Wednesday, June 12, 2024

The Big Boss Part II (1976) review


Lo Lieh: (Chiao Chun), Wang Ping (Wu Pei Lan), Preeya Rongernaug (Isabelle), Krung Srivilai (Chun Tsai), Chan Chue (Wu Bun), Chen Hui Min (Chan), Lee Kwan (Black Magic Wizard), Bruce Le (Cheng Chiao An)

Directed by Chan Chue (Chan Chor)

The Short Version: One of the most highly publicized of the Bruce Lee clone movies ended up being the hardest to see. THE BIG BOSS II isn't really a Bruce clone picture since imitator Bruce Le is only in the movie for five minutes; it's Lo Lieh's show. Director Chan was both an actor and the assistant director on the original THE BIG BOSS (1971) and shows zero flair helming this sequel and also playing its main villain. One of the most obscure martial arts films, it's mostly poor in all departments except in the fight scenes. The film loses focus due to clumsy writing and a half-baked romance the director spends way too much time on. As for its entertainment value, there's a masochistic female gang boss, a laughable fight with an alligator in a tank, the worst boat chase you've ever seen, a sequence with a black magic wizard, and a cameo fight scene between Lo Lieh and real life fighter/gangster Chen Hui Min. When it finally hit HK theaters in 1978, the sequel to Bruce Lee's Kung Fu blockbuster was less a BOSS at the box office than it was a BIG BOMB. Regardless of how awful it is, fans of HK cinema will be eager to see this due to the film's scarcity alone; reportedly from the only surviving 35mm print.

A sailor named Cheng Chiao Chun travels to Thailand to visit his brother Cheng Chiao An, who has been imprisoned there for years. He informs him he's there to learn the identity of the man that killed his father, the uncle of the jailed Cheng Chiao An. Meanwhile, a lady gangster seethes for revenge after her partner in crime, an elder boss named Wu Bun, decides to keep seven tons in stolen gold for himself. Chiao Chun ends up getting a job with the dragon lady and discovers she is looking for the same man he is.

The Bruce Lee impersonator phenomenon began while the man was still alive. It started in 1972 in Taiwan when martial arts instructor and actor Lo Chen, aka Tong Lung, Alexaner Lo Rei's older brother, imitated Lee in a few Taiwanese-made Kung Fu pictures. Then in Hong Kong, martial artists like actress Chia Ling (of QUEEN BOXER fame) and actor Chen Kuan Tai (star of the super-hit BOXER FROM SHANTUNG) were being promoted as rivals to Bruce Lee. Then Lee died and the movement evolved into an outrageous, and oftentimes incredibly trashy, off-shoot of the martial arts genre. 
THE BIG BOSS PART II (not to be confused with the 1981 movie starring Dragon Lee also bearing the title BIG BOSS 2) is one of a minority in this sub-genre that doesn't rely on a Bruce Lee gimmick to tell its story. It's a surprisingly respectful sequel, even if it's not a very good movie.
Every time the subject of Bruce Lee and HK cinema comes up, it's always said that when the man died, producers scrambled to find his replacement. There was never a shortage of martial arts film stars. The reality is--and as stated above--Chinese producers were already looking for the next real martial artist who could match Lee's money-magnet star power. And when he died, they continued looking for a new human goldmine to line their pockets and then some. There were dozens of struggling indy companies desperate to be the new Golden Harvest success story.

To put this into perspective, THE BIG BOSS (1971) broke box-office records in HK with HK$3,197,416 in ticket sales when it hit theaters there in October of 1971. This is why Swordplay pictures were disappearing and empty-hand, fist and kick style Kung Fu movies were taking their place; and why imitations of Lee began turning up in Taiwan almost immediately. It wasn't just the on-screen actors mimicking Lee, but the Chinese film titles gave the impression of some relation to Lee's pictures. 

Then FIST OF FURY (1972) hit in March of 1972 and punched its way to HK$4,431,424 at the box office. This was a staggering feat; it meant hundreds more movies just like it were going into production virtually moments after the sales figures came in. Then came the most powerful blow to the genre in December of 1972. THE WAY OF THE DRAGON, written, co-produced, directed by and starring Bruce Lee (who also handled the MA action) hit theaters and hit them hard. Customers coughed up an incredible HK$5,307,350 in hard-earned money; and apparently they got their money's worth. 

With GAME OF DEATH on hold and ENTER THE DRAGON soon to hit theaters, it seemed Bruce Lee was set to own the Kung Fu genre indefinitely. Then on July 20th, 1973, the man who took martial arts cinema to new heights died suddenly in the apartment of his mistress, Betty Ting Pei. You can imagine the devastation felt by the HK people who viewed him as a god among men. The women wanted to be WITH him and the men wanted to be LIKE him. 

So with Lee dead, producers across the island wanted to find a new star with real martial arts abilities to make that level of coin or surpass it. The latter would happen but wouldn't happen till five years later and from an actor the polar opposite to Lee. Till then, the Lee-alike phenomenon was slow coming till 1976 when the shockingly tasteless, hilariously offensive sub-genre hit its stride. Moreover, it wasn't just about copying Bruce that sold these movies, it was about selling sex, too (if you want to read our thorough examination of the Bruce clone sub-genre, you can find our two-part series beginning HERE).
By 1974, sex in HK cinema had become more permissive than in previous years. Erotica like LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972) and pornography like DEEP THROAT (1972) were banned in Hong Kong but did play there in underground theaters. Audiences were curious about the high quotient of sexual content in foreign pictures and it was used to lure people away from television; which was giving big screen motion pictures major competition. Sexual content was a natural fit for Bruce Lee imposter films either exploiting the life of Lee or his image.

There's a fairly torrid sex scene between Lo Lieh and Thai actress Preeya Rongernaug. Having her grinding naked on top of Lo is allowed but not with her bare breasts in view. So there's several moments where you can see jumps in the scene preventing her bosom from view. There's an earlier gratuitous scene with naked women where Lo is being chased by bad guys through a building where gambling and prostitution takes place and you see several naked women inexplicably exiting their rooms and running down the hallway.

When the production of THE BIG BOSS PART II was announced in the Fall of 1976, the image of Bruce Lee was part of its publicity. When the Bruce clone pictures went into overdrive that year, 1976 being the Year of the Dragon, footage of Lee--particularly of his funeral--was often used in some way. Aside from the brief sequence with Bruce Le at the beginning, THE BIG BOSS PART II is a legitimate continuation of the 1971 original. The star of this show wasn't a clone, but Lo Lieh. He had become a recognizable face internationally due to the global success of KING BOXER (1972), famously released in various territories as FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH in 1973. 

By this point in his career, Lo Lieh had already founded his own production company in 1972, would remarry in 1976, and was closing in on millionaire status that same year. He was among the most successful, and busiest, Hong Kong actors.

THE BIG BOSS PART II is often mentioned as being Bruceploitation. It barely passes as one, attaining the classification due to the inclusion of roughly five minutes of footage of Bruce Le badly overacting in jail as the character Bruce Lee played in the original THE BIG BOSS from 1971. However, there's no mention of Bruce Le, alias Huang Kin Lung, in any of the articles promoting the production back in 1976; this includes the plot synopsis that proclaims Lee's character has been murdered in jail and Lo Lieh has come to Thailand to avenge his death. 
Le's brief screentime certainly feels tacked on and makes little sense after the ridiculous revelation Lo Lieh gives at the end of the movie. Lo Lieh and Bruce Le were filming BRUCE'S FINGERS in 1976 and likely shot his BIG BOSS 2 scene at the same time, adding it to the film at a later date. Le would take the leading role in the former title, and embark on a Lee spree right after, starring in an endless barrage of Lee-alike movies. Le's interpretations were far more sloppy than the ones Bruce Li, alias Ho Chung Tao, was making; and saying that isn't high praise in many cases. 
In comparison, Li's movies--in some instances--were somewhat classy pictures that at least made sense. He started the Bruce bio-pics with SUPER DRAGON in 1974, then on to GOLDEN SUN and NEW GAME OF DEATH, both in 1975. Le's movies, on the other hand, often had the barest of scripts with scenes taken from one film (that may or may not have even been completed) and inserted into another. The plots (such as they were) would change at will, giving the impression there were gaps or production problems during filming resulting in compromises being made. THE BIG BOSS PART II suffers from this as well.
Production began in August of 1976 through the independent outfit, Hong Kong Skylight Film Company founded by businessman Zhou Yi Feng (Chau Yee Feng). Mr. Chau (pronounced like Chow) was a successful entrepreneur in the aviation and shipping industries and invested heavily into making movies. His first was an epic production titled CHINA ARMED ESCORT (1976); based on a popular television series. His second production was a war film titled ESCAPE FROM VIETNAM (1977). On this obscure picture, Chow used a dozen or more of his own ships from his shipping company in the movie. THE BIG BOSS PART II (1976) was his third production. A smaller scale picture, it was reported he spent well over HK$1 million to fund it. Seeing it now, one wonders where the money went.

Apparently tiring of the riskier nature of the film business, Chau Yee Feng closed HK Skylite Films after producing three motion pictures. To elaborate further on THE BIG BOSS PART II, there were things about it that made it a potentially attractive presentation to audiences even though HK patrons largely hated the Bruce clone movies... the ones that played in HK, that is.

Director Chan Chue was the assistant director on THE BIG BOSS (1971), so that added to the film's ballyhoo, even though it didn't help in the end. Chan also had a small role in the first movie, and takes the role of the leading antagonist, Wu Bun, in the sequel. His makeup and his costume recall Han Ying Chieh's lead villain in the original film. Regardless, Chan Chue is no Han Ying Chieh. He's no Lo Wei for that matter; and Lo Wei was little more than a formula director at best. 

In his defense, Chan tries to make something more than a standard action picture in Gao Ge's disorganized script. Gao's work was mostly in dramas and he brings that to his writing here--which director Chan lifelessly recreates on-screen. The boring romance between Lo Lieh and Wang Ping begins around 30 minutes in and dominates the middle section. If these scenes had been directed with some skill they'd have been interesting. Dramatic indulgence to Chan Chue is Lo and Wang awkwardly sitting on the beach together; or running in slow motion across a bridge while ill-fitted jazz plays on the soundtrack.
Wang Ping was chosen because she was reportedly popular in Thailand. She'd been a Shaw Brothers actress earlier in the decade, broke her contract in 1972, then went back to the company in 1975. She adds nothing to the proceedings; mainly because the script has nothing for her to do other than cry at regular intervals. Probably the biggest insult to her participation is the first of two last-minute reveals that makes critical plot details of the previous 80 minutes entirely pointless.
Much to the benefit of bad movie fans, the film picks up steam again in the last half; but even there, the non-martial arts action is lazily shot to the point it becomes comedic. Ho Meng Hua's BLACK MAGIC (1975) had been a big success in virtually every Asian territory; so the filmmakers find room to include a sorcery scene with lots of snakes in a graveyard that makes no sense other than an excuse to juice the flat-lining narrative.

Afterward, there's a ridiculous boat chase where Lo Lieh and Wang Ping are chased by the Dragon Lady and her men with the James Bond theme playing in the background; that is till Wu Bun's men show up. Then you have around ten or so people on these mini jet skis with motorcycle handlebars on them roughly five feet apart, firing M16s at close range and it takes forever for anybody to get hit. Meanwhile, Lo and Wang apparently have gills since they've been swimming underwater for some five minutes.
Immediately following all that excitement, an alligator shows up and, two people who clearly aren't either Lo Lieh or Wang Ping--who are still underwater, by the way--encounter the scaly reptile in a water tank subbing for the river. An obvious stuntman has a brief 10-second tussle with the gator whose jaws are clamped shut.  

Towards the end, suave gang leader and real life Tough Bastard Chen Hui Min, aka Michael Chan Wai Man (you can read our two-part article on him HERE), shows up to have a fight with Lo Lieh. It's an unfortunately brief battle; and possibly he was already in Thailand on a project having recently wrapped filming on FEMALE FUGITIVE (1975). Chen was all over the place in 1976 including the Philippines and back to Thailand a couple years later with Lo Lieh on SHAOLIN HANDLOCK (1978). He was an in-demand actor and was probably on a break and ran over to the BIG BOSS 2 set, did his fight scene, got a free meal and ran back to whatever film he was shooting nearby. It’s also possible this sequence was shot back in Hong Kong.

Actors doing a movie as a favor was commonplace in those days. That same year in 1976 it was highly publicized that Chen Hui Min was collaborating with famous erotic filmmaker Li Han Hsiang on his first action picture, a movie slated to be filmed largely in Europe, titled 'Gambling For Heads'. Due to mob threats (Chen was a big boss himself in the 14K Triad), the film was canceled and everyone returned to Hong Kong. Since Chen had already been paid for his role, he would owe the Shaw Brothers a favor, so he took the part of the main villain in JUDGEMENT OF AN ASSASSIN (1977); one of the actor's most memorable roles.
Despite the loose-fitting script (exactly why do the villains have to go to such moronic lengths to get Lo Lieh to prove his loyalty?), the exotic Thai locations, and especially the action choreography, are the film's strong suits. Yuen Cheung Yan's Karate-like choreography is lively to watch. When the action moves to the familiar ice factory setting of the original for the finale, there's a fairly gruesome demise for director Chan Chue; and a brief, and very dangerous moment for Lo Lieh involving a block of ice and the giant buzz saw cutting through it.

When the movie finally played in Hong Kong theaters in 1978, audiences were as interested in seeing it as they were in anything featuring Betty Ting Pei. In six days, it only managed a paltry HK$82,661 before being pulled from release.

THE BIG BOSS PART II (1976) is easily one of the worst movies you're likely to see. Because of that, fans of celluloid crap will find solace in 90 minutes of ineptitude. For lovers of Bruce Lee imposter flicks, it's the holy grail of that much-maligned sub-genre; and it barely registers as a Bruceploitation picture. Incredibly rare and almost impossible to see--and for good reason--its rarity is the only recommendation to sit through it. Had the film embraced its exploitation content more and abandoned the serious drama of the film's midsection, we'd have bad movie nirvana; but as it is, it's just a bad movie.

This review is representative of the Severin Films bluray bonus disc in their THE GAME OF CLONES: BRUCEPLOITATION COLLECTION VOLUME 1 box set (15-film webstore exclusive); paired with THE BLACK DRAGON VS THE YELLOW TIGER (1974). Specs and extras: 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen; mandarin language w/burned-in English and Chinese subtitles; Severin's Kung Fu Theater intro with Michael Worth; trailer; running time: 01:31:08

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