Tuesday, March 3, 2009


When Bruce Lee died in 1973, he became a movie genre. Exploitation movies invoked his name like a mantra, while imitators proliferated like they would after Elvis Presley died. The Mill Creek Entertainment Martial Arts box set of 20 movies is an essential reference for the Bruce Lee genre, containing such key films as The Clones of Bruce Lee and Bruce Lee Fights Back From Beyond the Grave. The Yangtze Films production under consideration now doesn't use the trademark name, but may as well have. It could well have been titled The Book of Bruce Lee (or The Bruce Lee Code) or Fingers of Bruce Lee or something similarly tacky.

It opens with a news clip of an authentic Bruce Lee press conference, but the great man talks with a dubbed voice. He invites the press to watch his prize student, Ricky Chan (Dragon Lee), demonstrate his new finger technique. After the opening credits and the rather brazen disclaimer announcing that "No identification with actual persons...is intended or should be inferred," we see an oddly cropped image of Bruce Lee talking on the telephone, again with a dubbed voice. "You should have seen Ricky doing my ... finger technique," he tells someone. Turns out he's talking to a woman who answers, "I'd like to read it. Bring me your book."

"Okay, but first you must join my class," Bruce insists, but this the woman will not do. The next thing you know, Bruce Lee is dead, and then the next thing you know, you're in a nightclub watching an effeminate director rehearse some Rockette-style showgirls. Mr. Ma runs the place. He tells his minions that "Bruce Lee wrote a book on ... finger technique. It was handed down to him by someone who studied under the Shaolin monks. With his death it's worth a fortune. I want that book!"

Cut to a confrontation in an open field, somewhere in America. On one side is Ron Van Clief, the "Black Dragon," in the role of "Ron." On the other is some Chinese guy. A tense negotiation is under way.

Chinese guy: Tell me, Ron, why the hell do we have to fight this way?
Ron: I've got to show you I'm the best fighter in the whole world.
Ch: But I never challenged that. So why should we fight?
R: To show you how I fight!
Ch: All right.

And so:

Unguarded access to the crotch means victory for Ron. He's congratulated by some Chinese stooges.

Stooge 1: Well done, Ron. You're the greatest.
Ron: You heard him. I am, I am. Ask Bruce Lee's student, here.
Stooge 1: Well, Ron, you're the world's number one guy!
Stooge 2: He's right, you are.

Ron and his acolytes laugh and leave his defeated foe in abject embarrassment. But Ricky Chan appears like an apparition in the iconic yellow tracksuit to promise his friend that he'll master the finger technique, and then "We'll beat them all!"

The scene shifts to a farm where Ling Shao idly bats at a punch clown in the shade of a tree. News of Ricky Chan's return inspires reflections on Ling Shao's old friend. "There's a lot of rumors about Bruce Lee's death," he says, "Even I get confused about it, myself." Soon Mr. Ma's goons come calling. They reject Ling Shao's denials of knowledge about the finger technique and beat him up while the cows watch helplessly. Then they take him to Mr. Ma's nightclub. "I'd like to tell you I'm really sorry about the death of Bruce Lee," Ma says before warning, "Think of all the kung fu experts who'd kill you in order to get their hands on that book." After more denials by Ling Shao, Ma lets him go home.

Yet another party is interested in the book. This is Shumu, a Japanese playboy surrounded by babes in bikinis. He knows that the book will make him rich and powerful, and he's determined to get it by any means.

Ron also wants the book. He offers $10,000 and "a good fight" to the same loser he beat up earlier, but the fight comes early as kung fu invades suburbia. Despite the loser's white girlfriend attempting a chair shot (with a lawn chair, mind you) at Ron's head, Ron prevails again, this time using a garrote as a finisher -- a literal one, I presume.

Ron Van Clief practices strangle fu in KUNG FU FEVER. Photo from terrorfantastico.com

Back and Ling Shao's farm, a motorcyclist rampages across the landscape. And wouldn't you know? It's a girl, and not just any girl but Miss Lu, the lady who tried to get the book from Bruce Lee himself. Everybody wants that book, now. As Ling Shao tells Ricky, "There's been a lot of trouble because of his ... book on finger technique."
"Is that so?" Ricky demands.

Ling Shao isn't being perfectly honest with all the book hunters. He admits to Ricky that he has the book, but has never bothered looking at it because he isn't really into kung fu. But he tells Miss Lu that he doesn't have it. Anyway, he tells her, "If you're a good kung fu expert, you should be quite satisfied." Miss Lu insists, however, that the finger technique is best suited for a woman. And here I thought the book was a kung fu manual.

Miss Lu leaves Ling Shao with a warning: "Following the sad death of Bruce Lee, you should be more careful of who you meet. He isn't here to protect you anymore." As if to prove her a prophet, a bald guy shows up to slap Ling Shao around and tie him up. Mr. Ma's goons show up at the same time and challenge the baldster. Baldy fights Curly Howard style, featuring lots of head butts and occasionally slapping his own head, and it's as if someone were playing "Pop Goes the Weasel" in the background. Baldy wins in a rout, and the comical music that plays as the goons stagger to defeat is our first strong indication that director Kao Ke fully realizes how absurd his subject is.

"Useless bastards!" Ma chides as his men return. The goons explain that "the iron head's" Japanese technique is incredible. To counter this menace, Ma sends for "Mr. Lee of Thailand." So now we have Japs, Thais, and a Black American chasing after Bruce Lee's book. It's some xenophobic Chinese nightmare come true.

Ironhead next encounters Ricky, telling him that he works for Mr. Shumu, on whose behalf he has just kidnapped Ling Shao. Bruce Lee's book is the ransom. In a second confrontation at a highway overpass, Shumu offers to hire Ricky to "help me find that damn book," but Ricky reminds him that "Kung fu technique isn't something you can buy. Anyway, I'd never give it to you scum."

"What's that, insult me?" Shumu protests, "How dare you?" He sics Ironhead and three more flunkies on Ricky. Fighting in an almost parodistic Bruce Lee style (itself not exactly unreminiscent of Curly with all the whoops and other vocalizations), Ricky makes short work of the stooges before fighting Shumu one on one. He leaves the Japanese laying in a stream for his goons to fetch while he frees Ling Shao from a suitcase in the trunk of Shumu's car.

Meanwhile, Miss Lu is ransacking Ling Shao's house, having tied up the maid. Ma's goons show up in time to get another beating. Lu whips the belt off one of them and lashes his poor naked butt while yet another mystery man watches in the distance.

Shumu's gang regroups at his headquarters, now reinforced by Ron.

Shumu: Let's work out ... how we can handle that bastard together.
Ron: I have an excellent plan.

At the nightclub, Miss Lu confronts Ma. "Don't interfere in my affairs,"she warns, "I don't want to see you again when I'm doing my work." Ma scoffs at this feminine defiance, but Lu says, "When there's danger involved there's no difference between men and women."

"You're impossible," Ma concludes as the mustachioed mystery man arrives to watch the long-rehearsed show. As Lu storms out, a prominent new flunky, who must be Mr. Lee of Thailand, notes that "That bitch is a difficult case."

Outside, Lu is accosted by the mystery man, who has removed his moustache to reveal that he's... her father! "I'm worried because I know what you're doing," he tells her, "I don't want anything to happen to you, my precious daughter, my precious loved one!" Does that give any of you a slight case of the creeps? No? Then let's move on.

The pace quickens now as Ricky once more fends off Ma's goons, then finds himself stalked by Ron and Shumu's men. Ron's excellent plan is to "arrange a little accident" for Ricky, and this is just what kung fu movies have always lacked: a car chase. Unfortunately, Ron's car fu is lousy, and his vehicle goes off the road and down an embankment before exploding. Now Shumu and his friends are very sad, but there's no time to mourn. It's five on one versus Ricky, and it looks like the bad guys are getting the upper hand this time until Miss Lu charges onto the scene on her motorcycle. Car fu may be pretty weak, but bike fu is awesome! Lu could give Stuntman Mike some pointers, the way she can plant her front tire in the faces of the bad guys, running Ironhead and Shumu over for extra measure.

But while Miss Lu forms an impromptu alliance with Ricky, Ma's minions have grabbed her dad. Meanwhile, our freshly paired heroes have finally found Bruce Lee's book on finger technique! Proving that when it rains, it pours, Ron comes crashing through a window moments later, no worse for wear from his explosive car wreck apart from a bandage on his head.

Ricky: So you survived.
Ron: Yeah, and now you will die when I get my hands on you, boy.
Ricky: You'll never learn, will you? Why don't you quit while you're still alive?
Ron: I feel fine!

Ron feels less fine after his garrote attempt fails and he feels the wrath of Ricky's "numbchucks." You know what I mean -- that's what we called them in my neighborhood when I was a kid. Ricky finally sends Ron out the way he came, and he reacts as if he'd fallen several stories rather than a few feet. I couldn't tell whether Ron had simply passed out or died. Ron Van Clief's acting is like that.

With the Japanese-American side out, that brings us down to Ricky and Miss Lu vs Ma's gang and Mr. Lee of Thailand. What remains is a proposed hostage exchange: Lu's dad for the book, with only Lu getting what she wants in the transaction. This leads to a chase out to the beach, where Dad demonstrates where his girl got her skills, making the usual short work of Ma's regular flunkies before Ma finally puts up his dukes. Ricky joins the fray, having donned the sacred yellow tracksuit for the occasion, and the three good guys whup the daylights out of Ma. Now we get to see what Mr. Lee of Thailand can do. He's apparently attended Sonny Chiba's academy, since when he lays his fist on Dad's head we get an x-ray image with flashing lights to signal intense pain. Well, if it's going to be like that, then Miss Lu is bringing her bike. Mr. Lee flees into the woods with Lu and Ricky in hot pursuit, but they leave themselves open to ambush from the trees. Mr. Lee puts Miss Lu out of the fight with what looks like a broken leg, leaving things mano a mano for the finale, and for this occasion Ricky whips his top off to fight bare chested. Suffice it to say that Ricky has also attended the Chiba school as well as Bruce Lee's. We have the x-rays to prove it.

I think it's a happy ending, even though Miss Lu's dad may be dead. The movie is vague about details like that. Anyway, it sounds like a happy ending.

Ricky: Are you all right? We've won.
Miss Lu: I love you.

Mill Creek's edition of Kung Fu Fever is about five minutes short of the advertised 80 minute running time. The mind reels at the thought of what may have been deleted. On the other hand, the movie is letterboxed, and from all appearances fairly accurately. However, the appearance of "tracking" issues betrays the sad truth that this was taken off a tape, and either the tape or the print was pretty beat up in the first place. Then again, part of me thinks a movie like this one should look this way. If anything, it would have looked worse back in the day when I might have seen it on a Saturday afternoon on "Kung Fu Theater," and looking like it was pulled from a cardboard box buried in your backyard makes the viewing experience a little more poignant for me.

As I noted briefly, this is one time, at least, when the director is in on the joke that his movie becomes, but the often robotic dubbing, not to mention Ron Van Clief's own line readings, only heightens the humor factor of Kung Fu Fever. The movie comes late enough (if it was actually made in 1979 rather than released in America then) that it may be an intentional parody of the Bruce Lee genre, but the bastardized product that is the American version is both intentionally and unintentionally funny. That's double your value, and at $6.99 for a 20 movie set at the local Best Buy, Kung Fu Fever only costs about 35 cents. It's worth every penny.


Rev. Fred Phantom said...

Wow...this sounds interesting to say the least. I'm already a fan of Mill Creek Entertainment, so I'm sure I'll see this at some point.

Samuel Wilson said...

This particular set has five "Bruce Lee" movies, not counting Kung Fu Fever, as well as the incomparable Crippled Masters. They all look like the sort of junk fu fun that they don't make anymore.