In a too-brief career as an actor and performer, Bruce Lee appeared in only four complete films before his untimely death in 1973 at the age of 32, The Big Boss (released in the U.S. as Fists of Fury), Fist of Fury (released in the U.S. as The Chinese Connection), Way of the Dragon (released here as Return of the Dragon), and Enter the Dragon, his first (and last) English-language film. A fifth film, Game of Death, begun before Enter the Dragon, was released after Lee's death with doubles and stand-ins. In only his second film, Fist of Fury, Lee confirmed what his fans already knew: that the rare combination of innate charisma and martial arts talents and skills made him a movie star.

Fist of Fury centers on Chen Zhen (Bruce Lee), a martial arts student at the Jing Mo School in Shanghai in the early part of the last century. Chen hurries back from a trip when he learns that the school's instructor and mentor, Huo Yuanjia, died under mysterious circumstances. Inconsolable, the angry, grief-stricken Chen suspects the Japanese, specifically the Hongkou Dojo, of poisoning Huo Yuanjia (a real-life martial artist who died at the relatively young age of 42). While the Jing Mo School's eldest student, Fan Chia-Chi (Tien Feng), suggests restraint and caution, Chen can't keep his temper in check, returning a message sent to the Jing Mo School back to the dojo, leaving several Japanese students and the head instructor, Yoshida (Feng Yi), injured.
Writer-director Lo Wei unsurprisingly plays up the Chinese-Japanese conflict to generate sympathy for Zhen and the Chinese martial arts students. Given the setting and time period, the Shanghai International Settlement, pre-World War II, the Chinese are portrayed as the victims of Japanese ethnocentrism and prejudice. The Japanese characters are uniformly villains, eagerly humiliating the Chinese at every opportunity (Jet Li's 1994 remake, Fist of Legend, took a more positive approach, with the lead character falling in love with a Japanese woman). They're also responsible for the death of Zhen's teacher. In a scene that made Chinese audiences applaud, Zhen attempts to enter a public park, but a Sikh attendant denies him entrance (Chinese and dogs aren't allowed). When several Japanese men try to humiliate Zhen, he strikes back, breaking the "No Chinese or dogs allowed" sign before leaving the scene.

Lee's acting, like everyone else's in the film, tends toward the theatrical and melodramatic, but that's typical of Asian martial arts films from that particular era. Lee gets to put on several disguises (e.g., a rickshaw driver, an old newspaper seller, and a bespectacled telephone repairman). He also gets to emote, expressing varying levels of anger, but showing a softer side in scenes with Chen's fiancée, Yuan Le-erh (Nora Miao). It's not method acting, of course, but Lee's non-fight scenes in Fist of Fury are always watchable, always engaging. Lee's strengths as a performer, of course, lay in the combination of charisma and martial arts skills, honed through years of training and conditioning, that he brought to every role.

In a series of masterfully choreographed fight scenes, Zhen takes on the Japanese martial students, their sensei (again), a Russian fighter, Petrov (Robert Baker), and the dojo master, Hiroshi Suzuki (Riki Hashimoto). Lee's talent and skills as a performer are used to great advantage by writer-director Lo Wei, who also co-starred in Fist of Fury as a police inspector. Wei mixes up his set-ups, occasionally throwing in an overhead shot or a POV shot. He never lets his desire to add visual variety interfere with showing Lee in long or medium shot as Lee dispatches his opponents. Wei, presumably aware that capturing Lee's hand and foot speed on film was difficult, if not impossible, includes a slow-motion shot and trailing, ghost-like imagery to better show Lee's complex upper-body moves. Once seen, it's never forgotten (and yes, it's a bit cheesy by contemporary standards). "Once seen, never forgotten" is an apt way to describe Fist of Fury, Bruce Lee's best role.

So which of Lee's roles do you consider his best? Favorite? Yes, you can include Lee's supporting turn as Kato in The Green Hornet television series.
categories Cinematical