Put You On Ice

The Big Boss

When it comes to martial arts movies, few actors have the kind of legendary status as Bruce Lee. The martial artist, actor, fight choreographer, and founder of the Jeet Kune Do school of martial arts, quite grew a following for his fast, impressive skills. His fighting was unlike anything else seen on screen at the time, and his films drew in audiences due to his awe inspiring performances. Of course, part of the legend that has grown around him, and why he’s held in such high esteem, is all because he had only been working for a short time before his untimely death. His first lead role came in The Big Boss in 1971, and it was only two short years later, right before the release of his most famous work, Enter the Dragon, that he died. He had a long career, stretching back to 1941 where he appeared in Golden Gate Girl as an infant, but it was his last eight feature films that got the attention.

The Big Boss was the first true showing for Bruce Lee’s capabilities. He acted, did his own stunts, and was the action director for the film. While the film is cheesy, a very 1970s-style Hong Kong action film, there is something special about it. As low budget as it is, as amateurish in places as the production might have been, for all the reasons that it hasn’t aged all that well in the last 50 years (and wow, to think it’s been 50 years at this point), there is no denying that the film functions as a great show piece for Lee. He gets the attention, he commands the screen, and his fight is, at times, pretty damn impressive.

Lee stars as Cheng Chao-an, a man from Tangshan, Hebei, who moves to Pak Chong, Thailand to live with his adopted family. He meets up with Hsu Chien (James Tien), his cousin, when Chiun, who is also a skilled fighter, stands up to some bullies to defend his own younger brother. The two then go out and have a good night with the family – including sister of the clan Chow Mei (Maria Yi) – before Chein takes Chao-an to the ice factory for a day of work. Chao-an does well there, but he also notices some shady things about the factory that, were he a fighter, he’d likely have halted.

However, Chao-an swore to his mother, before moving to Thailand, that he wouldn’t fight and wouldn’t get into trouble. Every time he sees fighting he lets his cousins handle it because he can’t break his promise. That lasts right up until the criminals at the ice house break his jade amulet given to him by his mother, which effectively ends the promise as well. From there, Chao-an starts looking into what’s been going on at the ice factory: the people that have gone missing, its ties to legal (and illegal) prostitution, and possible ties to a drug ring. This leads him to the man at the end of it all, the Big Boss, Hsiao Mi (Han Ying-chieh), the man he’ll have to take down if Chao-an wants to end it all.

Lee made a name for himself as an action star in The Green Hornet, a short-lived 1966 TV show that ran for all of one season of 26 episodes. The show wasn’t great, and the ratings were bad enough for broadcast network ABC to cancel it once the season was done airing. But there was no denying that Lee’s character, Kato, was awesome and there should have been more of him (and far less of the far more boring main character, the Green Hornet). The four years after were plagued by failed projects for Lee, with another strong role not coming to him, or issues with one film or another preventing them from taking off. It was eventually suggested to Lee that he go from trying to make films in the U.S. to working overseas, in Hong Kong, in the growing martial arts film market. He was put in touch with the Shaw Brothers, and that led to contact with Raymond Chow, and Lee eventually signed on to make two films for Chow’s production company Golden Harvest, the first of which was The Big Boss.

To be clear, The Big Boss isn’t a great film. It was an early production from the company, made in the first couple of years of its creation when the company was still figuring things out. The group would make a name for themselves, even working on the Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesOriginally dreamed up as a parody of Marvel's Daredevil comics (going so far as to basically reproduce to opening shots of that comic's hero gaining his powers), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles not only launched a sudden boom of anthropomorphic fighting animal comics but have, themselves, starred in multiple comics series, TV shows, and movies. movies from the early 1990s, but that came after a long time developing their trade. The Big Boss shows those growing pains, being a pretty rote, fairly basic, at times even amateurish film. It’s not very well made in many respects, but at the same time it is a fun and light actioner that delivers on the one thing it had to: it gives us a lot of Bruce Lee kicking ass.

That ass kicking doesn’t come until the mid-way point of the film, mind you. Due to Chao-an’s promise to his mother, he tries very hard not to get into fights for half the film. Instead it’s Tien’s Hsu Chien who does most of the fighting in the early going. He’s not a bad fighter, and the film does it’s best to make him seem impressive, but once Lee takes the spotlight and lets his fists of fury (well, Fists of Fury would be the next film he’d make) fly, Tien seems like a pale imitation of Lee’s godly fighting skills.

The story is rote, there’s no denying that. A guy comes to work at an ice factory that just so happens to be a drug smuggling den run by a guy that just so happens to be a practiced martial artist and Lee’s character just so happens to be the one guy good enough to defeat the boss and bring the whole operation down. It’s a lot of contrivances and silly plot points that easily could have gone differently or been avoided. The film absolutely has to go out of its way to get Chao-an to fight, and then it pretty well breezes through his investigation so as to justify him battling again and again in short order. The story is just a conveyor for Chao-an to follow, and he isn’t so much a character as an action figure.

Hell, none of the characters are really characters. Chao-an has this whole group of cousins, eight all told, along with a whole ton of co-workers, and any time the group is together it’s tough to tell who is who and how they all know each other. The movie spends so little time on anyone other than Chao-an, Hsu Chien, and Chow Mei (and her only by grace of being the only female cousin) that they all just become this blur of people and faces. It’s bad enough that during a big fight between dock workers and drug thugs at the ice factory, marking the midpoint of the movie, you quite literally can’t tell whose said anyone is on or who they’re fighting.

Credit where it’s due, there’s a ton of fights in this movie. The early fights are spotty, largely because no one else on the production has the skill of Lee (and it shows), but they are at least plentiful enough to help pass the time. It’s when Lee comes into the fray, though, that the film finds its energy. Forget the story, forget the characters, forget everything else, all that matters is Bruce Lee kicking ass and it is, by and large, a thing of glory. The amateurish filmmaking does sometimes get in the way of seeing Lee in his glory (one two many weird cuts, a few too many shots of motion to shoe Lee’s character jumping over people instead of just, you know, showing him jumping over people) but when we get to see him kick and punch and break his way through people, it’s great.

Whether you like The Big Boss is really a question of whether or not you’d enjoy half a movie where Bruce Lee kicks ass a lot (the first half, of course, with someone else doing the ass kicking)? If that sounds like a good time – and make no mistake, it is pretty good – then that’s all the reason you need to watch the film. But if you’re hoping for something more, story and character development and real drama and stakes, then The Big Boss doesn’t really deliver. This is a slight film that happens to have a master martial artist doing what he does best. Everything else, every other filmic consideration, is secondary.

But man, when he kicks ass is it ever glorious. And, frankly, that’s all the motivation required to see this film once.