb just waiting to be detonated. They saw Lee through non-postmodern eyes. There was no ironic distancing from the character for the audience in the cavernous, crumbling grind houses in cities across the United States. The success of Hong Kong movies in the U. S. is unthinkable without Bruce Lee and this movie shows him at his manic, over the top, grimacing best.

Chen Zhen’s enemies are threefold: the Japanese themselves like Suzuki and Yoshida, who occupy China and are its real rulers; their Chinese collaborators, especially the oily Wu; and the inert mass of the Chinese people, afraid to confront the Japanese—because of their fear the Japanese rule them even more securely. The immediate cause of action is the suspicious death of Chen’s teacher and the founder of his school. Only the Japanese would benefit from his death but everyone is willing to pretend that he died of pneumonia, so the conflict is clearly demarked early on.

Another level in which “Fist of Fury” works is the conventional “You killed my sifu so I will kill you”. Hong Kong directors, writers and editors could create ninety minute movies like this in their sleep—and it seemed they occasionally did. Such films were easy to make and were popular—it was what the local audiences in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia wanted to see. But if it was just a charismatic star in a typical Golden Harvest production from the early 1970s, no one would wonder if it was an important movie or a classic.

One aspect that is well, if very broadly, drawn is the immorality of collaboration with the enemy. The translator Wu, while Chinese, has the logos, emblems and iconography of the “evil” Japanese as depicted not only in Hong Kong movies of the 1970s but many Hollywood movies from the World War II and post-War period. He is a small man in a Western suit and tie that, while it fits, also seems too large for him—the suit almost swallows him up. He wears large round glasses, travels with Chinese bodyguards and continually makes the point that he is the representative of the local unofficial Japanese enforcer, Suzuki. Wu is simpering, servile and obsequious, very pleased to serve his masters; he has no identity other than as their servant. His reaction to the strip tease show is another indication of this—Suzuki and Petroff, his new Russian thug, while appreciative of the show but restrained. Wu is excited, almost disturbed, saying that he “has never seen anything like this before”. He is set apart from the occupiers and their allies, less sophisticated than they; this, of course, is made excruciatingly clear immediately afterwards when Suzuki orders him to crawl like a dog when leaving. That Wu does so without demur is clearly referenced to Chen encountering the sign “No dogs or Chinese allowed” at the entrance to a park. When told by a Japanese man that he can get in if he acts like a dog, Chen responds with violence, both real and symbolic. After laying waste to a number of Japanese thugs, he throws the sign into the air and launches himself after it, smashing it to pieces with a kick.

The chief detective (played by director Lo Wei) and his minions encapsulate the difficulties inherent for citizens of an occupied country who are responsible for public order. While they are responsible for enforcing or adjudicating laws regarding common civil and criminal matters--including murder—there is no question that ultimately the occupier has state power. When the all powerful Japanese consul (the only person in Western dress other than the sycophant Wu) finally appears—there had been threats to summon him throughout the movie—we know the end is very near. The detectives’ symbol of authority seems to be a fedora, worn at all times. Otherwise they are dressed in the long robes with turned back cuffs that many of the other Chinese wear. This headgear may be symbolic of their partial absorption into the domain of the Japanese; it might also be a nod to the costumes of detectives in many U. S. movies. Whatever the reason, it is very distinctive.

The wonderful fight scenes show Lee at his very best. His combination of several martial arts with a dash of street fighting élan is enthralling. When the Jin Wu school is attacked the first time by their Japanese rivals it results in an inconclusive melee. When Chen goes alone into the Japanese dojo he defeats all of them including their master. Part of this fight is shot from above and to one side, an unusual and very effective camera angle for a martial arts movie of the time. Here Lee is a spinning and kicking machine—he land (or seems to land) almost lethal kicks on several opponents without the benefit constructive editing. Some of his moves are reminiscent of the fights in Hollywood western movies, especially the clenched fist to the face and others are close to unique at the time, dropping low to the ground and hitting his circling opponents in the ankles with his ever-present short hinged staff.

It is doubtful that those involved with “Fist of Fury” had any idea that they were making a film that would resonate throughout the world for decades to come, just as, for example, the artists and technicians working on “Casablanca” were aware that it would be a touchstone for critics and moviegoers for as long as movies are watched. But whatever their intention or design, Lee, Lo Wei and the rest created a masterpiece of the genre.
Reviewer Score: 9