The title refers to Bruce Lee’s first three martial arts movies – Chinese productions with no American financing. Coincidentally, these were the only Bruce Lee movies to have Nora Miao in them. Perhaps the other two movies would’ve performed better at the box office had she graced them with her screen presence. From a Hong Kong viewpoint, Bruce’s winning streak ended when he began to film his first English language star project – Enter the Dragon. He was exhausting himself to the point of starvation. His narcissistic desire to have little to no body fat did not pay off in Hong Kong, regardless of his home city not being the target audience. The movie only grossed 3,307,520 H.K. dollars. This is slightly more than his first martial arts movie, The Big Boss, which grossed 3,197,416. It’s perplexing that the Lee-less (thus cinematically flimsy) Game of Death earned 3,436,169. His second martial arts movie, Fist of Fury, grossed 4,431,423 whereas third time became the charm with The Way of the Dragon grossing 5,307,350.
For all the piles of praise that were heaped upon The Big Boss by local audiences, the box office profit would’ve been bigger had the movie not been cut for violence, not just the sawed head or James Tien’s final fight scene. The finale has extra corpses (even in the regular Chinese prints). Part of my problem with the movie is that it wasn’t fair for Tien’s character to be killed off. James truly duly earned the right to be the star of a local movie. Golden Harvest’s Raymond Chow missed an opportunity to rival the Shaw Brothers pairing of David Chiang and Ti Lung, which was already a well-established thing by the time that The Big Boss came out in the same month as Duel of Fists – also set in Thailand. Like Bruce, Ti is a master of Wing Chun. While there is something quite charming about James being a proxy protagonist (foreshadowing John Saxon’s role as the de facto protagonist in Enter the Dragon), the plot device is ruined by the opening credit sequence which makes it all too clear in a rather garish way that Tien’s time in the spotlight is literally short-lived.
Having a Chiang/Lung dynamic would’ve made Tien’s character in Game of Death attain more of a deuteragonist quality. Also, maybe James wouldn’t have been reluctant in participating in interviews about Bruce. There will be too many anecdotes taken to the grave. This makes me wonder why he agreed to be in Game of Death in the first place. As much as people talk about him being demoted in The Big Boss, at least he gets to be the star for a while. In Game of Death, he went from having honourable second billing in `72 to humbly having a cameo in the `78 do-over. I feel sorry for him being robbed of greatness. All that hard work, and for nothing. Again, it’s a shame that he refuses to be interviewed about all things Bruce. Lee was too kind with his Game of Death offer. As it is, The Big Boss succeeds in being dramatically appealing by having the main fighter of the first act being killed off. The Greek-esque tragedy could still have been maintained with James still around. Instead of him dying, Lam Ching-Ying’s character could’ve been the one who is fatally accompanied by Billy Chan Wui-Ngai to the villain’s mansion.
One of my beefs with the movie is that the ice factory manager disappears with absolutely no resolution. I was disappointed when I first saw The Big Boss, because he was introduced as being a Tai Chi expert. In retrospect, he was the false antagonist. Even then, the movie suffers from this plot hole. With James literally still in the picture, the manager would be the one who is the last peon standing in the nocturnal factory fight. Ideally, James and Bruce would’ve taken him on. Bruce never choreographed the sort of two-on-one fights that became synonymous with the golden era of Kung Fu movies. He has often been criticized for being rather limited in his knowledge of choreographing group fights. Maybe choreographing a 2-on-1 fight where he’s one of the duo would’ve made it far less daunting of a task. When the heroes return home to see their slaughtered friends, James could’ve cried with vulnerability while Bruce cries with anger. This means that the heroic duo would take it in turns to fight the father and his son.
As for Fist of Fury, it would’ve been nice to see James protect the Jing Wu school if not join Bruce in his quest for vengeance. Ideally, there would’ve been intercutting akin to a TV series where you have a B plot that serves to lessen predictability. If done well, the editing can be symbolic in terms of mirrored actions. Part of the attraction behind Fist of Fury is that the final act is reminiscent of The Big Boss by having Bruce enter an evil lair while a separate team of antagonists attempt to kill his loved ones. Seeing as how he had always intended to have Nora Miao cast in his directorial début, I wish that he had cast Angela Mao to play his girlfriend in Fist of Fury. Unlike Miao, Mao could actually fight. As for The Way of the Dragon, you have to commend Bruce for having brought back the fish out of water theme from The Big Boss along with that movie’s gimmick of making the audience wait to see him open a can of whoop-ass with his whip-tail. The lack of Italian dialogue is reminiscent of no Thai dialogue in The Big Boss.
The final act was worthwhile for those who couldn’t get enough of seeing Bruce defeat the Japanese in Fist of Fury. However, one has to wonder if the reluctant casting of Bob Wall was a blessing in disguise. He originally wasn’t meant to be in the movie. Sensing a jackpot opportunity, he tagged along with Chuck Norris. Bruce wasn’t happy, but he wasn’t the sort of person to bear grudges (as Bob noted in the Curse of the Dragon documentary when talking about what happened to challengers during the making of Enter the Dragon). In due time, Bruce would gradually become grateful because, in Bob, he essentially found someone who could already react well in Enter the Dragon. Bob’s presence added to the box office income of The Way of the Dragon because the Chinese couldn’t get enough of seeing Bruce whale on Westerners. They must have laughed their heads off when Bob gets killed because of a punch to the groin. Also, Bruce’s whaling on Wall served as a red herring to people who thought that Chuck could easily be disposed of.
I think that it’s sad about Maria Yi (the woman at the far right above) retiring in 1976. It would’ve been cool for Golden Harvest to cash in on Charlie’s Angels (the title card is placed there because of a watermark that was on the photo). To fill her place, Golden Harvest’s Leonard Ho could’ve sought the services of Polly Shang Kwan (the third woman in the purple photo). It would’ve been sweet to see Polly play Bruce’s sister in Enter the Dragon since Angela had already made her marksman mark with Hapkido and Lady Whirlwind. Bruce was better off having Game of Death be his U.S. breakthrough. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had more star power than any of the black and white people in Enter the Dragon. No-one criticizes Game of Death for being a rip-off of something (à la Enter the Dragon being a cheaper Dr. No). All that Bruce would have to do for Game of Death to be a smash hit in H.K. and the U.S. would be to have himself ascend the pagoda with two Westerners (one black alongside one white) along with the raiders who we know were actually cast.