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Retro Review: FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH (1980)

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FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH
(US - 1980)

Directed by Matthew Mallinson. Written by Ron Harvey. Cast: Bruce Lee, Fred Williamson, Ron Van Clief, Adolph Caesar, Aaron Banks, Bill Louie, Teruyuki Higa, Richard Barathy, Gail Turner, Hollywood Browde, Louis Neglia, Cydra Karlyn, Annette Bronson, John "Cyclone" Flood, Ron Harvey. (R, 86 mins)

When he died suddenly in 1973 at just 32, Bruce Lee was already a renowned figure in martial arts and his legacy would be cemented when ENTER THE DRAGON hit theaters a month later. The official cause was deemed cerebral edema but Lee's death was instantly shrouded in mystery and intrigue with conspiracy theories continuing to this day, with a bonus "family curse" added to the mix when his 28-year-old son Brandon was killed in a tragic on-set accident with a prop gun while filming THE CROW in 1993. In the years following Lee's death, the cash-ins and ripoffs--the "Bruceploitation" craze--never stopped, the best-known being GAME OF DEATH, the film Lee was working on at the time of his passing. He had the climactic fight scenes (including one with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) done in 1973 but ENTER THE DRAGON director Robert Clouse ended up creating a new plot around the existing Lee footage, using outtakes from past Lee movies and two unconvincing doubles (and, in one incredible shot that somehow didn't end the careers of everyone who thought it would work: a cardboard cutout of Lee's head attached to a mirror so it looks like it's his reflection). GAME OF DEATH hit theaters in 1979 and despite its dubious nature (and perhaps because the fight scenes Lee completed were among the best he'd ever done), it satisfied a public that still wanted all the Bruce Lee it could get, even if wasn't him. That demand was further satiated by tons of kung-fu movies featuring rechristened actors with names like Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Lea, Dragon Lee, Bronson Lee, and the unlikely Myron Bruce Lee, among several others. These guys starred in films like ENTER THE GAME OF DEATH, NEW FIST OF FURY, FIST OF FURY II, GAME OF DEATH II, THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE, and EXIT THE DRAGON, ENTER THE TIGER just to name a few.







Legendary 42nd Street grindhouse god Terry Levene and his Aquarius Releasing were no strangers to scrounging in the exploitation gutter to make a quick buck, like driving a "Butchermobile" around NYC in 1982 to promote DOCTOR BUTCHER M.D., or releasing the same movie multiple times under different titles, so it was inevitable that they got a piece of the Bruceploitation action. Aquarius had titles like GOODBYE, BRUCE LEE: HIS LAST GAME OF DEATH and BRUCE LEE FIGHTS BACK FROM THE GRAVE in regular rotation in Times Square and on America's drive-in circuit, but 1980 saw their most shameless Bruceploitation con job yet with FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH, which has just been released by The Film Detective in a surprisingly nice 40th anniversary Blu-ray edition (!) with a top-notch transfer (!!), bonus features (!!!) and liner notes (!!!!), because physical media is dead (?).


It's hard to believe FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH actually played in theaters across America, but gullible Lee fans were so hungry for more of their hero that they'd plunk down their hard-earned cash to see any new stuff they could, no matter how many times they'd get hosed and leave pissed-off. Driven by sheer chutzpah, Levene decided to assemble a "new" Bruce Lee movie out of some footage from a black-and-white 1957 Hong Kong drama he acquired called THUNDERSTORM, which featured a 17-year-old Lee among the supporting cast. Aquarius staffer Ron Harvey found the two-decade-old film by accident while doing an inventory of titles in Levene's library. Harvey was then charged with constructing a story around the THUNDERSTORM footage, and what he and director Matthew Mallinson came up with can only be termed a "movie" in the loosest sense. It's set up as a TV documentary hosted by then-busy grindhouse trailer narrator Adolph Caesar, who would get a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination four years later for A SOLDIER'S STORY and co-star as Old Mister in Steven Spielberg's THE COLOR PURPLE a year after that. Caesar is covering the 1979 World Karate Championship at the Felt Forum in Madison Square Garden and interviewing various talking heads about the legend of Bruce Lee. That includes event organizer Aaron Banks, taking on the role of conspiracy theorist and insisting that Lee's death was caused by "The Touch of Death" as punishment for revealing too many of the secrets of Chinese martial arts. Banks then proceeds to reveal more secrets of Chinese martial arts by detailing a move called "The Vibrating Palm," which can be laid upon someone in a certain way and lead to death in three to four weeks.


Caesar jabbers endlessly about this tournament being the deciding factor as to who will be the successor to Lee's legacy. Among those interviewed are actor and ex-football star Fred Williamson, who's introduced in a comedy sketch where he gets a late wake-up call and is exhausted and spent from satisfying his woman (Hollywood Browde) all night long (she begs for more, and Fred replies "Five times ain't enough?"). A running gag has everyone mistaking Fred for Harry Belafonte, including a would-be tough guy named Jasper Milktoast (played by Harvey) who tries to start shit with Fred by stealing his cab. Fred ends up catching a ride to the Garden with Caesar, who talks incessantly about Lee's TBD successor while Mallinson provides us with some vintage shots of 1979 Times Square, with movies like 10, HALLOWEEN, STARTING OVER, ANIMAL HOUSE, and APOCALYPSE NOW on theater marquees. Caesar also talks to full contact karate champ Ron Van Clief, who's shown doing his workout routine before agreeing with Banks and emphatically declaring that there's no way Lee could've died from natural causes. Dr. Van Clief is then shown beating the shit out of some creeps hassling an attractive women in the park. "How can I ever repay you?" the woman coos to a beaming Van Clief, as a presumably leering Caesar coyly quips via voiceover, "I'm sure Ron has some ideas of his own." Canceled.






Then comes what Caesar calls "The Halftime Show," where he delves into Lee's past and what made him the martial arts legend he became. Cut to over 30 minutes of footage from THUNDERSTORM, which has been dubbed over with ridiculous American voices to become a story of a teenage Bruce Lee being pressured by his family to pay attention to his studies when all he wants to do is keep practicing karate and get tickets to "the karate show." The black-and-white THUNDERSTORM footage is periodically interrupted by another detour into completely different stock footage, as Lee's mother tells him about the legend of his kung-fu warrior great-grandfather, which plays out in scenes taken from 1971's in-color and Bruce Lee-less INVINCIBLE SUPER CHAN, another import that Levene forgot he owned and would eventually release on its own in 1983 as FORCED TO FIGHT. Of course, it didn't matter to anyone that INVINCIBLE SUPER CHAN was about a samurai warrior and not a kung-fu fighter, but hey, whatever helps pad the running time by 30-plus minutes. And the THUNDERSTORM footage is the sketchiest way possible at Levene's disposal to justify giving Bruce Lee top billing in a movie being hastily assembled to take advantage of his name seven years after his death.


There's another haphazardly-stitched together scene of Lee having a conversation with Banks (of course, never in the shot together at the same time, and the scene is tinted to make it all match), and the Lee side of it is just badly-dubbed stock footage from either an old interview or a TV show (possibly taken from his recurring role on the short-lived 1971 ABC series LONGSTREET, which starred James Franciscus as a blind insurance investigator), followed by Mallinson cutting to World Karate Championship contender Bill Louie (seen earlier in a hilarious staged shot yanking out an opponent's eyes and tossing them into the crowd) going after some muggers in Central Park while dressed as Lee's Kato from THE GREEN HORNET. Caesar continues to ask anyone within earshot about who will carry on the legacy of Bruce Lee, including a ringside sitdown with a seemingly irritable Williamson, followed by a desperate crawl to the feature-length threshold by showing the final two rounds of the World Welterweight Full Contact championship bout between Louie Neglia and John "Cyclone" Flood. Neglia wins but Caesar, who's spent the entire movie pestering everyone with the same inane questions about who will inherit Bruce Lee's crown, decides it doesn't matter. On the subject of handing off Lee's legacy, he asks "Why should we?" and concludes that Lee is irreplaceable, which is interesting since no one was even talking about it in the first place except Adolph Caesar.





Can you imagine paying to see this in 1980? What is this movie? Is it even a movie? It's part documentary, part mockumentary, part sketch comedy, part sporting event coverage, part proto-JACKASS, and it was all sold as a new martial arts epic teaming Bruce Lee, Fred Williamson, and Ron Van Clief ("The 3 Greatest Masters!"). The Blu-ray features interviews with all the major surviving players, including Levene (who's in his 90s), Mallinson, and Harvey, plus Williamson and Van Clief are interviewed together (Caesar died in 1986). They all have a sense of humor about it, with stories of creating forged credentials and equipment adorned with a "WAQU-TV" (for "Aquarius") logo so Garden security would let Caesar and a cameraman into the event, thinking they were with an actual TV station. Harvey also shares a hilarious memory of Caesar (described by Mallinson as "not drunk, but he had a couple drinks and was feeling good") nailing some lines of dialogue before Harvey realized he missed a couple of sentences, and started shouting to get Caesar's attention "like I was Arthur Miller trying to preserve the sacred texts." It's hard to recommend FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH to anyone but the most die-hard Bruce Lee completists or Bruceploitation masochists, but one almost has to admire the audacity of its very existence, along with the nostalgic reminder that there was once a time when some straight-up bullshit like this could make money in theaters. I feel sorry for any '80s kid who decided to do a book report on Bruce Lee and thought watching this would be a good way to get around the reading ("...but all he really wanted to do was get tickets to the karate show").



FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH
opening in Toledo, OH on 11/14/1980



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