by: Matthew J.R. Kohler
For my whole life (23 years) I have sat in front of the television, drawn by Bruce Lee’s way of thinking and way of being. Every year, I watch my favorite movie —Fist of Fury—at least once, preferably on his birthday. The film was the start of his legendary career and began the character that we all know as Bruce Lee.
Set in World War II, Fist of Fury is about a young martial artist named Chen Zhen, who finds out that his teacher was poisoned by the rivaling Japanese dojo. As a result, Zhen decides to show the dojo that Chinese men are not weak. He demonstrates by not only defeating the boss, but also everyone inside. But, as with all Bruce Lee films, with violence comes consequence. Zhen later realizes that fighting may have been the end to his life.
The film starts off with simple narration to set up the story. One of my favorite parts of the film starts with Lee’s character finding out about his teacher’s death. Stunned, Zhen tries to uncover the body, but is hit in the head by another student with a shovel. From the start, we realize that Lee is playing a different role from that of any of his other films. Sure, he plays the amazing martial artist like his other movies, but he doesn’t have the same status as he does in the others. Lee is a simple man who is caught in between a race war, and who does something to help his people.
To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock: you need to bore the audience for the first thirty minutes, and then hit them with a surprise. Fist of Fury adheres to this rule (not counting the shovel hit); after the 30-minute mark, what arrives is the defining moment of Lee’s character. Bruce Lee versus the dojo: this was the first time we had ever seen one man take on an army. Many movies have paid homage to this scene, including Fist of Legends, Ip Man, Kiss of the Dragon, Ip Man 2, Hard to Kill, and many others. We also are introduced to the nunchaku—a trade mark of Lee’s in later films. This, to me, is one of the few believable army-on-one fight scenes. Zhen is the one with the weapon, and he utilizes it well. By scanning corners, having eyes behind his head, and outsmarting the opponents, Zhen showed that he had more knowledge than any of them. Also, Zhen knew exactly what to do—take everyone’s legs out.
When the battle started, the fighting was intense (true to Lee’s form). What Lee always did was make every blow count. Unlike most fights, Lee doesn’t throw a million kicks or punches, but when he does, it is a death blow. For example, when one of the cocky warriors tries to show how tough he is by attacking Zhen, Zhen thwarted him by repelling the attack and knocking him down. That’s a big reason why I, as well as many others, love Lee so much. He not only plays the fights so well, but executes them even better. It’s hard to say that any fight today competes with a Lee fight, because the blows don’t mean as much. It’s like comparing a classic wrestling match, such as Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat vs. Ric Flair, with anyone in a new match. Not to say that nothing compares to the old, but when one of the old-school wrestlers threw a punch, the audience felt it. The same does not speak for the other when everyone is kicking out of everyone’s finishers. You get numb to it.
Zhen destroyed his opponents with ease, including the second-in-command teacher. The fight was very lop-sided (but less so than the ending fight). What makes this scene special is 1) the overall arc of the fight, 2) why Zhen is there in the first place, and 3) the foreshadowed consequences of Zhen’s actions. Regarding the latter two reasons, Zhen wants to show that the Chinese are not weak, but the consequences show that problems cannot be won through violence.
Because the Japanese dojo was beaten, they retaliate against the other dojo. This leads to an all-out fight between both schools. The battle is fine, but not great (sometimes you can tell when fights are sped up and other parts you can tell that the actors don’t know what they are doing). But the story behind it is all that matters. Not every action scene has to win the audience over through action. Sometimes the greatest moments in a fight is through absence of action. For example, after the Japanese dojo springs an attack on them, one of the Chinese men tries to protect the teacher’s picture, the last remnant of their deceased master. After being stomped on the back for several minutes, the student is crippled. Lee returns to see the carnage that is left in the dojo, and thereby realizes that he was the indirect cause. The dojo decides he must leave the school forever, and never return. He does so to protect the school and the students.
If you watch this movie thinking that Zhen’s struggle is to overcome the odds in terms of fighters, then you are wrong. The Japanese dojo is not physically strong, but it is a titanic political force. At this point in time, Japan had total control of China. The part of Shanghai that they were in was an international spot. Certain parts of Shanghai were off limits to Chinese. After being shown that no dogs and Chinese were allowed at the park, Zhen tried to fight the Japanese men through force, which is something that he could not compete with when they had so much political power.
One of my favorite types of characters is neutral characters. Han Solo in Star Wars, Saruman in Lord of the Rings, and Magneto in X-Men are all neutral characters. The Chinese detectives were neutral characters. After the deaths of two Japanese cooks (who poisoned the teacher), Lee went into hiding. Because of this, everyone assumed that Lee was guilty of these crimes. This caused the second-in-command of the Japanese dojo to insist that the police should handle Zhen. Although the detectives had to arrest Zhen, they also understood why he did it. They also understood the pressure that they were under. The detective characters were very basic, but they illustrate the political power that Japan had back then.
Act III of Fist of Fury is my favorite thirty minutes of any film. On Friday, when I was watching this film, I realized how amazing the final five scenes are. You get to see: Bruce Lee show his true acting chops; the final showdown; the detectives; and the closing minutes of the best scene ever. Act III starts when we are introduced to Robert Baker’s character, and the death to Japan’s voice. Baker is brought in to counteract Zhen, someone who has been in training for quite some time. By now, the entire dojo knows who they are dealing with. Although most of them have never seen Lee, they know of his skill.
Before we get to the final battle, let’s talk about the main two villains—Baker and the Master. In every scene we see Baker, he is very dominant. From the drinking scene to his demonstration, you feel like he will pose a threat to Lee. Then, we have the Master. We never see him do anything until the end. But, he controls the police and works closely with Britain (hence the British detectives at the end). These two villains don’t have much chemistry together, but the difference in their set of skills proves to be a tough match towards Zhen.
After the Master makes his final move to kill all of the Chinese in their dojo, Zhen makes his final assault on the Japanese dojo. Zhen offers to allow the low-life scum guards to leave before he challenges their master (but none do, of course!). In this fight, Bruce shows only anger towards all these men, for each blow he is either crying or screaming. If you have never seen Lee destroy opponents before, this fight scene will be enough to show that fight scenes can have emotions. All five men die within seconds. Then, the second-in-command sneak-attacks Lee. This doesn’t amount to much of an assault as he then wields a sword. This two minute fight is one of the best cinematic fight scenes ever. The swordsmen remember how good he was, and cannot make any sudden mistakes like he did before. Most of his moves are tight, and Lee as you should never takes his eyes off his opponent. One of the best moments is when he is so focus that he runs right into a wooden wall. First off, this was brilliant to demonstrate how focus he was, and second it showed that he had no other choice but to fight. As the swordsman gets into stance and so does Bruce, everything remains quiet. Bruce and him take one final stare down until Bruce kicks the sword out of his hands. When the sword goes up in the air, Lee realizes this to paralyze him and set him up for the sword to go through him. Every time I watch this I smile, it’s one of those Ah Ha scenes. The scene reminds me of The Empire Strikes Back when Luke is preparing to face Vader. You’ve been here before, you know what happens, but no matter what you still get the same reaction as you did the first time you watched it. Not many movies can do that, but this scene gets a bigger reaction out of me every time I watch it.
Zhen is now on a rampage. Any person he sees that is wearing Japanese attire he is killing. One of my favorite moments is when the bodyguard of the Master starts fighting Zhen. Obviously, Baker is not impressed. Then, as the bodyguard charges, Lee drops down and punches him in the groin. Not many other heroes have I seen punch someone there. But that is what makes this character so special—he will do whatever it takes to win. How many other heroes do you see biting people or hitting them in sensitive areas? In his mind, it’s a fight to the death. At this point Baker realizes it’s his turn to fight the unstoppable force. Not many scenes in this movie are cinematic, but the fights most definitely are. I equate the cinematic experience of the fights to the best of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, movies that had 100 times the budget. To say the least, Lee is the master of fight scenes. I digress. As Baker steps down to face his opponent, time slows down. It feels as though we have been sucked into a fantasy, and it is only the audience who is witnessing these two giants fighting. Once the fighting starts, it seems very back-and-forth, until Zhen uses simple moves, such as biting Baker’s foot and attacking the attack. Like I said before, Zhen will do anything to win, for he has honor at stake, unlike the others. Although Baker gets a few hits in, it did not matter in the end. The last minute consists of Zhen destroying him. Take the final blow to Baker’s throat. If you are wondering, yes, Lee crushed Baker’s throat and Baker was out for two weeks. This is the type of fighting in films I love seeing and doing. Real action shows that the filmmakers care about the product and they want you to be sucked into it. If you don’t intend for the audience to think that what they are seeing is real, then what’s the point in having a fight scene?
Now, let’s talk about the Master. He has no other choice but to fight. And, like all good cowardly villains, he tries to blindside Zhen with a sword. Zhen uses everything he can see in the Master’s office to use for defense and offense (very early Jackie Zhen fight scenes going on here). But then it comes down to a martial artist’s dream: the nunchaku versus the katana. Both are masters at their respective crafts, but in the end Zhen trumps him with patience. The master is the most realistic villain that I can think of. He is rich, you never see him practice or teach, and he drinks all the time, so why should he be good at fighting? I never understood why the master has to be some amazing character because of title. Zhen tells everyone title means nothing, as you see in the fight. He is somewhat sloppy, and it never seems like he has the upper hand in the fight. But I guess he always had the ace in the hole.
When Zhen returns to the dojo, he see that most of his friends and colleagues have killed. They were murdered by the Japanese students. Zhen also finds that the police are there waiting for him. Not to mention, but if Lee doesn’t show up then they will close down the school and most likely all will be homeless. Zhen knows he has to take responsibility for his actions. The remainder of the students, believing that Zhen was going to jail, but instead would be put down “like a dog” right in front of the dojo. This is one of the most messed up endings to any movie I’ve seen, and my favorite too. Not only does the Japanese gang get away with all the people they killed, but they also, in a way, kill Zhen. This showed me that every action has an effect. In other words, I saw a very realistic ending to this movie. One of the greatest feats Bruce Lee had achieved was successfully combining fantasy and reality in martial art films. This ending gets to me to this day.
If you asked me what Bruce Lee’s greatest film is, I would tell you this film. If you asked me about which one you should watch first, then I would tell you Enter the Dragon, the first polished Bruce Lee film. When watching Fist of Fury, you would need to listen to it in Mandarin to fully appreciate it; the English dubbing (complete with comically bad, 1950s-ish, Western accents) is hard to listen to. If you’re fine with reading subtitles, the Mandarin version is the best way to view the film. Fist of Fury is an early work of a famous artist; the unknown work that made the creator known. Every artist has this film: Lucas’ THX 1138, Jackie Chan’s Project A, and Christopher Nolan’s Memento. All of these films show that something great was going to come later for these creators, but the one thing none of these films could that Fist of Fury did was capture a universe. With just a single punch by Bruce, the world knew that they were seeing one of the best at what he does. Fist of Fury demonstrated what fight scenes should look like. To this day, they have not been captured the way this film has. Not even Enter the Dragon did this.
If you love martial art films and haven’t seen this movie, then this is your next one. If you are a filmmaker and want to create cinematic action sequences, this is the perfect movie for you. If you just want to see a different universe of storytelling, then this is your movie. Fist of Fury will change your way of thinking, as it did mine.