Thursday, July 23, 2020
Bruce Lee Watch: The Big Boss (1971)
Format: Criterion BluRay
Director: Lo Wei
I've only ever seen two Bruce Lee movies, but - like everyone - I like the *idea* of Bruce Lee. His byzantine relationship with America and Hong Kong, his cocksure manner that he could 200% back up, his ability to synthesize the old into the new, his drive and his ability to cut to the quick of reality in a few spare words that it comes off as spiritualism.
Be water, indeed.
The Big Boss (1971) is not Lee's first movie. He'd been a child actor before getting sent to the US (where he was born and so had citizenship - his father touring in the US as a performer at the time of his birth) for street-fighting and headng down a bad path. Lee had starred in 20 movies or so in Hong Kong, and appeared on US television as Kato and other roles, as well as appearing in the Chandler adapted film Marlowe (he's good, but his exit is not great).
He returned to Hong Kong to find out he was a bit of a star thanks to The Green Hornet, and was hired by Golden Harvest, who put him in The Big Boss. By American standards of 1971, it's a low-budget production. The story is fairly straightforward. And Lee is used very strangely.
According to an interview attached to the disc, The producers weren't sure which of the two main characters at the start of the film would be the hero of the story, so Lee's character just sort of watches from the sidelines. Apparently the producer, Raymond Chow, liked what he saw, because he canned the director and put Lee in the rest of the film - and the rest is history.
When he's finally allowed to cut loose, Lee is like a magnesium flare suddenly bursting into the film. His martial arts are totally different, he's the fully formed, swagger-prone Lee you know. The beginning of the movie is a decent set-up, if a bit stiff, but once Lee enters the fray (breaking a promise to his mother not fight), the rest of the movie takes off like a shot. Including simple, dramatic scenes.
In a way, it's like seeing a character dropped in from another movie, and I am not bagging on 1970's martial arts films, but there's a reason The Big Boss kick-started Lee's superstardom. He's really frikkin' good and clearly an innovator of character and fighting style.
I won't oversell the actual film. It's creaky and clunky, and marginally more adult than I had expected (some light nudity and sexuality paired with an axe to the head or two, and piles upon piles of dead people). And there are plot holes. But when it takes off, you don't really care all that much.
Mostly I want to know what happened to the girl you see selling snow cones at the beginning. I kept thinking she'd be relevant - but not so much.
Here's to you, snow cone lady.