Monday, January 02, 2023

Film Rolls, Round 6: Pitfall and Bruce's Box Set

Definitely a weird round, between something I had apparently already seen sneaking into the "unseen" shelf (it happens) and the sort of unbalancing coincidence that would raise questions about the legitimacy of the competition if this were an actual competition
Mookie's 8 almost catches him up to Bruce and lands him on Pitfall. The funny thing about catching up with writing about this one months later is that it kind of reminds me of taking it off this shelf without recalling that I'd seen it, so when I open up the IMDB page, I'm like, oh, yeah, that's right!
Then there's a bit of a gap, because IFFBoston happened. When I return, Bruce gets a 12, and as a result lands on his own box set! Now, I'm not necessarily above rigging the game, but I did not actually do that here! Anyway, I decided that I wouldn't include Enter the Dragon, since I'd seen it in 2021 (first movie at the reopened Coolidge!) and because this big old box set was already going to make it a little less competitive.

So, strap in!


* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Pitfall is the sort of film noir that fits a lot of moving parts but which is actually simple enough to fit them into something under ninety minutes. It fits in the "murder drama" category that Eddie Muller described at Noir City Boston the last time he was here in '18, with Lizabeth Scott as a relatively sympathetic femme fatale, Dick Powell as the earnest insurance adjustor who falls for her despite already being married to Jane Wyatt, plus Raymond Burr as a detective with eyes on her and… Well, it goes on.

Coming out in 1948, the postwar suburbs had barely come into existence at this point, but already movies were being built around the sort of frustration of them, with folks who had been in the war doing something exciting and dangerous not quite coming to grips with these domestic entanglements no matter how chipper they are much of the time. The irony, of course, is that how nice and professional John Forbes (Powell) is might be what draws Mona Stevens (Scott) to him, even if she's not the good girl his wife is. There's something interesting about characters like Mona, written and directed by men but played by women who are keenly aware that they too are trading on their sex appeal and have to make hay while the sun shines. She's not really out to ruin a man, but knows these guys will be okay if they discard her, and is fierce as a result.

Perhaps unusually for a film noir, the missing money never feels like the primary motivator; it's almost all messy attraction with the money just one more thing that makes things complicated, which maybe makes it feel a little less tragic but also unpredictable.

Tang shan da xiong (The Big Boss)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 May 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

I did not realize Golden Harvest was around early enough to be the company behind the early Bruce Lee vehicles, which meant it overlapped with the Shaw Brothers heyday a lot more than I realized - and while they hadn't really made the leap forward that they would when the Peking Opera School guys really got involved when The Big Boss came out, they were still ahead of the game having Bruce Lee Siu-Lung around.

And Bruce is definitely the thing that pops out at you in this movie. He's maybe not a great actor in the way you think of that these days, but he's got an easygoing charisma that seems effortless; his humble outsider goofing around seems a proper goofball until he just casually does something absurdly athletic, and eventually the shirt comes off and the fighting starts. Even fifty years later, when it feels like absolutely every actor is ripped and you've got action choreographers trying to top the guys trying to top Bruce Lee, he feels like a shock to the system, raw physical power unleashed in a way that feels much less carefully choreographed than the dancers that came before him.

It'll also pop your eyes for how bloodily violent this all is; the ice factory with its giant saws and sociopathic ownership leads to some gruesome ends. It's a stark contrast to the more elegant or fanciful martial arts pictures, especially when it's just brutalizing the characters who have mostly been there for broad comic relief.

Jing wu men (Fist of Fury)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 May 2022 (or so) in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Fist of Fury is maybe not the prototype for the films where Chinese martial arts are spat upon by murderous foreigners only for a legendary folk hero to rise up and defend its honor - I'm sure there were plenty before it - but it may be where this all begins to form a pattern. The formality of pre-Bruce action lets the occupying Japanese army be properly nasty rather than trading in comedic betrayal. It's a nasty, angry little movie, although not in the way similar movies are now (Hong Kong wasn't quite the crossroads it would become in the 1980s, but it was getting there).

Still, one is coming for the action here, and there is all sorts of "Bruce Lee versus a whole room full of guys doing karate", eventually working his way up to the rival senseis, and where many of the other films in the set sort of emphasize Lee as being cool but having ridiculous power underneath, this one is all him as the wiry powerhouse ready to strike.

Meng long guo jiang (The Way of the Dragon)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 May 2022 (or so) in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

The only movie Bruce Lee made as writer/director/star, and knowing that one probably can't help but look to see how much more of Bruce there is in it than everything else. It's definitely one that allows him to show off both as a martial artist and as a charismatic movie star. He takes to the more comedic parts of the film easily and strives to appeal to an international audience even as he is also making a movie that would, at least initially, mostly get played in Hong Kong.

Indeed, there's a lot of comedy in this, some of it kind of clumsy slapstick that kind of wears out its welcome toward the beginning, or Bruce's Tang Lung keeping his kung fu skills on the down-low so that his co-workers at the restaurant he's been sent to help don't realize what they've got in him (and then gleefully try to exploit him when they do). It's kind of delightfully garish with its late 60s/early 70s colors and overt sexuality, the villains especially being entertainingly mean folks. It makes one wonder, a bit, if Bruce Lee would have evolved to do projects more along the lines of what Jackie Chan would later do had he lived, and how Jackie would have differentiated himself from Lee in that case.

Still, for all that you can say about what Lee is doing in this movie when he's not fighting, or how that action integrates into the story, it does save the best for last with an epic, iconic showdown between Tang Lung and Chuck Norris's Colt, and that's a blast. Norris would become an odd sort of movie star later - what charisma he has doesn't exactly enhance or complement his fighting skills - and it makes for a weird contrast with Lee, because he can't quite make that stoic self-assurance a contrast to the live wire that Lee is. Still, they've both got moves and Lee's choreography is meticulous, and with the Colosseum providing an epic backdrop, their final clash is an instant classic, worth catching the movie for on its own.

Game of Death

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 May 2022 (or so) in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

A tremendous mess - how could it not be, made up as it is out of whatever footage remained from Bruce Lee's original shoot and whatever Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse could manage to make work after Lee's death - but there's no denying that it sort of fascinates as a trainwreck. Yes, every attempt to try to pass off Yuen Biao or a couple other folks as Lee's character is goofy as heck, but it falls into this potentially-entertaining area where one is both sort of slack-jawed and appalled at how ill-conceived it all is on the one hand and kind of rooting for it to work on the other. There's desperation in the optical tricks they try and tackiness in the use of actual footage of Lee's own funeral for when his character is faking his death, but, damn it, they're doing their best.

And for all that one may be tempted to say that this is a cursed project and any of the footage seeing the light of day is disrespectful… Well, do you really want a world where folks don't see Bruce Lee in that iconic yellow tracksuit, or where the fights where there is good footage don't get out? That the real Bruce Lee is only sparsely seen throughout makes the finale when he steps out of the shadows, starts working his way up the pagoda, and gives folks a good look at what they've been missing more powerful. Indeed, everything that doesn't have to work around Lee's absence (and that of the folks who felt returning would be disrespectful) is kind of a blast, from the James Bond-style opening credits to Lee taking on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

(And, on top of getting Yuen Biao in there, there's also early work from Sammo Hung and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai!)

It is, on balance, not a particularly good movie, despite the electrifying moments that give it a reason to exists, and at a certain point one starts to wonder to what extent Clouse was trying to deliver a quality film and to what extent he was embracing the fact that this project was destined to be a curiosity and treated it as such. This movie can't be winking at the camera or otherwise urging the audience to laugh at something whose star died before finishing it - that would have been unambiguously disrespectful to someone so important and well-loved - but the filmmaker and the audience kind of have to agree on the space in which this thing exists. So he does what he can to hold it all together and make sure that the paying customers got something feature-length and not boring for their money, but he knows he can't upstage Lee and wants to let the audience feel his absence, mourning the loss in the place where it will be most keenly felt. I wonder how that factored into decisions - was it conscious, or just inevitable?

It seems kind of unfair that Mookie got the best movie but Bruce got four, and as a result, gets to jump to a pretty big lead:

Mookie: 23 ¼ stars

Bruce: 33 ½ stars

On the other hand, this isn't the last box set these guys will encounter, and a 20-roll could offer Mookie more chances to catch up.

There'd be some travel away from the game board before I got back to it, but still plenty of fun to be had!

No comments: