Fist of Fear, Touch of Death (1980) is not like any other Bruce Lee documentary out there. In fact, it’s not much of a documentary, or even that coherent a film. The presence of bad comedy, what-the-hell moments and Fred Williamson playing comic relief makes me wonder how serious this “documentary” really was. Sure, Fist of Fear… shits on the memory of Bruce Lee, but a running joke about Williamson looking like Harry Belafonte? The only thing Fist of Fear… used the touch of death on is competent filmmaking, and that’s why I like the film so much.
The film is supposed to be set at Madison Square Garden during the “1979 World Karate Championships.” The film is actually set at the Felt Forum (now the WaMu Theater) at Madison Square Garden, so that’s technically true. Adolph Caesar, a few years before his Oscar nomination for A Soldier’s Story, reads stiffly from a cue card while pretending to be a TV sports anchorman. Caesar still turns in the film’s strongest performance.
Adolph Caesar introduces footage of “last year’s competition” as Bill Louie comically kicks some guy in the nuts. Without warning, he pulls the guy’s eyes out of their sockets and throws them to the audience. This out-of-left-field joke surprised the hell out of me when I first saw it. Fist of Fear… is Matthew Mallinson and Ron Harvey’s only writing credits according to IMDb, and I can’t say I’m surprised due to their rather esoteric ideas about “humour.”
We’re back to the smooth tones of Adolph Caesar’s voice as he interviews “Bruce Lee.” “Lee” sounds a lot like Brent Spiner as sepia-toned footage of Lee is poorly mixed with sepia-toned footage of Caesar. Wikipedia claims that the footage of Lee is actually from the 1971-72 ABC show Longstreet. You can hear the awkward pauses as Caesar dryly phones it in for a paycheque. Caesar deserved better roles than this, but at least he isn’t playing a slave or a butler.
More comedic martial arts footage is played, this time a petite woman tossing a fat black man over her head. Poor dubbing is used to point out that the obese man is just that, since calling him Fred the Flying Fat Man and showing that he’s fat isn’t obvious enough.
Here’s a rare sight – Fred “the Hammer” Williamson in a comedy routine! Granted, The Fucking Hammer (you have to say it like that, The Fucking Hammer) plays things straight as he should, since he is blaxploitation’s Lazarus. In the film, The Fucking Hammer has allegedly had sex five times with a white woman the night before the Karate Championships. Never satisfied, the woman expresses her displeasure for his not putting out enough while Williamson worries about “a Bruce Lee title that doesn’t even exist.” Naturally, sex wins.
More fun is had when a guy named Jasper Milktoast picks a fight with The Fucking Hammer over entering a taxi! Jokes about Williamson looking like Harry Belafonte abound, since a film about Bruce Lee needs those purposeful Belafonte references.
At this point in the film, a redubbed/sepia-toned Lei yu (a/k/a The Thunderstorm) is intercut with Tian zhan/Invincible Super Chan to comprise “The Bruce Lee Story.” This is where the film gets amazingly stupid, either purposely or otherwise. The in-joke with regards to “The Bruce Lee Story” is that Lei yu stars a young Bruce Lee. Were Mallinson and Harvey trying to comically redub Lei yu for a few laughs? Perhaps, but it seems more like Aquarius Promotions was trying to knock out a grindhouse title and needed a lot of filler. After all, characters are talking about Bruce Lee being karate crazy. Apparently, all martial arts are interchangeable to the slant-eyes. Lee was born to a lineage of Chinese samurai warriors, too! Truly, Fist of Fear… caters to the true martial arts fans and not utter morons.
The first act of this article ends with the award-winning dialogue that has made Fist of Fear, Touch of Death a martial arts classic. A cliffhanger has scarcely been as nail-biting, at least not since…uh…Cliffhanger. Here’s a severed head as a bonus you’ll mildly appreciate.
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