Since this weekend officially marks the first anniversary of The Back Row, I think there’s no better way to commemorate having done more than 80 columns of “Robin’s Underrated Gems” than by doing… another special edition of “Robin’s Underrated Crap”! A couple months ago, I briefly deviated from my formula to write a “Robin’s Underrated Crap” column about the Pia Zadora camp classic, The Lonely Lady. For the record, I use the term “underrated crap” to refer to astonishingly bad movies that don’t quite have the notoriety they deserve. While films like Troll 2, The Room and Birdemic have built up an enormous cult following amongst “bad movie” lovers, The Lonely Lady has pretty much faded into obscurity. Of course, I think a “Robin’s Underrated Crap” column shouldn’t just be devoted to your average, run-of-the-mill awful movie, but to those rare works of cinema that truly transcend the concept of awfulness. I think today’s subject, Fist of Fear, Touch of Death, more than fits the criteria because there really isn’t anything out there quite like it, and I suppose we should all be grateful for that. Last week, we did a Shouts From the Back Row podcast about our favourite documentaries, and at the end, we each named what we considered to be the worst documentary we’ve ever seen. Without hesitation, I chose Fist of Fear, Touch of Death, though I almost feel ashamed referring to it as a “documentary”. If there’s one word of truth that surfaces during the course of the film, I’m sure it happened purely by accident. Anyone who complains that Michael Moore fudges the facts too much in his documentaries should be strapped to a gurney, have their eyelids pried open and be forced to watch Fist of Fear, Touch of Death in Clockwork Orange-like fashion. But truth to be told, if I didn’t classify Fist of Fear, Touch of Death as a documentary, I wouldn’t know what the hell to classify it as. The whole thing is just so badly assembled and jaw-droppingly inept in every aspect that it stops merely being a bad documentary and crosses over into the realm of the surreal. How could a documentary be so awful as to transcend the concept of awfulness? Well, let’s just say that at the end of this trailer, I was waiting for Harry Shearer to quickly read the disclaimer: “53 % new footage”.
Before I delve into the awfulness of this film, I should first provide some background into the concept of “Brucesploitation”. Bruce Lee may have died in 1973, but that didn’t stop filmmakers and distributors everywhere from milking his name and image for many years afterward. Many martial arts flicks were released during that time period which starred look-alikes with names like “Bruce Li” or “Bruce Le”, and there were even some films that were billed as starring Bruce Lee himself, even though they consisted entirely of stock footage of him from before he died. In 1978, never-before-seen footage of a fight sequence that Lee filmed with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar just before his death was spliced together with a bunch newly shot scenes in order to create a feature-length film called Game of Death. If you lived from 1973 until 1980 without even being aware that Bruce Lee had died, I could hardly fault you. However, the era of “Brucesploitation” reached its all-time low point with Fist of Fear, Touch of Death, which may be the most shameless documentary ever made. The film is hosted by noted actor/voice-over artist Adolph Caesar (yes, that’s actually his real name!) and the film only takes a few minutes to make the viewer’s jaw drop when it shows footage of a never-before-seen “interview” between Caesar and Bruce Lee. Not only are Caesar and Lee conveniently never shown in the same shot together, but Lee’s dialogue is dubbed over with a voice that doesn’t sound anything like him!
Sadly, out of all the utterly stupid things presented in Fist of Fear, Touch of Death, I’m not even sure that “interview” would rank in the top five! It’s worth noting that Adolph Caesar would be nominated for an Academy Award four years later for his performance in Norman Jewison’s A Soldier’s Story. How the Academy snubbed Caesar’s work in Fist of Fear, Touch of Death is beyond me since he is forced to say the most ridiculous things with a completely straight face and his chemistry with Bruce Lee’s stock footage just leaps off the screen. Anyway, the backdrop for this film is a martial arts tournament that takes place in Madison Square Garden. Apparently, the winner of this tournament will officially be named as the “successor” to Bruce Lee. Call me a sceptic if you want to, but I started to question the legitimacy of this “tournament” when they showed footage of a guy winning his match by ripping out his opponent’s eyes and throwing them into the crowd!
Scenes like this are so absurd that I’m almost prepared to believe that Fist of Fear, Touch of Death was intended as a mockumentary, but I really don’t think the filmmakers were that clever. If you want to get intoxicated very quickly, start a “Fist of Fear, Touch of Death Drinking Game” for every time the filmmakers make a serious attempt at passing off complete and utter bullshit as “fact”. The film’s narrative intercuts between this martial arts tournament and a bunch of “flashback” sequences that detail Bruce Lee’s early life and career, but I think the only detail they get right is that Bruce Lee was a human being. But before we get into that, I should mention that for the first half hour or so, you see very little of Bruce Lee at all as Fist of Fear, Touch of Death has a strange tendency to cut away to random pointless bullshit. For whatever reason, blaxploitation star Fred Williamson was coerced into appearing in this film, and his appearance consists of waking up in bed with a woman, traveling to Madison Square Garden for the tournament and sitting around and doing a whole lot of nothing. This footage with Williamson and his mistress looks like it was shot for another movie and spliced into this film to fill time.
We are also introduced to a couple of martial arts figures who are competing in the tournament, and the footage with karate champion (and future UFC fighter) Ron Van Clief is… interesting, to say the least. In this clip, he demonstrates his ability to use a sword to cut carrots on his students’ necks without cutting their heads off.
And in this clip, Van Clief saves a girl from a gang of would-be rapists.
Okay, that look he gives to the camera there at the end is pretty funny, but the obvious question is: what the fuck does this have to do with anything?! Not long after this, the movie finally starts to focus on Bruce Lee again and delves into his back story. However, after thirty seconds of hearing about Bruce’s “family history”, I was ready to watch more footage of Ron Van Clief chopping carrots! Did you know that Bruce Lee’s great-grandfather was one of China’s greatest samurais? Before you start sending me hate mail to let me know that samurais are Japanese, all I can say is: don’t shoot the messenger!
Yes, believe it or not, they actually took a bunch of stock footage from some samurai film and… tried to pass it off as footage of Bruce Lee’s great-grandfather, I guess. But it doesn’t end there! The film then devises some bullshit back story about Bruce’s family life and they do this by pulling out some old black-and-white stock footage from a Hong Kong soap opera that young Bruce acted in when he was just a teenager. They then dub some all-new dialogue over this footage and try to pass it off as actual conversations between Bruce and his family! A large chunk of the film’s midsection involves cutting back and forth between the samurai and soap opera footage and this drags on for nearly THIRTY MINUTES!!
See what I meant by “53 % new footage”? Though I think 53 % might be a very generous number. Anyway, the film is more than halfway over before it finally decides to move away from the stock footage festival and starts examining Lee’s career. This leads to what is probably my favourite moment of unintentional hilarity as Adolph Caesar tells us we are about to see Bruce Lee in a scene from his first film… and then they cut away to a five-second clip of some screaming guy who is obviously NOT Bruce Lee jumping off a roof! The insanity continues as Caesar tells us we are about to see Bruce Lee’s first screen test for American television… which turns out to be a five-second insert of a guy holding a movie clapperboard with “Bruce Lee Screen Test” written on it!
Caesar then talks about Lee’s breakthrough role as Kato on The Green Hornet, and if you believe the makers of this film actually shelled out money for the rights to use footage from The Green Hornet, then I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. No, instead, we get a silly six-minute sequence that features another competitor from the martial arts tournament, Bill Louie, wearing a Kato mask and getting into a badly staged fight against (yet again!) a group of would-be rapists.
Hmmmm, you’d think a film that was built around the concept of finding a martial arts successor to Bruce Lee would, you know, actually show some martial arts footage of the guy! It’s not like they’re holding a tournament to determine Bruce Lee’s successor at appearing on Hong Kong soap operas. But, not to worry, if you tuned into this movie because you wanted to see tons of badly dubbed Bruce Lee interview footage, there’s still more to come. This time, the viewer is treated to a fake exchange between martial arts promoter Aaron Banks and more Bruce Lee stock footage. Banks made his first appearance in the opening scenes of this film and spouted off some crazy conspiracy theories about Lee’s death, claiming that he died as a result of someone giving him a deadly martial arts move called “The Touch of Death”.
Bruce Lee was killed by the Five-Pointed Palm Exploding Heart Technique?!
While it already takes a lot of nerve to insert yourself into a fake interview with Bruce Lee, Aaron Banks manages to take things a step further by dubbing over dialogue where Lee kisses his ass (“Aaron, it’s YOU who’ve done a lot – you’re the number one promoter of martial arts in the world”)!
Anyway, after over an hour of this insanity, Fist of Fear, Touch of Death finally reaches the final match in the tournament to determine Bruce Lee’s martial arts successor. It’s at this point that the film delivers…
A) The most epic kick-ass martial arts fight sequence of all time!
B) A pretty good fight scene that almost redeems the rest of the crap in the film.
C) A rather disappointing, mediocre fight scene.
D) A FUCKIN’ BOXING MATCH!!
Well, if you answered anything but “D”, you haven’t been paying much attention to the rest of this review. Yes, after spending the entire movie hyping up who’s going to be the successor to Bruce Lee and introducing us to such martial arts competitors as Ron Van Clief and Bill Louie, the movie’s climax turns out to be footage of a boxing match between two guys we’ve never even heard of! I guess the movie ran out of usable martial arts stock footage to show, so in a panic, decided to insert some boxing footage in there, hoping that no one would notice. But just as you’re starting to think you’ve wasted 82 minutes of your life sitting through this movie, here comes Adolph Caesar to actually CONFIRM this fact! Yes, he closes out the film by telling us there is no successor to Bruce Lee and that trying to find a successor to him was unnecessary to begin with.
I once wrote a column entitled “Ten Movie Scenes That Make You Go ‘WTF?!'”, but Fist of Fear, Touch of Death is one those rare cases of an ENTIRE MOVIE that makes you go “WTF?!”. I cannot imagine how much acid the filmmakers must taken before they made this because I have no other rational explanation for the final result. Like I said earlier, parts of this film are so bizarre and ridiculous that you start wondering if the whole thing was intended as a mockumentary, but I really don’t think that’s the case. And even if it was intended as a parody, just WHAT is it supposed to be parodying, exactly? As a piece of documentary filmmaking, the whole thing is pure incompetence as there’s no real flow to anything that’s going on and the filmmakers just seemed to insert whatever random shit they could think of in order to pad this thing out to 82 minutes. This is “Brucesploitation” at its absolute worst as the film features about three times as much footage of a teenage Bruce Lee in a soap opera than of him in his prime, and not one thing they say about his life is true. Needless to say, the people behind this atrocity, director Matthew Mallinson and writer Ron Harvey, don’t have any other directing or writing credits on their resumes, but I’d really love to know what they were thinking when they made this. It’s worth noting, however, that Ron Harvey puts in an acting appearance as one of the gang members in the film and is credited in the end titles as “Jasper Milktoast”. You can’t make shit like this up! All that said, I can’t recommend Fist of Fear, Touch of Death highly enough because as shameless as it is, the whole thing is an absolute laugh riot and really needs to be seen to be believed. The film has since lapsed into public domain, so you can find $2 DVD copies of it in bargain bins all over the world or you can watch the whole film on Youtube if you’re inclined. Fist of Fear, Touch of Death is a truly one-of-a-kind piece of celluloid waste, which makes it essential viewing for all “bad movie” buffs and, if such a thing is possible, a highly underrated piece of crap.