Monday, April 13, 2020

Fist of Fear, Touch of Death: Feel the Bruceploitation

Bruceploitation does not get much more exploitative than this. If you love Bruce Lee, chances are you hate this cash-in cobbled together by the [in]famous grindhouse distributor Aquarius Releasing. Problems of authenticity abound, but there is still something appealing about the hucksterism of Matthew Mallinson’s Fistof Fear, Touch of Death, which is coming imminently (due to a CCP-virus delay) on DVD and limited-edition collector’s Blu-Ray, from the Film Detective.

Frankly, the behind-the-scenes making-of story of Fist is probably more interesting than its actual narrative, or really narratives. While cataloging some film canisters for Aquarius, Mallinson unearthed The Thunderstorm, an early family drama the teenaged Lee made before he left Hong Kong for the U.S.A. The entertaining bonus feature, “That’s Bruceploitation,” refers to it as “Bruce Lee: Death of a Salesman,” because of its apparently similar family dynamics. Regardless, Bruce Lee had been dead since 1973, so any new footage was a boon to you know, exploit.

Waste not, want not, so Mallinson and screenwriter Ron Harvey were tapped to create a contemporary film around the footage. They were also allowed to plunder the Taiwanese Kung Fu film, The Invincible Super Chan for footage of what became flashbacks to Lee’s celebrated martial artist ancestor (said to be a famous “samurai” in ancient China, which is just so embarrassing for fans to hear).

The film starts out with the eternally cool Fred Williamson (who starred in many blaxploitation distributed by Aquarius), playing himself as he tries to make his way to Madison Square Garden, where he is supposed to do some color commentary for a match promoted by real-life New York dojo-owner, promoter, and minor exploitation star, Aaron Banks. Supposedly, the main event will crown Lee’s successor. To drum up further publicity, Banks holds press conferences claiming Lee was in fact murdered, by someone using the titular technique. However, Williamson takes issue with Banks’ presumptiveness and baseless speculation during his interview with Adolph Ceasar, the actor playing himself (more or less) as a sportscaster, who supposedly discovered Bruce Lee.

Ostensibly, Caesar tells us the Bruce Lee story in flashbacks to the black-and-white Thunderstorm, which then flashes-back to color excerpts of Invincible Super Chan, none of which make much sense. Without question, the best parts of the film were the original contemporary action sequences featuring martial arts-blaxploitation cult favorite Ron van Clief and Bill Louie, who was then a promising potential martial arts star, assuming the mask and mantle of Kato. Both involve the Bruce Lee-disciples saving joggers from predatory street gangs in Manhattan parks, so you cannot accuse Harvey’s screenplay of excessive originality.

Honestly, it is like finger nails on a blackboard whenever the horribly dubbed Lee talks about practicing karate or whenever his family talk about their samurai ancestor. Talk about just not caring. Nevertheless, Williamson has a roguish charm in his scenes. It is also mind-boggling to think Caesar would go on to be Oscar-nominated for A Soldier’s Story. He was a serious stage actor, but he had a long relationship with Aquarius, recording the “in a world where” voiceovers” for their over-the-top trailers.

So, yes, this exists and it did good business in its day. Fist is definitely an artifact of its time, but it still has its moments, mainly involving Williamson’s hip attitude and Van Clief’s real-deal martial arts prowess. It is also fun to see grungy old school New York, circa 1980, especially now that we are stuck in shut-down New York 2020. For Bruceploitation fans, Fist of Fear, Touch of Death will soon be available from Film Detective.