Ice Breaker

Not until halfway through The Big Boss does Bruce Lee throw a punch. Impressive, because in the first 15 minutes, some local thugs harass a woman, beat up a kid, and then retreat to an illegal gambling den. Lee resists fighting.

At the time of filming, Thailand remained involved in the Vietnam war, nearing its close. Like Lee’s Cheng Chao-An, the country resisted entry into conflict (until the US joined). The Big Boss’ characters wait for help too, except it never comes. Employees at an ice factory go missing when they discover heroin being shipped in frozen blocks, yet the police don’t investigate. American troops returned from Vietnam addicted to heroin, cause enough for Richard Nixon to begin the “war on drugs.” Big Boss is acutely aware.

Lee began Big Boss almost fearful of celebrating the kicks soon to make him famous

When Lee finally strikes, it’s brutal and bloody. Campy too, at times, when a goon is punched through a wooden wall like a cartoon cutout. Mostly though, the violent outbreak leads to stabbings, slashed bodies, and unflinching brutality; the kid doesn’t make it out of The Big Boss alive.

Big Boss represents a working class. Factory owners resent their superiors, even turning on Lee after a promotion. They too hold off, resorting to violence only after delays in receiving information about their missing co-workers. The story poses a moral question – does a delay in action make the situation worse, or does exhausting other options first make one the better person? Vietnam’s civil war posed the same circumstance.

Lee’s movie career, at least those after his brief stint on American TV, inherently dwelled on violence. Yet, Lee began Big Boss almost fearful of celebrating the kicks soon to make him famous; it’s like watching Jaws, the shark replaced by Jeet Kune Do. Outlandish as Big Boss often is, proudly under the Golden Harvest banner, the firm trepidation makes this Lee’s outlier. In its two parts, pre and post-violence, Big Boss wrestles with martial arts philosophies, reaching a state where revenge becomes the only out.

In its final frames, Lee is led away in handcuffs, police surrounding him. Everyone he knows is dead, from his friends to the rich, mansion-dwelling antagonist. How few martial arts films ever confront their consequences, certainly not one steeped in Vietnam fears, and holding resentment against the wealthy who benefit from abusing their status. Big Boss is a moralistic quagmire, turned into a colorful, bloody spectacle that typecast Lee’s action output going forward.

Video

Criterion brings a new 4K scan to Blu-ray, and the immediate result is an image that’s incredibly dynamic. Spectacular black levels keep detail visible, and the same goes for extreme contrast, yet not overreaching enough to blot out skylines. There’s definition in clouds even as sun pushes through.

Vivid color doesn’t spare anything, arguably too saturated, if a joy to see. No color bleed is noticed, bringing vibrancy to flesh tones, forested environments, and hefty red blood. Nuance deserves credit, presenting an array of primaries, all embellished, yet not to such an extreme as to lose their natural qualities.

Critical encoding performs the necessary duties, with Big Boss posing a challenge during a night raid coated in red lights. No compression appears, and grain holds to an organic quality. A few shots lose this battle (especially during the climactic fight) but make up only seconds of the runtime. If the source prints at fault, then those lesser moments unavoidably mar an otherwise pristine effort.

Audio

Choices! The default is Mandarin, original and untouched. Alternately, the same dialog, but with Peter Thomas’ memorable score. From there, Cantonese and an English dub, all uncompressed.

No matter the choice, there’s a grindhouse grit the audio selections. Dialog sounds worn and thin. Scoring exists in limited range, unable to escape the post-production period (everything was dubbed, even Mandarin).

Extras

Two commentaries from notable, relevant authors – Brandon Bentley and Mike Leeder. Both go solo. Bentley also contributes to a short feature on Peter Thomas’ score later on the disc. Lee’s biographer discusses Big Boss for 10-minutes, including how Lee was led to this project. The Early Years sticks around for 13-minutes with author Gene Lebell, focusing on Lee’s first features. Some alternate footage, a marginally changed ending too, bring this one home.

The Big Boss
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras
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Movie

Bruce Lee’s first action feature The Big Boss stands as a turning point where the star resists violence after a move to Thailand.

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