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唐山大兄 (1971)
The Big Boss

Reviewed by: cal42
Date: 05/11/2008

Cheng Chiu On (Bruce Lee) goes to Thailand to help out in an ice factory. Trouble breaks out in the form of a labour dispute, but Cheng cannot retaliate because of a promise he made to his mother not to get involved in fights. The situation turns sinister, though, when Cheng realises that the ice-packing plant is actually a cover for a drug distribution operation.

Reviewing THE BIG BOSS seems a bit pointless as, let’s face it, everyone’s already seen it. However, it’s been so damn long since I’ve seen the film that I felt compelled to write about it after seeing it again. There are numerous reasons why I don’t watch this one too often, but a couple of reasons stand out. The first is that there doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory version available. The Hong Kong Legends DVD of a few years back had a Cantonese track, which I thought was a step in the right direction, but gone was the funky theme tune and incidental music. In its place was something that seemed really out of place, including, in places, the use of a section of Pink Floyd’s Time. Now, don’t get me wrong, I really love Pink Floyd, but I don’t think it fits a Bruce Lee movie, especially seeing as how it was recorded a good couple of years after the film was shot. The other main reason is that, well, I just don’t like the movie very much.

To solve the audio conundrum, I did a thing you’ll probably never hear from me again – I watched the English dub. It was worth it to hear the theme tune and all the old music again, and I found listening to the corny voices a bit of a novelty – especially when the kindly old uncle slips out a “why, if I was ten years younger...!” when appraising young Mei Lin (Maria Yi). Lecherous old devil! Anyway, I’m not sure if this was the old dub that used to grace the old Rank videos as I seem to recall a place where James Tien was talking to the manager of the ice factory and their dialogue getting so muddled the voice actors ended up swapping characters. If you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean! And why does the Boss’s son ask to borrow 2,000 Yen from his father? I thought this film was set in Thailand, not Japan!

It is a bit like heresy criticising a Bruce Lee film, but THE BIG BOSS has not aged very well. This is partly down to the curious mismatch of cinematic styles used in the movie. This was 1970, and Hong Kong action movies were undergoing a radical change away the Wuxia Pian style of action involving trampoline jumps and feats of superhuman agility towards a more realistic depiction of fighting. THE BIG BOSS sits uncomfortably between two stools, still using some of the old cinematic tricks while building on the foundations laid by THE CHINESE BOXER and VENGEANCE! and the result occasionally looks messy and not a little silly.

The plot is not terribly interesting either. Basically, it involves a drug operation fronted by a ice manufacturing plant (until I watched this film, I had no idea some people actually MADE ice for a living!) and workers go missing periodically when they’re knocked off by the boss or his henchmen. Cue lots of concerned co-workers running about as one looking for their missing friends and so forth. The acting’s pretty atrocious, too – I love the twin gasps of shock when the manager explains to the two naive workers what the factory actually produces, and look out for a very young Lam Ching-Ying and his attempt at portraying “thoughtful contemplation” in one scene.

But the main problem is the fact that Bruce Lee does nothing for the first 43 minutes. Until then, this is really James Tien’s movie, and decent though the guy is (here his character seems to be a kind of saint-in-waiting), who really wants to see a James Tien movie? This is done partly to tease the audience. The hype over the first Bruce Lee movie was immense and so instead of saturating the movie with Bruce, he is dished out sparingly. Instead of rushing into fights, Lee looks mournfully at his mother’s pendant and remembers his promise to not get into trouble. Of course, the pendant eventually shatters and Lee feels this breaks his obligation to the promise – and he finally springs into action.

After Lee loses his pendant, it’s like the film loses a lead weight around its neck and things definitely take off. It’s just damn shame that it took so long, though. The film’s action is surprisingly brutal for the time, even compared to the glossier Shaw Brothers films. The tone and content is sometimes puzzling, though – even now I’m not sure if that part where Bruce knocks one of the gang through the wooden wall, leaving a perfect, cartoon-like outline behind is supposed to be funny or not.

It’s things like that that definitely draw attention to Lo Wei’s abilities as a director. While there are moments of pure bone-headedness (remember the death of the prostitute, who evidently doesn’t see her assassin coming?), there are touches of subtlety you wouldn’t really associate with the director. I like the moment early in the movie when Bruce nonchalantly steals a glance at Maria Yi, only to find that she is already looking at him, leading him to look uncomfortably away. Also, the scene that juxtaposes Lee’s sumptuous meal with the boss and his apparent “selling out” with the simple fare of the honest workers is surprisingly good and probably allegorical of something I can’t quite put my finger upon. There are also some scenes of effective tension later on when Lee discovers the slaughter of his comrades.

I enjoyed THE BIG BOSS a lot more than I expected this time around, and a lot of that is down to my choice of watching it with the original music. Watching it now, as a UK citizen, it’s ironic that the film seems the least “complete” of the Bruce Lee films now as it was by far the least censored in this territory in the bad old days when even muttering the word “nunchaku” was likely to result in a cut. While it is definitely not a great movie, I can at least understand why it was such an exciting moment in Hong Kong cinema. One thing I’ll never understand, though, is why the bad guys chop up the bodies of the workers and encase them in ice instead of just disposing of them so they can’t be found by a vengeful Bruce...

Reviewer Score: 6

Reviewed by: mrblue
Date: 09/18/2003

Lee plays a Mainland immigrant who comes to work with his uncle at an ice factory. Turns out ice isn't the only thing the company is making, as Lee turns up a drug smuggling ring. After promising his father not to fight, Lee stays out of the mess until people around him start dying and he decides to take the law into his own hands.

This movie suffers from many of the problems present in most old-school movies -- hammy acting, a weak script, bad pacing -- but it has something most of the others didn't: Bruce Lee. Lee's performance and martial arts scenes are reason enough to see this movie. They're so good that this 30-year-old film stands up well against many of HK's latest releases.

Reviewed by: faisal
Date: 07/30/2003
Summary: A CLASSIC !!!

I'm not sure why almost everyone here thinks this is a bad movie.
Maybe its due to the version you've watched. Watch the 'hong kong legends' dvd with subtitles on and english language dubbing off. Believe me it was a completely different movie for me when compared to vhs full screen dubbed version I first viewed. That was the crappy movie some of you are describing here.
If after viewing the hongkong legends dvd you still think this is nothing less than a good (if not a classic) martial arts movie then you must be crazy! Bruce Lees acting here is better than in some of his other movies and the story and script here is better than in most of them.
The fights are not quite up to 'fist of fury' or 'game of death' standards but certainly better than 'way of the dragon's. I do understand some of the subtleties in the story might be lost on most western viewers but people from asian backgrounds (I myself am from a south asian background) will apprecitate the story and not find it as cheesy. To summarize defintely a highly influential and classic martial arts movie.

Reviewed by: Chungking_Cash
Date: 01/25/2003

In his [martial arts] film debut Bruce Lee arrives in Thailand to work at his uncle's factory but is forced to bridle his chivalry even while drug smuggling thugs run amok around him because of an oath his character took in Hong Kong. If you're still awake at the 45 minute mark Bruce finally let's loose but it's all too brief and it's another half-an-hour before he even so much as bats an eye lash again. If you missed the opening credits Lo Wei not only wrote the boredom -- he directed it, too! "The Big Boss" broke all previously held box office records in Hong Kong firmly cementing Bruce Lee as a martial arts icon China over; however, his gung fu feature film debut is really for Bruce Lee fanboys and completists only.

Reviewer Score: 6

Reviewed by: Kyashan
Date: 06/06/2002

My favourite Bruce Lee's movie. I have not too say, just that Bruce Lee was a real martial art's master.
Really a good movie that must be watch.
Rating 8/10

Reviewer Score: 8

Reviewed by: Sydneyguy
Date: 03/08/2002
Summary: Ok-ish

I agree with Inner Strength but i think this is a movie where the more you watch the more you like. The fight scene when Bruce is suround is still very good, even to today standards. But this is a typical revenge movie, so nothing new here plot wise.


Reviewer Score: 6

Reviewed by: Inner Strength
Date: 02/05/2002
Summary: Average

One of the better Bruce Lee & Lo Wei films to come out, but nothing too special about it though.

The story doesn't really seem logical, and is quite boring at times. Still, if anyone hasn't seen it, it might be worth a look. But there were plenty of better kung fu movies made at this time.

Rating: 2.5/5

Reviewer Score: 5

Reviewed by: MrBooth
Date: 11/23/2001
Summary: 6/10 - doesn't stand up too well 30 years on

THE BIG BOSS (1971) - Bruce Lee's first starring role is without doubt a seminal movie, and one that changed the course of the world. But 30 years on it's harsh but fair to ask "Is it any good?". Well... it's not a *bad* movie, but there's much that can be easily faulted compared to many of the films that have followed since.

Firstly the script is... retarded, in a nutshell. Characters act more stupidly than the teenagers in a slasher movie who decide to wander off alone when their friends are being murdered. Maybe it's meant to be a satire about the level of education in the working classes at the time, but more likely it's just poor writing and direction from Lo Wei - the man's only noticable talent was a knack for associating with people vastly more talented than himself. The acting from all round (yes, even Bruce) is pretty terrible - part of the blame for this must go to Lo Wei again, I'm sure. Camerawork, editing etc are all bland and forgettable.

Even the fight scenes are not very good for most of the film - Bruce spends the first half of the movie looking at a piece of jade and remembering his promise to mom not to fight, whilst everybody else is very 'swingy arm'.

So really, the only thing that saves the film from being utterly appalling is Bruce himself - and then, only when he starts to fight back. There's no doubt that the man had something special, and his moves were quite unlike anything that audiences had seen before. One of his trademarks in this film is delivering 3 successive kicks to 3 different opponents, and his power, grace, speed and precision definitely stand out from what we've seen before. I suppose Lo Wei wanted to build up anticipation for these moments by having Bruce hold back from the fight for the first half of the film - and if he'd had a good script or could direct with flair, this would probably have paid off. Given that the rest of the film is utterly awful, though, he would have been better advised just to spend the whole running time letting Bruce loose.

So whilst the film is interesting because of the revealed potential of Bruce Lee, actually watching it is not particularly enjoyable for most of the duration.

The most recent DVD boxset from Fox finally gives audiences the chance to watch the film with the original Mandarin soundtrack, great remastered picture and a good subtitle translation. This does improve the film a little (compared to the later Cantonese dub, and especially the foul English dub), but I still can't call it a good film.

Reviewer Score: 6

Reviewed by: alienlord
Date: 04/30/2001

Poor kung-fu actioneer has Lee trying to bring down a major drug ring when his friends that discovered it are murdered. Boring star vehicle for Lee has some of the worst performances along with lame fight scenes.
* and a half/4

Reviewer Score: 4

Reviewed by: dragyn
Date: 02/18/2001
Summary: The First Revenge

"The Big Boss" was the now legendary Bruce Lee's first major film, and it made him a superstar all over Asia.

To watch "The Big Boss" today, it seems dated and lack-lustre alongside more modern Kung Fu classics such as Jackie Chan's "Drunken Master II", although the fights are classics, and Lee himself has an almost mezmerising screen presence that no other Kung Fu star has captured.

But it is helpful to remember that when "The Big Boss" was made, the now cliched "revenge" plot was actually completely new. Before Lee, all Kung Fu movies contained gentle, benign old masters such as Wong Fei Hung, and the concept of pure rage and revenge did not exist.

And boy, did Lee exact rage in spectaculr style! The fights are still amazing today, if only because of Lee's electric, magnetic, hyperkinetic presence, and his uncontrollable, snarling rage.


Reviewer Score: 8

Reviewed by: hkcinema
Date: 12/08/1999

Bruce arrives in Bangkok and goes to work in an ice factory.But all is not as it appears and he is soon drawn into a web of evil from which only his integrity and great fighting skills can save him. The first of the great Bruce Lee kung fu classics, this is the film that started it all.

[Reviewed by Rim Films Catalog]