Review: The Big Boss (1971)

Starring: Bruce Lee, Ying-Chieh Han

Directed by Lo Wei

Fight Choreography by Han Ying Chieh

A pretty standard kung-fu film whose star-the immortal Bruce Lee- raised it to legendary status. Meaning, if it weren’t Bruce’s first movie, it would be considered a giant turd of a film. This film rises and falls based on the charisma and energy that Bruce is able to bring. Luckily, he brought enough for everybody.

Bruce plays Cheng, a country bumpkin, the first of a few he would play, a pretty standard character type in many kung-fu films. This makes me think the city boys must be wusses, because the country boys are always badasses in these films. I mean, after they milk the cows and plow the fields they don’t have anything else to do…but to learn kung-fu ALL DAY LONG, EVERY DAY.

Anyway, the film opens with Cheng fresh off the boat, being taken to meet his cousin Hsu Chien, who has promised him a job and the local ice factory. No sooner is he off the boat before the first fight occurs…between Hsu Chien and a couple of bullies roughing up a kid. They chose this moment to tell the audience two very important things: 1) Cheng made a vow to his ancient mother never to fight-even when a poor 11 year old kid is getting the holy hell beaten out of him by two grown ass men, and 2) Until Cheng does something, you’ll have to endure fight scenes with Hsu Chien featuring the weakest fights ever committed to film. Eventually Cheng will do something, but it’s gonna be a LONG wait.

Soon Cheng is working at the factory, also known as ‘Bad Guy Central’ in dozens of martial arts films, where we are introduced to the prettiest bad guy I’ve ever seen. I mean, yes, he’s evil, I assume because he wears pink, perfectly ironed shirts the whole film. I never paid attention to his name, so we’ll call him Pink. He had outfits that would make Prince go “Hmm. I like.” This is supposed to be a badass villain?

Any way, what follows is a lot of Bruce Lee-look-isn’t-that-cute scenarios, showing him to be the bumpkin he is, and more fights featuring the weakest kung fu you have ever seen, which brings me to one of the most hated items in the movie- a jade pendant. This piece of jackassery is the reason Cheng doesn’t fight. Every time he starts to look as if he’s about to go allFists of Fury on someone, he looks at this thing and lullaby music starts playing, and he stops. Man, I bet real money if Mr. Han from Enter the Dragon knew that thing existed, he’d have wrapped 10 of those things around Bruce’s neck like Superman’s kryptonite.

Soon, the bad guys start killing Cheng’s new friends, by stabbing them, chopping them into pieces, and encasing said pieces in blocks of ice. That’s not a kung-fu film. That’s The Hills Have Eyes part 10! Okay, so the good news is that during a riot by Cheng’s coworkers, in an attempt to uncover what happened to the others, a factory thug accidentally rips off Cheng’s pendant, and suddenly, thankfully, Bruce Lee emerges, with the rage of his ancestors behind him, he annihilates several guys in mere seconds, spreading their teeth around the area like snow. I swear it was like a breath of fresh air on a perfect spring morning.

After this there is a bit more shenanigans, like “Look! Bruce Lee’s drunk! Isn’t that something?” and an excuse to show random boobies on screen, and soon enough, more of Cheng’s friends are killed, leading to the confrontation at the factory, where Cheng finally plays “where’s the bouncing fist” with a ton of guys, and single-handely reduces China’s population in one scene. This leads to his fight with Pink (who actually changes to a Yellow shirt), and if you thought Pink couldn’t fight…well, he can’t. Cheng dispatches him easily, and moves on like a video game to face-well, the Big Boss, the only guy in the film outside of Bruce who can actually fight.

Even here, it’s obvious that Cheng is light-years beyond the boss, but the boss puts up what’s actually a good fight-the best of the film. Cheng eventually kills the boss, gets arrested by the police (where were they the whole time?) and Bruce gets the girl, but will probably be executed for killing the equivalent of a small town population.

Not a great kung-fu film, but it did introduce the world to Bruce Lee, and hinted at the amazing things to come. That still has to be worth something.

(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best)

CHOREOGRAPHY: (4) Han Ying Chieh’s fight scenes are incredibly weak. The only thing that remotely holds this up is Bruce himself, and I think he had a hand in the choreography of his own scenes. Luckily Chieh will only be with Bruce for 1 more film.

STUNTS: (3) This is also really weak. The stuntmen are horrible actors here, and their reactions to getting “punched” or “kicked” are laughable at best.

DIRECTION: (5) Nothing remarkable from Lo Wei here, which is pretty standard for him. Point and shoot. Nothing less-but not much more either.

STAR POWER: (8) As I said earlier, a by the numbers thriller that is only enhanced by the presence of Lee, who stalks the screen like a tiger, waiting to be unleashed. When he is, the movie takes off.

FINAL GRADE: (6) I know this is blasphemy to Bruce Lee fans, but except for Bruce, The Big Boss simply isn’t that good. Never fear, it gets better for Bruce. Much better.

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  1. I agree, definitely not Bruce’s best work, and generally is the last on the list to see if I’m in a Bruce Lee mood.
    That being said, the historical context is important to consider. The world never saw action like this before when it was created, so there was a whole different standard back then. What I think really captures the essence of the power of this is a scene from Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, when after the movie was played in a Chinese theater, at the end, the audience was silent, and then erupted into a joyous mayhem.

    I can only imagine what it would be to be Chinese and to see a movie like that in the theater with other Chinese people for the first time.

    But yeah, all in all, a crap film and a crap director. So glad he broke away from Lo Wei!


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