November 10, 2005
Ninjatron is going to talk about kung fu fighting.
I am a great fan of Bruce Lee. Not only for his work in the films he was in, but also for the person that he was. His principles and philosophies regarding the martial arts and racial harmony have always been very inspiring to me. I often wonder, had he not passed on, what he would think of the world today? Though he died before I was born, his life has always been interesting to me. Luckily the enduring qualities of his words and his films will see that his life shall never be forgotten and his legacy will be kept alive forever.
But this mangled car wreak of a movie, despite any of its apparent intentions, has nothing to do with any of that.
"Fist of Fear. Touch of Death", sometimes known as "The Dragon and the Cobra", is a movie released in 1980 that apparently stars Bruce Lee. This is despite the obvious obstacle of Bruce having passed away several years earlier. Or rather, it would be more accurate to say that this movie exploits Bruce's death and the mysterious circumstances surrounding it. It's made up of various martial arts demonstrations, footage from other movies, strange skits, fake interviews, and soap-opera-esque documentary sequences, all masquerading as a work of non-fiction. The resulting film, "directed" (and I use the term loosely) by Mathew Mallinson, is not only abhorrently crass in its concept, but also unintentionally hilarious in its execution.
The setting is the 1979 World Karate Championship at Madison Square Gardens. The buzz surrounding the event is that the winner will be considered as the heir to the legacy of Bruce Lee. Outside the arena, TV anchorman Adolph Caesar is interviewing promoter Aaron Banks. Aaron talks about how he believes that Bruce was murdered by a martial arts technique known as The Touch of Death! This Touch of Death, also known as the vibrating palm, will cause the victim to drop dead 3 to 4 weeks after being struck, and will leave no trace of how the individual died! Was Bruce Lee revealing too many to the Chinese martial arts secrets, and thus had to be silenced? Wow, what an incredibly ghoulish and tasteless movie this has turned out to be already.
We are then, quite suddenly, shown a short clip of Bruce Lee talking. He says. "The secret of karate is power. Internal power from the ear." Now, it's at this point when the movie really starts to fall apart. Not only is this footage obviously dubbed over with a voice that is definitely not Bruce Lee and has no trace of a Chinese accent, but it's also something at Bruce would never say. Why? Well anyone who knows anything about Bruce would tell you that he didn't study karate! He studied Kung-Fu!
Now the opening credits start and we get to know our cast. All of these guys are simply appearing as themselves and not characters, though I wouldn't put much stock into anything they say or do in this movie. Most of these guys only end up making brief appearances and have little to add, but the real star of the show is Adolph Caesar. My God, just think about that for a second. Adolph Caesar. That has to be the most unfortunate name in the history of the entire world. Poor guy.
Here we see Bill Louie in a fight from the previous year's event, were he rips out his opponents eyes and tosses them into the audience. Adolph tells us that he's quite the showman! Well I guess so, bastard!
At various points during the movie, we get see footage of Bruce talking with someone, though again it is painfully evident that whoever we're supposed to think Bruce is talking to is not actually there. This sequence of Adolph Caesar interviewing Bruce at some point before his death isn't fooling anyone. You can see that the picture quality is very different between the shots of Bruce and the shots of Adolph. Not only does everything Bruce say here fail to match up with his mouth movements, it doesn't even match his expressions! Adolph was filmed while reading his questions to nobody and they dubbed over some random footage of Bruce to get what they wanted. The backgrounds aren't even the same! The whole interview is completely fake.
We are led to believe that the main event of this world championship will go a long way in determining who will be the successor to Bruce Lee, the "Greatest karate expert of them all". Bah. Will the heir to Bruce Lee's throne also die from the Touch of Death? To demonstrate the principals of the Touch of Death, which I remind you all is also referred to as the vibrating palm, footage of Aaron Banks hitting a board with... uh, his fist. Yeah, Nice try.
Former football star and karate expert Fred Williamson has not been very happy with how the media has tied the main event to Bruce Lee's legacy. Adolph says that Fred almost didn't make it to the arena, and it was "quite a story". So, he decides to tell it... via flashbacks!
Fred's wake up call at his hotel was 2 hours late because people think he's Harry Belafonte. He wakes up and is about to leave for the arena, but is stopped by... well I hesitate to guess on who or what she is exactly so I'll just say his "lady" and let you infer what you may. Fred says he needs to be there to make sure that people realize that this fight is not for a Bruce Lee title that does not exist. Besides, he promised he'd be there. Well this lady says that Fred promised that he'd satisfy her the night before, but she's still wanting! Ouch! So, of course, Fred ended up being even more late.
Fred leaves the hotel and tries to get a cab, but this little twerp named Jasper Milktoast (what the hell?) doesn't appreciate his cab being taken, and get's all up in Fred's face about it. Of course, Jasper though that he was dealing with Harry Belafonte and didn't count on it being someone who would kick his ass. But some other people sneak into the cab and it drives away. Luckily, Adolph Caesar's car comes to the rescue and he offers Fred a lift.
We are then treated to a montage of various New York culture, such as Coca Cola signs and people fighting, along with these exciting shots of the road. Wow, it's pavement!
Wow, that really was "quite a story" there Adolph! And how fortunate it must have been for all of those movie cameras to be there filming the whole time so you could better illustrate this story to us! What are the odds, huh?
We then jump to this bizarre interview with boxer and martial arts film star Ron Van Clief. As Adolf asks questions to Ron about his training and Bruce Lee, Ron does his workout. Not only are Ron and Adolf in completely different locations, but Ron keeps on switching the exercises he's doing and the equipment he's using with every question he's asked! This is impossible! There's no way he coul have taken his boxing gloves off in the time it took for Adolph to ask another question. And the background changes too! Anyway, Ron drops a bombshell when he says that he believes that Bruce was murdered.
Now we go from talking to Ron to talking about him, as we see him jogging outdoors. In the dramatic portion of this segment, some street punks see a pretty girl and start following her, articulating themselves with such witty utterances as "Look at her moves! She's got glass in the ass!" and "Hey baby, what you doin' later?"
Don't worry though, because Ron Van Clief jogs to the rescue and beats them all up in an ineptly directed scene where you could hardly see what was going on. The girl asks how she could ever repay him, and Ron just looks at the camera and smiles. Wow, what is implied here?
So, at this point you might start to feel slighted, thinking that this was actually going to be a Bruce Lee movie and seeing these other guys instead. Well, Adolph informs us that it is now time for the half time show, "The Bruce Lee Story"! Interesting that this half time show starts only 20 minutes into the movie. And what a show it is! I found this portion of the film to be infinitely fascinating. Not because it is a look into the early years of Bruce Lee's life, but because it succeeded in getting everything about it wrong and making up a big load of nonsense to go with it! For example, it begins by saying that Bruce's great grandfather was one of China's greatest samurai swordsmen of the 19th century.
This is an absolutely surreal black and white sequence that claims to be a glimpse into the family life of Bruce Lee as a young man in Hong Kong. The truth is that it's actually footage from another movie called "The Thunderstorm". It actually is Bruce Lee playing a character in this movie from when he was a teenager, but this footage from it was re-dubbed into a completely different story about how the real Bruce Lee was driving his family "karate crazy"! You see, Bruce was obsessed with martial arts and romanticized his ancestors, which his family found disturbing and wanted to stop. Naturally, this story was completely fabricated. In fact, there is nothing in this acquired footage that suggests they were talking martial arts at all, and the really ironic thing about all this is that "The Thunderstorm" was the only movie Bruce was ever in that did not any contain any fighting!
Oh, but that's not the half of it! This black and white flashback sequence often flashes back even further into footage from yet another movie! Only this footage, despite taking place even further back in time, is in full colour! It is some sort of random Kung-Fu movie that is used here to represent the martial arts exploits of Bruce Lee's great grandfather. He is seen at various intervals performing such seemingly routine and historically accurate feats as catching arrows and throwing them back, surviving being crushed by a rock slide, throwing someone up into a tree, and fighting at least 20 men at once while unarmed. So yeah, great grandpa rules. During one fight, his enemies tip over a rack of spears, causing them to launch out like missiles at him.
But this exchange between Bruce and his mother takes the cake. Bruce wonders why his mom is so upset about martial arts when it makes him so happy. In order to convince her that he is serious he says...
"I'm the best fighter there is! I can whip anyone! I can kill with my bare hands! You don't understand me!"
To which Mom replies "I know exactly how you feel, dear. All boys go through this stage, you know."
But Bruce retorts "What stage? This is what I want to do with my life!"
Yeah, come on mom! He just wants to kill with his bare hands! Hilarious!
There are other ludicrous plot points involving Bruce's girlfriend, Sue. Sue's brother does not approve of Bruce, and confronts Bruce's father demanding that Bruce stay away from Sue. But Mr. Lee just so happens to have a letter proving that Sue is not the angel she appears to be, because she had a fling with the delivery boy! That little hussy! But later, Mr. Lee is hungry, and demands that Sue make him a steak despite doctors' orders against eating like that. Neither of these plot points amount to much of anything, and probably just serve to fill in all the mouth movements. In the fictional universe this movie provides, it is as if Bruce's obsession with martial arts was the root of this family's problems, but it's pretty obvious that they've got some bigger issues than that!
And then we go back in time again and see these 3 guys, one of whom is a wee little fellah with a girlish lisp, and another who wields a giant abacus for a weapon, attack Bruce's great grandfather, who refuses to fight against such lowly opponents. They were just distracting him so that someone else could go and ransack his house.
So Bruce decides to run away from home, so he could make movies in Hong Kong and eventually become a samurai soldier of fortune like his great grandfather.
His parents wanted him to go to America to keep his US Citizenship!
And all of that samurai stuff is crap that does not exist!
That whole Young Bruce sequence was just so terrible and yet very humourous for all the wrong reasons. It completely omitted several important facts, got just about everything wrong, and made the rest up! It never once mentions that Bruce was born in San Francisco. Nor does it mention that he was in several films during his youth, despite the fact that all of this footage, telling a fraudulent version of Bruce Lee's life story, actually came from one of those films! Come on, Bruce had an interesting life! There was no need to concoct this preposterous garbage!
Now we see Bruce being auditioned for a role in a "low budget Chinese picture", obviously referring to "The Big Boss" a.k.a. "Fists of Fury", and we are apparently supposed to believe that this honky cracker sleazeball with the glasses and the cigar and the bad comb-over is working in the Chinese movie industry. It is yet another scene featuring random footage of Bruce being dubbed over in the same vein as the earlier "interviews". This obviously non-Chinese movie executive mentions a comic strip being made into an American television show, eluding of course to The Green Hornet. If Bruce plays his cards right with this movie, he says, he could be given a contract to appear in American pictures!
Adolph tells us that Bruce did the movie and did it well, and then we are shown a clip from it. Now, I could describe this clip, but that just isn't quite enough. It just wouldn't do justice to it. You need to see this for yourself. So I made an animation of the clip in its entirety.
Oh my God. Yeah, this clip, here to showcase Bruce Lee's first major break in film after going out on his own, is about 3 seconds long and solely consists of some old guy falling off a roof with a "WAAAAHHHHH!" sound. What the hell! I don't even think that was Bruce! I can't even tell if it's even a clip from the right movie! I could not make up something this funny. There's no way.
Adolph then mentions Kato, Bruce's character from The Green Hornet TV series, and we are suddenly thrust into a sequence in which some punks chase after two girls out for a jog. Geeze guys, maybe if you stopped hanging around each other with your shirts open, then the ladies would be more forthcoming and you wouldn't have to threaten anyone! They catch up to them, all the while spouting off some of the most disgusting filth I've ever heard, and start to ambiguously imply that they are hurting them. But don't worry! A familiar black car dives up and out walks...
Anyway, fake Kato dispatches the villains. One of them gets away with a purse from one of the girls and calls for even more punks to come out. So fake Kato busts out some nunchuck moves and beats the hell out of them all. When he goes to retrieve the stolen purse, one last thug remains! But fake Kato pulls out a throwing star, and we are treated to an extreme close up of his yelling face (revealing the cheap-Lone-Ranger-costume nature of his mask) and some bizarre space-age sound effects. And that's it. We don't see him throw it or anything. Then we abruptly go Fake Kato handing back the stolen purse to the girl. She asks who he is, so he takes his mask off. Oh, it's just Bill Louie.
Adolph then interviews Aaron Banks, who talks about what Bruce was like. We are shown this flashback sequence with Aaron talking to yet more dubbed over Bruce. Geeze, this guy sounds nothing like Bruce! Again, this entire conversation is a sham. You can tell that they were never in the same room together because the brick patterns in the backgrounds are nothing alike. Then, when Bruce is apparently showing Aaron a maneuver he had been working on, the background changes yet again (and still doesn't match up when Aaron is on screen), and Bruce is wearing different clothes. The maneuver is never on screen, only Aaron's vaguely stunned reaction to it. Aaron is a really terrible actor here, and it's quite clear that he was actually not talking to anyone when being filmed. Anyway, Aaron says that Bruce had recently discovered the Touch of Death principal and had been experimenting with it. Gasp! The plot, such as it is, thickens!
But, no one cares about plot, because then we get some various in-ring action from the World Karate Championships that were supposed to be happening. The truth is that no such championship actually happened. It was just a bunch of demonstrations and performances from martial arts experts like Teruyuki Higa and Richard Barathy. All the while Adolph is doing commentary of the action and trying desperately hard to sound like he knows something about martial arts and to make everything seem like it's much more serious and important than it really is. Even though these demonstrations are supposed to be the basis of this event, it ends up being nothing more than a footnote in this movie.
Adolf interviews Fred Williamson before the main event. This is an actual interview, happening in one location, though I am starting to have my doubts at this point if that location is actually where this movie wants us to think it is. Fred starts talking about how this fight should not declare who will be Bruce Lee's successor, but then eventually it degenerates into Fred shilling his talents and his own movies. Way to go. Then the main event starts. It's a fight between Louis "Too Cool for a Nickname" Neglia and John "Cyclone" Flood. I find it interesting that, even though this fight is supposed to be so meaningful and everyone is talking about it, this is the first time we actually hear the names of the fighters.
It's a boring fight that only lasts 2 rounds. One guy doesn't even kick. The guy who does kick was the winner. I don't remember or care which one he was. What a great tribute to Bruce Lee, huh? Then we get this special "same image twice on the screen" effect. Wow, innovative cutting edge direction from Matthew Mallinson!
To finish it off, Adolph Caesar speaks in a now emptied Madison Square Garden, and says that he doubts that the successor to Bruce Lee has been crowned. Well no kidding, smart guy! Then he explains that to be the best, you must beat the best, and Bruce Lee can no longer be beaten, so anything else is just speculation. Well thanks for telling us all of that now after wasting all of this time, Adolph. And that's the end of the film.
This is honestly one of the worst movies I've ever seen in my life, and considering how much junk I like, that's really saying something. I can not believe that I wrote this much about it, but this movie is just so bad that I found it oddly facinating. It is completely deplorable how it exploited the life of a great man, Bruce Lee, for its own purposes. It's down right disturbing to think of how many factual errors there were, as well as how this movie has Bruce saying things that he never said. As a film it's a cobbled together mess with obvious seams and can't decide on whether it's a movie about a sporting event, a real documentary, or an action film. But it's not like it matters because even the parts that are supposed to be true are completely fictitious. Bruce Lee deserved better than that.
This movie comes from the completely ignorant school of thought that says all Asians are Chinese, all martial arts are karate, and all movie audiences are stupid. It's a total disgrace to the man that Bruce Lee was. This is a disgusting and distasteful movie that would be completely revolting in every possible aspect if it were not for the fact that it's just so funny. And, my God, is it ever funny. It's not supposed to be, but it is.
"Fist of Fear, Touch of Death" is widely available on DVD in a number of different ways, but don't pay more than $2 for it.
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Bruce Lee Links!
Bruceploitation Amazing site all about the many clones of Bruce Lee.
A Tribute to Bruce Lee Information and links to more sites.
IMDB Entry on Bruce Lee Actual real information.