In The Big Boss, Lee plays Cheng Chao-en, a young man who travels from China to Thailand to get a job with his Uncle and cousins in an ice factory. The job seems simple: cut and ship giant blocks of ice. However, Hsu (James Tien), unofficial leader of the workers, is increasingly suspicious of "the big boss," Hsiao Mai (Yin-chieh Han). A mysterious package is found in one of the ice blocks and quickly taken away by the foreman, and several workers disappear. When other workers go to investigate, they too go missing. Naively, Cheng Chao-en takes a promotion to foreman, not realizing he's being bribed to stop asking questions, but when even Hsu himself disappears, his co-workers begin to get angry at Cheng's casual ignorance of a conspiracy going on right under their noses.
Developed and shot as a vehicle for James Tien, The Big Boss is a pretty good action movie and an almost comically terrible "Bruce Lee movie." Cheng Chao-en wears a necklace, given to him by his mother, as a reminder not to fight and cause trouble, so for the first 45 minutes of the movie, during which there are several brawls, Bruce Lee will stand up with an angry look on his face, then pull out the necklace and sit down. At the 45-minute mark, Lee fights for about two minutes before the fight is broken up, and doesn't fight again for another 35 minutes. Tien is a talented martial artist, so the movie is entertaining anyway, but Bruce Lee fans familiar with Enter the Dragon might not find The Big Boss satisfying in the Bruce Lee department.
Then again, even in the short amount of time he gets to really be the action star of the film, Lee shows off some of the indisputable cool that made him a star. When he returns to the big boss' house in the finale, he strolls onto the property with a bag of chips in his hand, daring the guards to come get him. His big fights are reasonably satisfying, including an extended sequence at the ice factory and the two-part final showdown with Han. Parts of the movie, including the repetitive back-and-forth where Cheng goes to ask the boss if the missing workers have been found, and the boss prepares some sort of ruse or distraction, feel like padding, but I've seen enough martial arts movies to rank the missing workers as one of the less monotonous MacGuffins.
After The Big Boss was a smash, Lee and director / writer Lo Wei developed a follow-up vehicle to spotlight the actor, and Fist of Fury represents a significant improvement in the "Bruce Lee kicks everybody's ass" department. Lee plays Chen Zhen, a martial artist who returns to the Jingwu School in Shanghai for the funeral of his master, Huo Yuanjia. In the middle of a moment of silence for their fallen teacher, a gang of Japanese martial artists from the rival Hongkou school burst in and insult Yuanjia. The other students and leaders at Jingwu opt to do nothing, but Chen takes matters into his own hands, storming Hongkou and setting off an all-out war between the two schools, with both sides, the police, and Chen's fiancée Yuan (Nora Miao) all searching for Chen.
Right from the beginning, Wei and Lee deliver the goods with a wild beatdown of 20 or 30 Hongkou students, including a showcase of Lee's nunchaku skills. Lee's speed was stunning in the previous film, but it's even more incredible here, and he plays up the same cool swagger. The film also cleverly builds up enough characters that the fights that follow are more exciting, despite involving fewer and fewer opponents. It's probably fair to say that Lee (at least at this point in his career) was less of an actor than a personality, displaying so much physical prowess that audiences simply accepted some of his ridiculous performance choices as part of the Bruce Lee iconography (I don't know that viewers would have gone with his wild-eyed cries if he weren't a phenomenal, magnetic martial artist), but the movie moves fast enough and has enough threads to smooth over his limitations.
Possibly the most interesting thing about The Big Boss and Fist of Fury is how brutal they allow the Lee character to be, despite the fact that the viewer is meant to root for him. While it's true that the Hongkao school is a bully that would've continued to insult Jingwu and its students indefinitely had Chen not taken action (the screenplay relishes the weaselly smugness of a Hongkao translator played by Paul Wei, who only furthers the audience's desire to see everyone at Hongkao get beat up), but he does provoke a massacre at Jingwu that leaves most of the students dead. Similarly, Cheng's long period of inaction in The Big Boss also leads to catastrophic results that force him to take action. By the time Enter the Dragon came around, Lee would be playing a hero that the FBI would turn to, but these two films represent a screen persona still being refined.
The Video and Audio
The bad news, as as one may have guessed, is that Shout! has only included the English dubs for both films, which is twice as baffling and disappointing given the disc offers two audio tracks per movie. The English dub for The Big Boss sounds particularly horrible, both in terms of the dub itself and its presentation on the disc. As may be common with English dubs of '70s kung fu movies, it sounds like they pulled a few elements they weren't planning on changing off of the original Hong Kong tracks and then simply laid new sound effects and dialogue on top of that. In the case of The Big Boss, these sound effects are distractingly over-amplified on the 5.1 mix, adding a hint of echo to them. Additionally, the effects that were retained from the original audio have taken on a strangely choppy quality, in addition to sounding tinny and muffled already. Worst of all, this dub makes some terrible artistic choices...namely, the removal of Bruce Lee's signature yips and howls. Really, exceptionally underwhelming. As with the picture, Fist of Fury fares better, with the over-amplification of the new effects and the distortion of the old effects gone, but the mix still has that weird layered quality. At least Bruce's screaming is unaltered. Both mixes also unsurprisingly alter the music, to the detriment of both films. No subtitles or captions are provided.