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Chen Zhen (Bruce Lee) in Fists of Fury (Lo Wei, Golden Harvest Company, 1972)
Stories & Ideas

Tue 01 Sep 2020

Edit Line: Fist of Fury – (Laughing)

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Blake Howard

Australian film critic and award-winning podcaster behind Michael Mann’s One Heat Minute

Revenge isn't just cold, it’s unquenchable.

In the moments that precede the final climactic and stirring moments of Lo Wei's Fist of Fury (1972), Bruce Lee's Chen Zhen is confronted with the empty vengeance he has attained after extracting revenge for the death of his master. He has disguised, infiltrated, spied, and beaten (and embodied a living plague) the Japanese rivals responsible for his beloved teacher's death. Chen Zhen can taste the metallic poison of the deeds – revenge isn't just cold, it’s unquenchable. When the law descends upon his martial arts school and the weary, wounded students within, he must make a final bargain, agreeing to turn himself over if they leave the school and remaining students alone. He walks out into the dojo's courtyard and appraises those set to retrieve him.

Fist of Fury was the second collaboration between Lee and director Lo Wei. Set in Shanghai in 1910, Lee’s Chen Zhen returns as the prodigal son to marry his fiancé but discovers the death of his mentor and Japanese rivals tormenting the students in his dojo, as well as the discrimination levelled at the Chinese inhabitants of the city.

This return to Hong Kong cinema is a coming-out party for soon to be superstar Lee. Lee reached a ceiling in Hollywood with the side-kick designation and the all-black outfit alongside the titular Green Hornet as Kato in the short-lived series. He was resigning to be a Kung Fu/Jeet Kun Do teacher to stars like Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin and NBA Hall-of-Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The move back to Hong Kong began a run of films that created a new paradigm in action cinema. After the overwhelming success of The Big Boss (1971), Lee started an ascent to the title of the big unassailable final boss of martial arts cinema from then until the end of time. Where The Big Boss' main character Chao-an Cheng was a man of peace, goaded into violent reprisal, in Fist of Fury Chen Zhen is a force of nature.

Bruce Lee should be laughing in the climax of Fist of Fury. Lee is cresting the wave of international super-stardom, defiantly overcoming Hollywood's shackles, yet as Chen Zhen, it isn't a laugh at all. It's a cry filled with madness, regret and defiance. The ending shares the fatalism of the genre-redefining and Oscar-winning Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Butch (Paul Newman) confirms that their primary Lawman tormentor Lefors is not in the crowd of Bolivian soldiers surrounding their last stand. He says to Sundance (Robert Redford), "for a moment there; I thought we were in trouble." Chen Zhen sees the wall of pistols after co-operating with the authorities and laughs. These anti-heroes rush into a final freeze-frame of the film, and we hear the hail of gunfire. To paraphrase Lee's martial arts philosophy ("no way, as way"), these characters go through 'no way out' to find the way to our hearts.

– Blake Howard

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