Bruce Lee is a legitimate legend, but the films he starred in – as distinct from his performances within them – are generally disappointing. Too often, the scripts are un-involving, the actors unconvincing and the direction uninspired. Fist of Fury is the exception – a high-impact martial arts masterpiece worthy of combat cinema’s greatest star, and of any audience’s attention.
Lee plays Chen Jeh, the standout student of Jing Mo, a patriotic but pacifistic Chinese martial arts academy in Japanese-controlled Shanghai. After Jing Mo’s master dies, representatives of a Japanese bushido school burst in and insult his memory. Although his superiors advocate non-violence, Chen soon retaliates, and his shin-smashing assault on the entire student body at the dojo downtown sparks a gang war that’s quickly intensified by his investigations into his beloved teacher’s mysterious demise. (And his habit of punching Japanese people until blood leaks out of their eyeballs.)
To enjoy the action in many martial arts movies, you’re required to forget all logic and suppress every twinge of disbelief. (Frankly, I question the effectiveness of the ninja death star when employed in the average pub brawl, and I’m not convinced that, faced with an army of exquisitely skilled sword-wielding assassins, even the most polished practitioner of Tiger Crane Kung Fu wouldn’t be better off just distracting them for a second and running away like a deadbeat babyfather.) The fights in Fist of Fury, however, require no such indulgence. Lee, and director Lo Wei, stage a succession of low-tech tear ups that are so spectacular, and so realistic, they make you duck and dodge in your seat – and, beyond that, Lee’s transcendent charisma and clearly genuine ability to beat up practically anyone in the world sweep away any lingering improbabilities.
Frequently, kung-fu films only come alive during the fight scenes – and, on top of that, many of those fights scenes often seem to have been included not to propel the story or illuminate the characters, but to satisfy some studio quota of punches per hour. Fury avoids both these drawbacks through the constantly increasingly tension created by the certainty that Chen’s revenge does not – as is almost always the case in action movies – somehow take place outside the law. Even as we are cheering him on, we’re aware that Chen’s actions are criminal; that, for however admirable a reason, he has made himself a murderer; and that he’ll be held accountable for it. Because of this, none of the fights he picks are unimportant – each is an encounter for which he, a young man of supreme potential, is prepared to sacrifice his freedom and future – and none of the quieter scenes are insignificant. There’s even a believable love interest, whose charming concern for Chen’s physical safety in the short-term, and for their shared aspirations in the long-, remind us that the events of this film aren’t being played out in one of those uncomplicated movieworlds where life-long happiness is the inevitable product of giving your enemies a righteous hiding in the final scene.
This certainly isn’t a perfect picture – the dialogue is often threadbare, the bad guys are all one-dimensional dastards, and, at one point, an iron bar-bending Russian mafia boss is flown in just to give Lee’s character an extra ass to kick – but its intelligence in maintaining a tight plot and its bravery in eschewing an all-is-well ending mark it out from the likes of Enter- and Way Of The Dragon. Of course, the whole production is just an excuse to display Lee at his lightning-limbed, bare-chested best, but it’s all executed with such panache and aplomb we don’t mind any more than we mind a Laurel and Hardy film being just an excuse for Stan and Ollie to lark about.
The mere presence of Lee makes Fist of Fury superior to virtually all other kung fu films; every moment he is onscreen provides an emphatic answer to the question – if you’ve ever felt the need to ask it – of why he is hero-worshipped with such unparalleled intensity even decades after his death. But that’s not enough to make this a great movie. What elevates Fury into a classic is that, for once, everyone else in a Bruce Lee film raises his or her efforts to something approaching his level. If you have even the weakest craving for a cinematic serving of sweaty machismo and undiluted adrenaline, Fist of Fury is the picture to see.