VHS Revival gives you a blow-by-blow account of the movie that brought us Bruce Lee. Need we say more?
What was it about Bruce Lee that made him the eternal icon of action cinema? He wasn’t the first star of the kung-fu wave. Shaw Brothers Studio had been steadily churning out heroic martial arts fantasy flicks years before Lee got into the game, and cheaply dubbed versions were already showing up in American grindhouse theaters. He certainly was one of the most talented and innovative martial artists in history, but that alone doesn’t explain it, either. I break it down to something simpler: Bruce Lee was the coolest son of a bitch ever to walk the Earth. He was so cool that both Steve McQueen and James Coburn were in training to be more like him. Who trained them? Bruce Lee. It’s hard to get cooler than that.
Lee’s fierce charisma and badass swagger transcended cultural or language barriers. His moves grabbed people’s attention, but his charm kept it. Western audiences couldn’t get enough of that sly grin and the white-hot intensity that lay underneath. Lee’s magnetic screen presence did more to legitimize the martial arts film for the mainstream than any actor before or since. And while none of the four films in his tragically short life truly capture Lee’s potential, they are all worth watching, if only for a taste of his effortless, lightning-fast cool.
For those of you who know Lee primarily for big-budget, James Bondian epic, Enter the Dragon, seeing him in his first starring feature, The Big Boss, may prove something of a shock. The scope of the story is small, very traditional, and not at all flashy. It follows Lee’s character, Cheng Chao-an, as he relocates from the Chinese mainland to a small village in Thailand for economic opportunities, and to avoid trouble. That last bit leads to the movie’s biggest—and most contentious—shock. Thanks to a reluctant promise made to his elderly mother, Cheng spends a good portion of the movie not getting into fights. Let me repeat that, a movie starring the most dazzling martial artist on the planet doesn’t want him doing martial arts. Cheng’s oath of pacifism is symbolized by the jade token he wears around his neck. Since the village’s main recreation seems to be harassing innocent women and children, Cheng spends a lot of time looking resentfully at his nonviolence necklace.
As does the audience. Apparently, the movie was intended as a starring vehicle for James Tien, an established martial arts actor who played Cheng’s cousin, Hsu Chien. Lee was to only be a sidekick (shades of his time on The Green Hornet). All the early fights involve Tien knocking around the local toughs, with Lee getting in a few quick punches when no one is looking. Tien was a competent performer, but the idea of going to a Bruce Lee movie where he doesn’t fight is like buckling into a supersonic jet, only to taxi across the airfield to a waiting crop duster. The producers recognized this, too, and soon the original director, Wu Chia Hsiang, was out, new director Lo Wei was in, and Cheng’s necklace conveniently gets broken.
Hsiu Chen: Why Cheng, you’re a pretty good fighter.
Cheng Chao-an: A few tricks from back home. You know I broke a promise. Never to fight again.
That scene is where the movie really begins. Tensions are high at the ice factory, the village’s major industry. A couple of workers have gone missing after accidentally finding a bag of heroin hidden in an ice block Cheng breaks while showing off. The manager claims they “went to see the boss,” which we know as code for “murdered, hacked up, and frozen in ice.” Hsu Chien, investigating the disappearance, also befell such a fate, leaving no one to protect the workers from the strike-breaking hoodlums the manager calls in. That is, until one careless shove knocks Cheng’s necklace into the dirt. Having been released from his dear mother’s oath by the flimsiest of technicalities, Cheng decimates the rowdy gang in a matter of seconds.
As I mentioned, Hsu Chien is no slouch at kung fu, but it is obvious with the first punch that Lee is on a completely different level. Several levels, in fact. The hokey fight choreography is gone, replaced by Lee’s intense focus, precision, and showmanship. His punches and kicks appear to connect. His opponents seem to be reacting to the impact rather than tossing themselves in the direction of the blow. I can imagine people in the audience suddenly sitting up and nudging their buddy. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”
The film not only exploits Lee’s amazing physical prowess, but slyly takes advantage of his cocky persona too. Perhaps sensing the old “murder-and-put-on-ice” routine isn’t going to work, the manager goes after Cheng’s ego and promotes him to factory foreman. At first, the workers are thrilled to have someone so capable of looking out for them. The huge family of cousins Cheng is staying with even give him a celebratory mini-parade on the way home. Cheng is more than happy to lap up all the praise. When he is reminded to press the manager about the missing workers (who are also cousins), the manager sidetracks him with a night of boozing and a prostitute who Cheng drunkenly mistakes for the girl he has a crush on, Chiao Mei (also his cousin, but let’s not dwell on that). Cheng wakes the next morning with a massive hangover and even greater shame, naturally bumping into the real Chiao Mei on his way out of the brothel. Not a proud day for Cheng.
In an effort to win back the respect of his fellow workers and cousins, Cheng goes all the way to the source, the titular Big Boss, Hsiao Mi (Han Ying-chieh). Mi is a wonderful, classic Bond-style supervillain, always flashing a sinister smile and smoking a pipe, constantly flanked by two beautiful masseuses. He gets a brilliant introduction, sitting like a king on his palatial lawn, watching his son’s fighting practice with some unlucky underlings. At one point, he jumps in to correct his son’s technique and stabs two underlings in the demonstration. The poor dopes must then pretend to be impressed and clap along with the rest of the toadies while clutching their knife wounds. In other words, I’m willing to bet there are no ‘World’s Best Boss’ mugs in Hsiao Mi’s kitchen cabinet.
Mi puts on another show when Cheng comes calling. First, he makes Cheng fend off his attack dogs (consisting of Lee doing trampoline jumps and someone offscreen throwing German Shepards at him), before calling them off and inviting him in. Then Mi’s son comes in pulling the old “Hey Pop, I’m exhausted from searching the whole countryside for our beloved missing employees,” routine, but Cheng catches on to the Boss’ tricks when he cruelly burns a clumsy maid’s chest with a hot coal, and when he sneaks into the ice house after hours to snoop around he makes a grisly discovery: the ice blocks are not only used for smuggling heroin, but encase the dismembered remains of his missing cousins (don’t ask me why they though hiding bodies in large transparent blocks was a sound idea).
Finally, this is Bruce Lee unbound, Cheng brutally tearing through a gang of Mi’s goons, slicing them with their own weapons and hacking into necks with an ice saw. The carnage is softened when a guy leaves a cartoonish, man-shaped hole in the wall he was kicked through (a gag added by the director that Lee bitterly opposed), but it is a shockingly bloody affair otherwise. Not even Mi’s son, the arrogant and lethal #2 villain, gets in more than a minor cut before Cheng crushes his chest with a single punch.
Cheng staggers away from the slaughter in shock of what he has done, but the remorse does not last. Returning home, he finds that the ‘Big Boss’, in an over-the-top display of villainy, has kidnapped Chiao Mei and murdered every remaining cousin, including a little kid! Cheng takes a reflective moment by a stream to consider if he should put all the death behind him and return to his elderly mother, or if he should follow the trail of revenge to the all-consuming end. The first option would be the more enlightened approach, but the second is what we came to see.
Cheng Chao-an: Alright! Hold it! Now you get out of here, I’m warning you. You bastards can’t push us around. If you wanna fight, I’ll take you on.
The Cheng who walks up to Hsiao Mi’s gate—and effortlessly leaps over it—is Lee at his most confidently badass. He even dispatches the first wave of guards while snacking on a bag of chips, like Dirty Harry stopping that bank robbery while noshing on a hot dog. When will action movie thugs learn? If someone walks into a fight more concerned with hunger than danger, it is time to RUN AWAY.
Like all good action movies, the highlight is the big boss finale, which in this case is quite literal. Both sides start with their customary psych outs. Hsiao Mi, who has been paying more attention to his pet bird than Cheng, casually tosses up the fancy bird cage and hooks it on a high tree branch (the equivalent of sinking a basket by throwing the ball over your shoulder, but weirder). Cheng one-ups him by knocking down the cage with a throwing knife (also without looking) and freeing the bird. This is the first fight where the outcome isn’t 100% guaranteed. Shirts will be ripped, blood will be drawn. Hsiao Mi’s acrobatic leaps and deviating kicks means Cheng is evenly matched ― at least for a little while. Hsiao Mi’s supreme arrogance steadily slips with each blow that Cheng lands, and when the ‘Big Boss’ resorts to a pair of hidden knives to gain an advantage, we know the punk is done for. Cheng only needs his eight fingers of death to bring the fight to a savage end.
As expected, the story ends on a down note, with Cheng being led away by the police to face the undoubtedly harsh consequences. When you think about it, though, you can’t feel that sorry for him. Not only does he break his promise to his mother to the farthest possible extent, his visit to the country has brought about the death of almost his entire extended family. He did prevent Chiao Mei from being sold as a sex slave, so points for that, but on the whole, he was a terrible house guest.
The Big Boss is considered the weakest of Lee’s starting features (not counting the despicably exploitative Game of Death, which was hobbled together after Lee’s death using 11 minutes of genuine footage and unconvincing stand-ins for the rest). The hasty reconfiguration makes the story unbalanced, the editing can be sketchy, and the choreography varies wildly in quality. Despite its roughness, Lee shines in every scene. His effortless grace and confidence comes through even when he is playing a jackass. In the end, The Big Boss is absolutely unworthy of Bruce Lee, but even his most successful movies failed to capture his true potential, and I’m not sure that any work of fiction could have. In any event, he took something that would have been long-forgotten and made it essential. How’s that for star power?