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A Star Is Brawn
The Big Boss (DVD)
Member Name: MykReeve
The Big Boss (DVD)
Date: 08/12/00, updated on 22/04/01 (143 review reads)
Advantages: Lee's fight sequences
Disadvantages: Weak plot, Lee's animal noises, tinkly music
Contrary to popular opinion, this isn't Bruce Lee's first movie. To Hong Kong cinemagoers, Bruce Lee was already a familiar name from his numerous appearances as a child actor. In the 1960s, Lee travelled to Hollywood, appearing in the television series "The Green Hornet" and the film 'Marlowe'. However, Lee found little success breaking into Hollywood, so returned to Hong Kong. The opposition that he faced back there, however, was unsurprisingly great – the analogy drawn by one Hong Kong cinema expert is the idea of Macauley Culkin returning to Hollywood, and asking to be in 'Rambo IV'. Nonetheless, Raymond Chow offered Lee a starring role in his 1971 film 'Tang shan da xiong' ('The Big Boss'). So, the film does have the honour of being the first film in which Bruce Lee was the main star. Interestingly, James Tien, who appears in the film as Hsiu Chen, was kept on hand in case Bruce turned out not to be such a great actor, so he could be easily replaced!
The English title refers to the villain of the story, whereas the Chinese title (literally, 'China mountain big brother') refers to Lee's character. In the US, due to a mix-up of labels on the films, the film is known as 'Fists of Fury'. The film we know as 'Fist of Fury' is there known as 'The Chinese Connection'.
The film is set in Pak Chong, a little north of Bangkok, in Thailand, though there is little to identify it as such throughout the film. Lee plays Cheng Chao An, a migrant worker, who travels to Thailand in search of work, and meets with a family of Chinese nationals, who secure a job for him to work alongside them at the nearby ice house. It soon becomes clear that all is not what it seems in the ice house, which turns out to be merely a front for a drug-trafficking ring. When some of the Chinese workers spot a packet of drugs hidden in a block of ice, the Big Boss kills them. Slowly, the family
of Chinese nationals "disappear", until eventually Cheng decides to confront the Big Boss himself.
At the beginning of the film, Cheng wears a jade necklace, given to him by his mother. He, we gather, has promised her not to fight anyone in Thailand, and so throughout the first half of the film, whenever there is a fight, he looks at the jade necklace, (a scene always accompanied by some excruciating xylophone music), and chooses not to get involved. You'll no doubt be relieved to hear that about 40-odd minutes into the film, the necklace gets broken, freeing Cheng from his promise, and letting Lee demonstrate the martial arts techniques for which he is well renowned.
The story is thin as hell, there's no getting away from it. But, no-one's going to be watching the film for the story, surely. One thing that's particularly notable throughout the film is the different styles of fighting employed by Lee and the other actors. Generally, other actors are shown flailing their arms about manicly, in a classic 70s combat style, whereas Lee fights with his trademark precision and speed (and of course, his funny high-pitched animal noises). Fight sequences are remarkably good, but I would say inferior to those we've seen in later Lee movies. Watch for the "trampoline" jumping!
The opening title sequence is notably amusing, consisting of animation very much in the Terry Gilliam/Monty Python mould. Also, look out for a young Ching-Ying Lam, playing Cheng's cousin, who is probably best known to Hong Kong audiences as the undertaker from the 'Mr Vampire' series of films.
'The Big Boss' is available from Hong Kong Legends on video or DVD. I watched the DVD version, which provides both English and the original Cantonese audio tracks, along with English or Dutch subtitles. There is also the option to watch the film with an audio commentary by Hong Kong cinema expert, Bey Logan. This is
particularly informative, and Bey Logan is clearly very familiar with Hong Kong cinema and Lee's life, providing an enormous amount of information, not just about the film, but also about the actors and Hong Kong cinema in general. The extras on the disc also include three theatrical trailers for the movie, a biography of Bruce Lee, and a set of production photos. Picture quality is superb, given the age of the film and the poor conditions in which prints of Hong Kong films are stored! Presentation of the DVD is excellent too, with impressive animated menus.
'The Big Boss' is an interesting film to watch from the point of view of seeing Bruce Lee's development as a movie star, however, it's pretty unremarkable as martial arts films go. Lee's fights are certainly impressive, but not as good as those in 'Way of the Dragon', 'Fist of Fury' or 'Enter The Dragon'.