I know I’ve been pretty harsh on Bruceploitation in this column, particularly in my evisceration of GAME OF DEATH, but I truly think that it was on the whole a disgusting and exploitative process which sullied and muted the work of a GIANT in the martial arts genre. That so many people who purported to be friends with Bruce Lee participated in these films, often advertised as tributes or “lost” films, is a depressing reality of such a high-stakes business. But I’d be the first to admit that despite my moral reservations, there are a number of Bruceploitation films that I quite enjoy – whether it be the insanity of THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE or THE DRAGON LIVES AGAIN, or the more simple pleasures of the Bruce Li starring FIST OF FURY II.
It should come as little surprise that 1972’s FIST OF FURY (aka THE CHINESE CONNECTION in North America) was a massive success in Asia. It combined Bruce Lee working at the height of his abilities with a plot that focused overwhelmingly on Chinese nationalism (and vicious anti-Japanese sentiment), and a series of legendary set-pieces that are still imitated to this day. The legend of Chen Zhen (Lee’s character in the film) is so strong that the story has been re-made repeatedly over the last 40 years: Jet Li’s FIST OF LEGEND and Donnie Yen’s 1995 30 episode Television adaptation of FIST OF LEGEND being two notable examples. The character has appeared as recently as 2010’s LEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN (also starring Yen, though it’s officially a sequel to the Jet Li film), which repeats many of the nationalistic themes of Lee’s original.
And while those films benefit from the popularity of the original film (and tend to steep themselves in equally reprehensible Japanese stereotypes), they are not overtly Bruceploitation films. While both films include obvious references to Lee’s presence and career (particularly in LEGEND OF THE FIST, where Yen even dons Lee’s Kato costume from THE GREEN HORNET), they are generally free from the more unpleasant aspects of the height of the genre – which really only spanned the period immediately after Lee’s death and into the early 1980s.
But I’m more interested in this first wave of FIST OF FURY tributes and sequels, which vary in terms of both quality and content. Of course, there are a few films which just borrow from the title: YOUNG BRUCE LEE AND THE LAST FIST OF FURY (1973), which uses footage from some of Lee’s childhood films, and LAST FIST OF FURY (1978), an alternate title for the bizarre BRUCE LEE IN NEW GUINEA, just to name a few. More interesting is the Jackie Chan starring NEW FIST OF FURY (1976) which is a straight sequel to Lee’s film (made only FOUR YEARS later!) that was designed to launch Chan as the next Lee – and even starred some of the same actors and was also directed by FIST OF FURY director Lo Wei. Alternately, there are the two Bruce Li starring “unofficial” sequels to FIST OF FURY titled – of course – FIST OF FURY II and FIST OF FURY III.
FIST OF FURY II, while not quite a worthy sequel to the original, remains an interesting and watchable film as much for what it doesn’t do as for what it does. For one, though notorious Bruceploitation star Bruce Li stars, he doesn’t pretend to be the Chen Zhen character. Instead, he’s (conveniently) Chen Zhen’s brother Chen Shen who happens to have a distinct resemblance to Bruce Lee’s character, but has quite a different temperament and fighting style. It’s much more acrobatic and does away with Lee’s trademark yowls – at least on the English dub which I have. There’s also no actual footage of Bruce Lee in the film, except for a series of stills from FIST OF FURY which begin things. They even manage to avoid sneaking in Bruce Lee funeral footage, despite the fact that FIST OF FURY II begins with a funeral for his character in the first film. Truly, there’s something a bit different – and better – going on here.
You may recall that FIST OF FURY ended with Chen Zhen performing a big flying kick at a line of armed soldiers. The image freezes as shots ring out, theoretically shooting our heroic character dead. And dead he is as FIST OF FURY II begins, with his fellow students from the Jingwu School burying him – including Tien Feng reprising his role as the leader of the Jingwu school. Not returning was Nora Miao – who played Cheng Zhen’s love interest Yuan Le-erh in the first film – so her character (with face hidden) kills herself with a knife on top of Chen’s casket. Equally as depressing is that Chen Zhen’s uncovering of corruption and murder in the first film, the Japanese (or “the japs” as the film continually – and tastelessly – refers to them as) still control Shanghai, and are continuing to wipe out the Chinese kung-fu schools that practice there.
In fact, there’s a new Japanese martial arts master in town: Miyamoto (played by the KING BOXER himself, Lo Lieh), and he’s even more dedicated to suppressing the Chinese population, even hiring their own version of the Chinese translator/sycophant played by Paul Wei in the original FIST OF FURY. This time the character is named Mr Wong and sports a Hitler-style moustache to make his sniveling all the more reprehensible. Things quickly devolve, as Miyamoto kicks the Jingwu students and teachers out of their school (quite accurately recreated from FIST OF FURY) and moves into it with his own students. Some of the Jingwu students rebel, and when they are fought off they hide with other assorted schools in Shanghai. This leads to the Japanese tearing these schools apart in search of the rebels, eventually branding some of the rebellious students with an iron and – in a bizarre move- forcing Tien Feng’s Tin Man Kwai to drink until he becomes an alcoholic. Huh.
So, things are looking down for the Jingwu school – and the entire Chinese kung-fu population of Shanghai. The alcoholic Tim Man Kwai is seen screaming at the sky in frustration, while his students have lost all respect for him due to his alcoholism. These guys need a hero.
Chen Shen (Bruce Li) is introduced at his brother’s grave, though a hiding student tells him that the Japanese don’t allow anyone to visit Chen Shen or Yuan Le-erh’s graves, and we discover that Inspector Lo from FIST OF FURY (the sympathetic lawman played by director Lo Wei) retired after the events of the film. Li’s Chen Shen is a much more aggressive and emotional character than Chen Zhen in the original film, though his resemblance to his brother (“and you look like him, too!”) is obviously mentioned. Unsurprisingly, a few Japanese students wander by and we get our first Bruce Li fight in the film. Chen Shen is presented as a kung-fu master right from the start, so this fight – which isn’t particularly impressive – is very one sided. He forces the men to bow in front of Chen Zhen’s grave, which is bound to piss off Miyamoto.
And piss him off it does, and he sends for the new police Inspector Chiu (Chao Kin, playing a very similar role to Lo Wei in the original film) to track down this new Chinese superman. Chiu promises to do his best, but Miyamoto is unimpressed and sends his men to track down and kill students from the Jingwu school. Their bodies are delivered to the drunken Tin Man Kwai, and Inspector Chui arrives looking for Chen Shen. Of course, most of the students have little idea what is going on until Shen reveals himself, and suggests that the Inspector arrest Miyamoto for his acts of violence against the various schools. Knowing he can’t do that, the Inspector promises to look the other way as Chen Shen gets a little revenge against the Japanese contingent in Shanghai.
From here we get a series of fight scenes where Chen Shen beats up a variety of Japanese fighters, with the various leaders of the Chinese schools begging him to stop since he’s just making Miyamoto more angry and aggressive against them. Things come to a head in a local inn, where Tin Man Kwai comes in looking for alcohol, but the Japanese humiliate him and pour wine into his mouth while Chen looks on. He tries to restrain himself, but after the Jingwu students who try to interfere are captured and beaten the embarrassment is too great and he just.. goes.. BERZERK. He single-handedly takes down the Japanese, before pouring wine all over Mr. Wong and stating “the next time you insult a Chinese, I swear I will KILL YOU!”.
As you might imagine, this whole thing doesn’t go over well with Miyamoto, who doubles his efforts to kill the Chinese kung-fu students in town. Things start to rapidly get out of hand, and – after watching one of the Jingwu students lose his brother in a scuffle, Chen Shen decides to leave Shanghai. With some words of wisdom – “whatever happens, you never give in to the enemy” – he hops on a train, and that should really be the end of things. Miyamoto will continue to dominate Shanghai, while the Chinese will be repressed and live in constant fear. But Miyamoto is a bit of a dick, so he send his men onto the train to kill Chen Shen before he can leave, which ends about as well as you might expect. Shen fights off his attackers, though is thrown from the train and heads back to Shanghai.
I should mention here that Bruce Li is actually quite good in the lead. He’s charismatic, and while his fighting style doesn’t have the strength of Bruce Lee, the choreography is quite polished – and the fights improve dramatically before the end of the film. His movements – particularly his kicking – can sometimes look a little sloppy, but he’s very capable, and it’s not difficult to see why he would continue to be the premiere Lee imitator for the rest of the decade. It also helps that – of all the Bruceploitation stars – Li looks the most like Lee, though the resemblance is not so strong that you’re likely to mistake him for the actual article. He’s helped ably by veteran action director Tommy Lee Gam Ming (aka Ming Chin), who has the unenviable task of making a series of large group fights interesting, before things settle down in the last few encounters.
Miyamoto decides that he’s sick of the Chinese kung-fu schools, and decides to go all out in eliminating them entirely. He crushes the Ching and Hung schools, murdering dozens of students – who sacrifice themselves to allow their teachers to (barely) escape. Chen Shen meets with the various representatives from the remaining schools and blames himself for the murders. Overhearing the plans of the Japanese at the local inn, he does his best to intervene in the attacks, but in preventing the killing of one of the schools’ teachers, he takes a katana sword and kills some of the Japanese fighters. This sends Miyamoto off the deep end, and he demands that his own remaining students wipe out any remaining Jingwu students.
And here’s where things get good. A line of Japanese fighters approach the Jingwu school, and suddenly start attacking all of the remaining students. Chen Shen arrives, and begins killing the Japanese attackers in droves, before – finally – getting his chance to take on Miyamoto’s guards. He even pulls out some nunchucks briefly, though looks significantly less comfortable with them than Bruce Lee ever did. Eventually it comes down to Chen Shen versus a baton-wielding Japanese fighter and a sword-wielding Japanese fighter, ending with the two having their skulls crushes by Chen’s superior skills. He also captures a snivvling Mr. Wong, who begs for his life before the Inspector arrives to clean up the mess. Chen takes full responsibility for killing all of the Japanese, and promises to turn himself in if he’s given one more day – and the use of Mr. Wong – to finally take down Miyamoto for good. The Inspector agrees – and promises to retire after all of this mess is settled – and everything is set for our final, climactic confrontation.
Miyamoto is startled by the arrival of Mr. Wong, who explains that his students have all been injured or killed, and that Chen Shen has arrives to confront him. Miyamoto takes out a sword and kills Mr. Wong (“miserable dog!”), but decides to take on Chen Shen in hand-to-hand combat. It’s a really fun fight, with Lo Lieh even pulling out his Iron Fist from KING BOXER/FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, while the two are doubled extensively for some impressive acrobatics. Miyamoto eventually scratches up Chen’s cheeks and chest – an obvious echo of ENTER THE DRAGON – before a nearly outmatched Chen Shen manages to pierce his neck and leave him crippled. Chen Shen gives a final lesson about the Chinese people (“We’re tolerant. Patient. But you read it wrong. They are virtues. Not signs of weakness. And now you’ve learnt that.”), before Miyamoto performs seppuku – killing himself.
The final scene shows Chen turning himself in, with Jingwu leader Tin Man Kwai – now cleaned up – attempting to bow to him before Chen Shen pulls him to his feet. He submits to the inspector, but turns back to see the Jingwu school – an actual martial arts association that has more than 150 branches throughout the world – still standing. It’s all a rather classy, respectful ending, though that’s lessened slightly by knowing that it would be followed up by FIST OF FURY 3 in 1979.
FIST OF FURY II is missing much of the energy of the first film, but remains a respectful and entertaining – and awfully offensive – continuation of the story. Director Lee Tso Nam made a number of middling martial arts films throughout the 70s, but was a capable director though unfortunately relies too heavily on undercranking and removing frames to speed up the action. It’s quite distracting, though thankfully becomes less prevalent as the movie continues. Bruce Li has stated that of the dozens of Bruceploitation films he made during the 70s and 80s, this was one of the few he was legitimately proud of, and he has a right to be. While it’s no classic, it manages to overcome the exploitative tendencies of the genre to tell an interesting story with some memorable moments and decent fights. While it would have been nice to see Lo Lieh have a little more to do – he really did make for an excellent villain – it’s a small complaint in a film that somehow manages to do so much correctly.
NEXT WEEK: ENCOUNTERS OF THE SPOOKY KIND (1980)