Fist Of Fury (1972)

Directed by
Easily Bruce Lee's best film
Reviewed by Simon on 2024-07-09

Chen Zhen returns to Shanghai when he hears his sifu Huo Yuanjia is ill, but arrives too late for anything but the funeral. He is convinced that foul play must be involved in his death, and when some cocky Japanese martial artists turn up at the wake to make trouble he knows who the prime suspects are.

FIST OF FURY was hugely influential, responsible for turning Bruce Lee into a megastar (much more so than The Big Boss) and spawning endless homages and imitations. It's really the only one of Bruce Lee's completed films that holds up as a complete entity, that would be a good film even if Bruce wasn't in it* (albeit a very different film, as his presence dominates it completely).

None of this changes the fact that by any reasonable standard Chen Zhen is psychotic. His conviction that his sifu must have been murdered is a conspiracy theory - albeit one that happens to be proven true. His bursts of violent rage are so intense they can't be said to fall within a normal range of emotional expression, and by the end of the film he is a serial killer who stalks his victims and hangs them from lampposts.

In a different light Chen Zhen would surely be seen as the villain, but the soundtrack assures us that he is definitely a hero. Context matters. The Japanese occupation was a national humiliation, and Chen Zhen's refusal to accept the situation transforms him into a patriot - and his violence into an act of rebellion. In a mad world, acting sane would be crazy.

It's a message that resonated with many people, not just Chinese, and Bruce Lee became an icon for people suffering from oppression everywhere.

Turning a killer into a hero is what makes FIST OF FURY a great film - it isn't blind to Chen Zhen's madness (witness his appearance at the funeral). Bruce frequently plays the character with the kind of wild eyed insanity that the role merits. It's a compelling narrative that puts a twist on the unbridled nationalism of THE CHINESE BOXER. It's still pretty shameless in its anti-Japanese sentiment (the story had to wait for Fist Of Legend to provide some balance on that front), but it acknowledges the toll of fighting back.

Well, I suppose what really makes FIST OF FURY a great film is the fight scenes. After Lo Wei squandered Bruce's talents by not letting him fight until the very end of THE BIG BOSS, Bruce makes sure the mistake is not repeated. Apparently he would only work with Lo again on the condition that he had full control of the fights, and they are on a totally different level to the previous film.

Bruce is finally able to show the full range of his abilities and his power, speed and precision are phenomenal. The fights are varied and showcase a range of styles and techniques, but more importantly Bruce also focuses on the psychology of the fight. There is a lot of sizing up and feeling out opponents, adapting to their behaviour and exploiting their weaknesses. King Hu's swordfights also have a psychological dimension, so this wasn't completely unprecedented, but combined with Bruce Lee's extraordinary physicality the result is completely captivating.

This is Bruce Lee's real legacy - not only was he an exceptionally gifted athlete and performer, he had a vision for how fight choreography could be used to communicate. Story, character, emotion and philosophy can all be expressed in the way two or more opponents face each other in combat. The best martial arts directors understand this, and approach a fight as a dialogue between the combatants.

So I suppose what really makes FIST OF FURY a great film is just Bruce Lee - his intense charisma burns off the screen, his virtuoso physical performance leaves the mind reeling, and he taught a generation of filmmakers that a fight scene should never just be about two guys hitting each other until one of them stops moving.

* if you just said "What about Enter The Dragon?" go and stand in the corner of shame.