A campy Bruce Lee post-mortem
‘Fist of Fear, Touch of Death: 40th Anniversary Edition’
The Film Detective
$24.99 (Blu-ray) and $19.99 (DVD)
By Mark Voger, author
“Holly Jolly: Celebrating Christmas Past in Pop Culture”
It’s called “Bruceploitation” — a bizarre film genre that sprang up in the wake of Bruce Lee‘s sudden, unexpected death at age 32 in 1973.
These movies may interpolate footage of Lee, “Plan 9 From Outer Space” style; and/or use the martial arts superstar’s death as a key plot point; and/or feature lookalike actors with soundalike names (Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Lee Bruce) playing avenging heroes who are kind-of-sort-of like … guess who? Many of the films brazenly flog Lee’s name in their titles: “Bruce Lee Beyond the Grave,” “Ninja vs. Bruce Lee,” “Clones of Bruce Lee.”
Bruceploitation films typically idle at campy. One of the campiest is Matthew Mallinson‘s can’t-look-away patchquilt “Fist of Fear, Touch of Death” (1980), which has undergone a 4K restoration for The Film Detective’s limited-edition 40th-anniversary release. Included are trailers (one for Spanish-language markets) and a making-of documentary.
“Fist of Fear” is no “Enter the Dragon.” But what sets it apart it is the winking participation of actual Lee associates, and even a couple of actual action-movie stars. Fred Williamson (“Black Caesar”) and Ron Van Clief (“Black Dragon”) appear as themselves, as do martial arts champs of the era Aaron Banks, Bill Louie and, in filmed matches, Teruyuki Higa, Richard Barathy and Louis Neglia.
The setup, such as it is: A martial arts exhibit at Madison Square Garden is purported to determine Lee’s “successor.” Ersatz anchorman Adolph Caesar (who, no lie, was later nominated for an Oscar) interviews attendees and provides ringside color. Banks tells Caesar all about the “vibrating palm,” a lethal, slow-acting, little-known technique he believes was used to murder Lee for revealing too many ancient Chinese secrets. (It’s a prevalent conspiracy theory regarding Lee’s death.)
Another of Caesar’s interview subjects is Williamson, who sends himself up in a hilarious unrelated hotel-bedroom sequence. In it, Williamson receives a wakeup call meant for “Mr. Belafonte,” while his ladyfriend of the morning begs for more, um, attention.
Meanwhile, Van Clief reminisces about Lee while working out, later rescuing a damsel being wilded by a gang in Central Park.
Mallinson and screenwriter Ron Harvey then provide hokey “background” on Lee’s formative years via doctored footage from the 1957 Hong Kong drama “The Thunderstorm,” in which Lee acted when he was around 16. In a device once employed to comedic effect in “What’s Up, Tiger Lily,” tweaked dialogue is dubbed in to make the footage seem like scenes from Lee’s own life.
Hokier still, Lee’s great-grandfather, a legendary samurai swordsman — and a 100-percent invention of “Fist of Fear” — is shown in generous footage cribbed from 1971’s “The Invincible Super Chan” (itself a cool flick) starring Tang Wei.
If all that’s not crazy enough, there’s a nod to Lee’s stint as superhero sidekick Kato on TV’s “The Green Hornet.” Bill Louie twirls nunchucks as a mustachioed Kato — mask, chauffeur’s cap and all — fighting yet another lecherous gang.
Oh, and “Fist of Fear” boasts even more movie stars, via grainy Oscar-ceremony exteriors. Be on the lookout for Raquel Welch, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Dyan Cannon.
“Fist of Fear” is consistently watchable, often in a jaw-dropping sense, until the final 15-odd minutes, when we find ourselves merely watching footage of real-life matches from the Madison Square Garden exhibition. Still, as Bruceploitation films go, “Fist of Fear, Touch of Death” is a rare must-see.
Following are two fun facts from Daniel Griffith‘s accompanying documentary “That’s Bruceploitation: The Making of ‘Fist of Fear, Touch of Death,’” in which Williamson, Van Clief, Mallinson, Harvey and producer Terry Levene are interviewed.
The non-union crew needed to film inside the Garden, which Mallinson called a “union shop.” To circumvent this technicality (thus saving a lotta loot), the crew posed as a TV news team, complete with fake microphone logos and name tags … which are visible in the film!
Roger Corman never thought of that.
Also, when screenwriter Harvey pointed out that Lee was Chinese, while samurais are Japanese (thus ruining their fiction that Lee’s great-grandfather was a samurai), he was told: “Don’t worry about it.”
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