After trying to make a name in Hollywood with the TV series The Green Hornet with mixed results, young actor and martial artist Bruce Lee traveled back to Hong Kong where his popularity as Kato was very high. There, he met Raymond Chow of Golden Harvest and received the chance to star a film about martial arts. Tang Shan Da Xiong (唐山大兄; "Big Brother from China"), or The Big Boss (known in the U.S. as Fists of Fury, in which case it is not to be confused with his later film Fist of Fury), was the final result and the movie that started Lee's career and his way to becoming a legend of celluloid.
Cheng (Lee) is a Chinese man from Guangdong who has moved to Thailand with the help of his uncle. Prior to the start of the film, Cheng took an oath of non-violence at the behest of his mother. He becomes acquainted with an expatriate family, and soon comes to be very close to them, especially the sweet but vulnerable Chiao Mei (Maria Yi), with whom he develops a romance. Alas, getting a job at the ice factory where his cousins work, one day a block of ice is broken to reveal a bag of heroin inside. It turns out the ice factory is a front for a drug operation. The boss of the factory, Hsiao Mi, offers the workers (two of Cheng's cousins) who discovered the heroin a bribe to keep quiet. When they refuse it, he has them killed and concealed in ice blocks. Cheng and the remaining cousins start conducting an investigation. Hsiao tries to dissuade Cheng by promoting him to a foreman, but when this fails, he has the remainder of the family (sans Chiao) murdered. Cheng discovers them dead, and goes on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
Directed by Lo Wei(who would also discover Jackie Chan), The Big Boss was a breath of fresh air to Hong Kong martial arts films of the time as it showed a flawed hero in a modern setting. The story (by Lo Wei and Bruce Lee), differently from the Wuxia flicks that were the norm at the time, was set in contemporary times and filled with suspense and action, and in an unusual move for an action film, the main character remains almost inactive for the first half as Cheng must avoid violence due to his oath. The film not only launched Lee's career to the stratosphere, it influenced his own film-making style and the way future martial arts movies were done.
Lo Wei's usually restrained style was also influenced by his young actor's abilities. The Big Boss can be seen as his transition to a more explosive way of martial arts film-making that would be completed in Fist of Fury and subsequent Jackie Chan films. The raw and grindhouse look of the film plus the high dose of graphic violence (it is probably the goriest film in Lee's career, and consequently the most cut and censored) gives the movie a harsh, gritty realism that adds to its charm.
As many have already said (and will continue saying without a doubt), Lee was a very charming actor whose presence filled the screen and owned it completely. That statement is proved here as we see him not as a killing machine, but as a common man who just wants to live peacefully, giving us many scenes of Cheng enjoying his newfound family and struggling with his own vices and inner demons. Lee's performance is very natural, although one could say that he was basically playing a portion of his personality.
To summarize, this is a watershed martial arts film both in terms of its star and the genre as a whole, and is thus essential viewing for anyone interested in either.
This film has a very long story of censorship and editing and for the longest time the 100 minute version has been the standard edition of this film. In 2023 Arrow Video published a new version with previously unseen additional 10 minutes, making the 110 minute version the longest print in existence. It is widely believed that there are still scenes missing from the film, that were removed shortly after or even before first airing.
This film provides examples of:
- Actual Pacifist: Cheng has sworn off violence when the film starts. But when he gets pushed too far, he snaps. HARD. He goes from "wouldn't hurt a fly" to "your remains won't fit on a toothpick."
- Affably Evil: Hsiao Mi first offers his workers membership in his cartel after they discover they're smuggling drugs. It's only after they politely refuse that he kills them and has their body parts concealed in ice.
- Alliterative Title: Applies both the original title and the former U.S. title (Fists of Fury).
- All There in the Manual: While not mentioned in the film, a few books released in the '70s at the time of the film's release mentioned that Cheng Chao-An was forced to make his promise to his mother after his father was killed in a fight. In order to continue the family lineage, Cheng's mother wanted to make sure he would not fall to the same fate and that he'd live to raise his own family. Film historian Bey Logan even mentions this in an audio commentary.
- Arrested for Heroism: The last twenty minutes has Lee kicking ass, taking names, and killing people with his fists of fury! He's arrested in the end by police once the Big Bad is dead.
- B-Movie: With the meager budget, the silly over-the-top moments of humor either intentional or unintentional, and the general grindhouse feel (especially for the elusive 1971 uncut version), it inevitably becomes this.
- Big Bad: Hsiao Mi.
- Bully Hunter: Hsu Chien likes to fight bullies, such as the goons who pick on his little cousin selling dumplings.
- Characters Dropping Like Flies: All of Cheng's cousins except Chiao Mei are dead by the end of the film.
- Color-Coded for Your Convenience/Rule of Symbolism: For fights with a non-lethal outcome, Cheng wears blue trousers, but he dons a black pair in all fights where he kills opponents.
- Death of a Child: Cheng's little cousin is killed with most of Cheng's surrogate family, under the titular Boss' orders
- Decoy Protagonist: The film opens with Cheng being something of a common Audience Surrogate who isn't allowed to fight and is awkward in city life. While Hsiu Chien is handsome, confident, protects the weak, lends money and can fight... too bad he's Too Cool to Live.
- Downer Ending: Cheng is arrested at the end for the dozen or so murders he commits in avenging his family's deaths.
- The Dragon: Hsiao Chiun
- Dual Wielding: Cheng and the boss wield two knives at different points during the climactic fight.
- Duel to the Death: The final showdown between Cheng and the Boss, which is a combination of martial arts and knife-fighting. It's well done, it's brutal, and it looks like Cheng may not make it out alive. Unlike most of his later movies, Bruce Lee didn't seem invincible, and that ramped up the tension. By the end, Cheng is so tired that he passes out.
- Early-Installment Weirdness: This being the first of five movies starring Bruce Lee as protagonist, there are bound to be a few of these. Notably the absence of Lee's iconic nunchucks, the violence being more over-the-top and cartoonish (at one point, Cheng punches an Elite Mook through a wall leaving behind a man-shaped hole), and Cheng actually killing several mooks in excessively graphic ways, using a torchlight, tongs, a saw, and various weapons.
- Excuse Me While I Multitask: Cheng eats snacks and kicks some asses at the same time.
- Faux Affably Evil: The titular Big Boss is extremely congenial and the kind of boss most employers would envy. Except, well, not really.
- Finishing Move: After kicking back a knife into his chest, Cheng stabs Hsiao Mi in the ribcage...with his fingers.
- Giving Someone the Pointer Finger: Observed when Cheng confronts the thugs at the factory after finally joining the fight.
- Gory Discretion Shot: Happens in one scene when Cheng's cousins get dismembered by the saw used to cut the ice blocks with when refusing Hisao Mi's offer.
- Funny Bruce Lee Noises: Averted in all versions except the oft ill-received Cantonese redub, which inserted stock cries from his other films.
- The Glasses Come Off:
- Hsiao Mi deliberately removes his in the buildup to the final fight.
- He also does it in his very first scene in the movie before demonstrating his martial arts skills.
- Hong Kong Dub: The older export dub based on the Mandarin version.
- Kissing Cousins: They never kiss on-screen but it's obvious Cheng and Chiao have feelings for each other
- Impact Silhouette: Cheng punches one of his opponents through a wall, leaving a man-shaped hole in it.
- In-Camera Effects: There's a couple of reverse motion effects (e.g. when the Boss gets his knife kicked back into his stomach).
- Kung-Foley: Every punch and kick sounding like a gunshot and every jump sounding like a plane taking off.
- Lip Lock: Taken to an extreme with the heavily revised English dub, which takes every opportunity to make the lip movements match even if the dialogue bares little resemblance to what was said originally.
- Market-Based Title: The film was originally going to be retitled The Chinese Connection for the American market in order to cash in on the success of The French Connection (as both films' plots involved drug trafficking). Unfortunately the American distributor screwed up by accidentally switching the title with that of Fist of Fury (in singular), which was meant to be called Fists of Fury in America. For awhile, The Big Boss was known as Fists of Fury in America, while Fist of Fury was The Chinese Connection, until later re-releases restored the original titles.
- Martial Pacifist: Cheng has sworn off violence when the film starts. But when he gets pushed too far, he snaps. HARD. He goes from "hello sir, it's nice to finally meet you" in the beginning of the movie to "your daughter calls me daddy too" by the time the final battle rolls on.
- Men Are the Expendable Gender: Every male character who isn't Cheng ends up dead before the credits start rolling. The love interest survives.
- Mook–Face Turn: A few of Hsiao Mi's girls end up helping Cheng in his investigation and revenge because of the dreadful way Hsiao Mi treats them.
- Ms. Fanservice: After Cheng gets drunk post the party, a comfort girl caresses his chest and is shown topless after disrobing in front of the camera
- Nice Guy: In contrast to the stoic and serious-minded badasses that Bruce Lee usually liked to play, Cheng is a pretty mellow and gentle sort. That is, until his Roaring Rampage of Revenge of course, after which he decides to get a piece of ass from a prostitute (See Pre-Climax Climax) one last time before he goes on a kill-crazy suicide mission.
- Never One Murder: For the first half of the movie, the villains cover up their murders by murdering anyone who notices. They eventually realize they'll have to use more subtle tactics.
- Offhand Backhand: Cheng does this to two goons by throwing knives at them.
- Parrot Exposition:"That was dope.""Huh? Dope in ice?""Yes!"
- Posthumous Character: Old Wang, who apparently fell victim to the same "chopped into pieces and frozen in ice" tactic as Cheng's cousins.
- Pre-Climax Climax: In an entirely cut scene from the original release, which took place between the family murder and the final fight at the Boss's compound, Cheng returned to the Thai brothel he had visited earlier in the film so that he could, ahem, "unwind" with another prostitute before he marched on with his suicide mission to the Boss' mansion. Presumably, the theme was that Cheng wanted to enjoy his final pleasures before either dying or getting jailed for a long time. Of course, the audience (and censors) did not take kindly to the movie's hero doing this, and the scene got axed from all future releases, only to be partially available on the old Mandarin trailers.
- Pummeling the Corpse: The film ends with Cheng, after killing the Big Bad, continuing punching his opponent's face for a whole minute, even though his opponent is clearly dead at this point, to satisfy Cheng's raging desire for revenge for his friends who died in the film.
- Rage Breaking Point: Cheng flips when his amulet is destroyed, breaking his vow metaphorically and physically.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Cheng goes on one upon finding his family murdered.
- Sacrificial Lion: Hsu Chien is set up as one of the main characters and an all-round decent guy. He's killed before the second act to show how dangerous the Boss is.
- Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Two of Cheng's cousins refuse a bribe and an offer to join in drug smuggling. They pay for it with their lives.
- Shirtless Scene: Cheng gets this a few times, especially during the entire final fight.
- The Snack Is More Interesting: During the climax, Cheng faces the Boss and his mooks with a bag of chips in hand.
- Supporting Protagonist: Hsiu Chien until he gets killed by the Boss's henchmen
- Throwing Your Sword Always Works: Cheng demonstrates this multiple times. One of which includes an Offhand Backhand.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The film was based on the true story of Cheng Chiu-on who fought the tyrants in Thailand. Cheng lived at the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 20th century. A memorial statue of him was erected in a garden in Bangkok more than 80 years ago.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: The Ice Factory manager just disappears from the film after Cheng visits Hsiao Mi's house. What really happened is that Tso Chen, the actor who played the manager, and the film's assistant director, had a falling out with Lo Wei supposedly.