A couple of days ago, W. Kamau Bell posted an interesting piece, "Me and Bruce Lee would like to have a word with you." Bell writes about growing up in Chicago and seeing Fist of Fury:
In the 1970’s many Black people adopted [Bruce Lee] as if he was one of us. Maybe it was because of the themes of racism that were often in his films. Maybe it was because he always played the underdog, which meant Black folks could watch and go, “Yup! I know that fight.” ... Maybe Black folks liked Bruce because of the way he moved on screen, bouncing on his toes like his hero Muhammad Ali. Who knows why. But Bruce Lee was certainly responsible for an explosion in interest in martial arts in Black America. Whatever it was that made Bruce feel like ours, I was there for it and still am.
On a basic level, Fist of Fury is an excuse for a series of set pieces that allow Lee to kick Japanese ass. And Lee is unmatched in such scenes. It's not just his command of martial arts ... it's the beauty of his style, "bouncing on his toes like Ali". He was beautiful to look at even when he wasn't moving, but movement made that beauty special. But it was more than beauty. Lee gave the impression of compressed violence. You could say he plays the title character in this movie, and there is immense power in the ways he uses his fists. He is lethal.
The plot is a fairly standard revenge tale. There's a romance that mostly serves to slow the movie down. But you don't watch Fist of Fury for plot or romance. You watch to see Bruce Lee kick ass.
Japanese ass. That matters ... the story takes place in Shanghai in the 1910s, when the Japanese have much power over the daily lives of the Chinese. Worse, they disrespect Chinese culture. After the death of the leader of the school Lee is a part of, the Japanese show up, make threats, and give a "gift", a poster with the message "Sick Men of Asia", referring to the Chinese. Lee is the one who stands against the Japanese, returning the poster with a message of his own.
Bell writes of this scene, "Apparently when Chinese movie audiences first saw this scene they would stand and cheer. And as a prepubescent kid in Chicago, I might have done the same thing. As a Black boy in America, I felt that line in my bones. I wasn’t Chinese, and my oppressors weren’t Japanese, but I was in my mom’s apartment on the South Side of Chicago going, 'I’M NOT A SICK MAN EITHER!'"
Lee had incredible charisma on the screen. I wish Fist of Fury was slicker ... it looks kinda cheap. But that's what Enter the Dragon is for.