By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The first thing you notice about 1980’s “Fist of Fear, Touch of Death” is that its star, Bruce Lee, isn’t actually in it.
That is, Bruce Lee isn’t in the film in any honest capacity. Given that the martial arts master, Seattle resident, and “Enter the Dragon” superstar was laid to rest in 1973, in Seattle’s Lake View Cemetery, he could not, of course, play a new role in 1980.
But so essential was Lee to martial arts films that an entire subgenre, known as “Bruceploitation,” sprung up to fill the void left by his sudden death. Bruceploitation typically involves hiring Lee lookalikes and changing their names to something similar: Bruce Li and Bruce Le, for example. Then, the filmmakers hope the audience won’t know or won’t care that it isn’t getting the real thing.
“Fist of Fear, Touch of Death,” thought, tries a different policy, used by a smaller number of Bruceploitation purveyors. The film, now getting a remastered re-release through Massachusetts’ The Film Detective label, gathers up obscure footage left behind when Lee died, and reformats it to suit the illusion that he’s consciously participating.
The script, co-written by director Matthew Mallinson and Ron Harvey, posits a high-profile martial arts tournament at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. This tournament will determine the successor to Bruce Lee’s crown. The constantly-chattering tournament emcee is played by Adolph Caesar, with frequent cutaways to the various “competitors” in the fake tournament, plus folks claiming to have known Bruce Lee well.
Phil Hopkins, founder of The Film Detective and mastermind behind the restoration, recalled that his very first taste of Bruce Lee was actually fake Bruce Lee.
“I grew up in a suburb north of Boston in the 1970s,” Hopkins explained. “We had a local TV station that syndicated a package of Bruceploitation. The first one [I watched was ‘Bruce Lee We Miss You’ [starring Bruce Li] that led me to watch others and eventually I saw ‘Enter the Dragon.’
“This led to my obsession with martial arts. I signed up for martial arts classes with the kids in my neighborhood. We would watch Bruce Lee films, then go out in the backyard and have our own makeshift tournaments.”
Indeed, many Bruce Lee plots (for the real and bogus Bruces) revolve around intense, blood-laden competitions to determine the best, the one and only on top of the martial arts world. In Fist of Fear’s case, the assembled include Fred “The Hammer” Williamson (still alive and starring in action films in his 80s); Ron Van Clief, who went from the Marines to black belts in five separate karate disciplines; Aaron Banks, a karate master and head of the New York Karate Academy; and Louis Neglia, a three-time World Kickboxing Champion.
As for the real Bruce Lee? Well, the filmmakers found some old interview footage of the man himself, spliced in shots of other folks to make it look like Lee granted the interview expressly for the film (which of course he couldn’t have), and then dubbed over to make it sound like he’s responding to questions in the script.
Long-time fans of kung fu movies will, of course, be familiar with wacky dubbing that doesn’t ever quite match up to the character’s mouth movements. The French developed a term, “détournement,” to cover situations like this, where something with one original meaning gets done over to switch its meaning to something else, retaining just a trace of the original.
“Fist of Fear” also features footage from “The Thunderstorm,” a very obscure black-and-white melodrama featuring a young (but real) Bruce Lee in a non-fighting role. This, too, gets dubbed over to become a story of Lee’s desire to practice the fighting arts against his strict family’s wishes. The wistful young Lee flashes back to fighting scenes of his distant ancestor, a samurai.
Just in case you didn’t know, samurai were Japanese, while Lee was Chinese. And the fond flashbacks got swiped from a remarkably kinetic film called “Invincible Super Chan.”
With such cheats and misdirection under its belt, “Fist of Fear” could certainly be considered offensive. Hopkins, for what it’s worth, called it “a beautiful train wreck of a film” and compared it favorably to a film often celebrated and loved as the worst film ever, Ed Wood Jr.’s infamous “Plan 9 from Outer Space.”
In the end, by the way, the judges declared a winner. But the victory seems hollow. And it’s even possible that the filmmakers meant it as such. The credits roll past a static shot of an empty Madison Square Garden. Even the mightiest champions, that shot seems to say, look a little hollow, a little amateurish, compared to the one true master. Bruce Lee’s life and legend grew together to create an aura that dims anything laid beside it, and continues to shine for itself.
Andrew can be reached at email@example.com.