New Fist of Fury [新精武門] (1976)
AKA Fists to Fight
Starring Jackie Chan, Nora Miao, Chan Sing, Henry Luk Yat-Lung, Yi Ming, Suen Lam, Lau Ming, Cheng Siu-Siu, Hon Siu, Han Ying Chieh, Chiang Kam, Liu Ping
Directed by Lo Wei
New Fist of Fury opens with Lo Wei helping Nora Miao and the remnants of the Ching Wu school to flee Japanese-occupied Shanghai, by way of a boat to the also Japanese-occupied Taiwan. That might seem like it’s not the best place to find refuge, but Nora Miao specifically wants to go there to show the Japanese what for. There they meet a delinquent thief (Jackie Chan) who mistakenly steals Bruce’s nunchaku, thus getting himself wrapped up in the middle of a Chinese vs. Japanese martial arts struggle.
During my super passionate Jackie Chan years, I always did my best to avoid his early films. I got burned a couple of times and there’s nothing worse for a budding, teenage JC fan than wanting to kick back and watch Jackie kick ass only to kick back and watch Jackie in a two-minute cameo. So I mostly stuck to what I knew was great and left it at that. I do remember seeing New Fist of Fury before, but that’s about all I remember about it. Clearly it didn’t scratch that undying Jackie itch back then. But now I am a different person, and I realize much better what to expect out of different directors and martial arts periods, so I’m able to appreciate these early films for what they are instead of what they aren’t. New Fist of Fury is never going to be Armour of God, so there’s no reason to be disappointed when it’s not.
Since I’m pretty locked into a 1971 mindset for my Shaw Bros. series, I kept thinking of this in terms of those films while watching. The film does share a similar, somewhat reserved feel and I had to keep reminding myself that this was made in 1976. Just to give some context, 1976 was also the year that Challenge of the Masters and Master of the Flying Guillotine were released, so kung fu wasn’t some far off ideal, it had fully arrived. In terms of those movies, New Fist of Fury is a supreme disappointment, and it’s easy to see why this didn’t do so well in its day.
New Fist of Fury does have a few things working against it. First, it’s overlong. In trying to be meaningful and serious like Fist of Fury, New Fist of Fury is easily 30 minutes too long, if not 45. For quite a while I was fine with its slow pace, but as the ending grew closer and we started taking side-jaunts into lengthy dialogue scenes of villains discussing meaningless plans, it was very hard to stay awake. Second, the film has no real star. Jackie gets top billing, but his character is not always the center of the action. There are more fights without him than with him, and that’s a shame… especially when his fights are the best part of the movie!
But while Chan’s character might not always be the center of attention, he does have a good arc. Chan begins the film as a thief, a punk kid with no direction in life. He doesn’t know martial arts because it takes hard work and time, and he’s not the kind to put effort into anything. The early fights are somewhat comedic because of this, reminiscent in ways of Chan’s later work as he fights while acting like he can’t. This reaches its zenith when Chan attempts to use Bruce Lee’s nunchaku and ends up comically flailing them around, brandishing them as a blunt object with no finesse or control. But soon he realizes that the occupying Japanese are a threat to his way of life and he finds his cause and purpose. He transitions from a bumbling kid to a fully fledged martial arts hero in the mold of Bruce Lee, inspiring a crowd by pulling out his own tooth and writing rebellious characters on his chest in blood. Chan is not known for these types of roles, but he handles the dramatic transition well.
New Fist of Fury is arguably better than The Cub Tiger of Kwangtung, but it’s also just as mediocre for different reasons. Where the fights of Cub Tiger featured glimmers of Chan’s athleticism and his ability to fight with surroundings, New Fist of Fury only has a couple of quick moments like this. Lo Wei was too much of a traditionalist to do any different, and in trying to paint Jackie as the new Bruce Lee, he quickly put the kibosh on any of Jackie’s trademark inventiveness. But what remains is still a great display of Jackie developing skills, although it can be a little tiring waiting around for the final 30 minutes where most of that is held. The training sequence features Chan doing all kinds of great practice routines on the beach, flipping and tumbling around like only he can do. He also has a couple of fantastic sequences wielding a three-section staff, and if you don’t get excited about three-section staff scenes, then I don’t know what to tell you. Three-section staff is awesome.
But that all being said, I did very much enjoy watching New Fist of Fury. I’ve become a Lo Wei fan over the course of my Shaw series, so I’m coming to these films he did with Jackie Chan with a newfound understanding of his work. After seeing New Fist of Fury, I think I can finally understand why Lo Wei isn’t a well-regarded director among many Western martial arts fans. His films aren’t action focused, they’re always story-driven and more interested in portraying the emotions and positioning leading to the action than the actual action. Many of his previous films I’ve covered have featured lots of action, and many even had great action, but Lo Wei always kept the focus on his strict sense of story and progression. So while strict kung fu fans frequently call Lo Wei films boring (and in some cases that’s not entirely wrong), it really comes down to the expectations you enter the film with. If you expect a Lo Wei film to be a mid-70s kung fu extravaganza you’ll never be satisfied, as his films are always closer to the martial tales of the early 1960s or ’70s.
Lo Wei’s first directing gig was way back in 1953 — well before Chinese action cinema was a thing — when the films were produced solely for a Chinese audience and had a distinct focus on melodrama and song. And even in 1968, when Lo Wei made his first color martial arts film for Shaw Brothers (The Black Butterfly), martial arts films themselves were still very reminiscent of that earlier style. Lo Wei fit right in and created some of the more memorable and well-written wuxia from that period, but as times changed Lo Wei did not. He apparently had quite the ego, and felt his past successes proved that he knew exactly what the public wanted when it came to martial arts films. His work with Jackie Chan during the late ’70s would ultimately prove his final work as a director, as I think the eventual success of Jackie under the tutelage of a different director made him realize his time as a relevant filmmaker was at an end.
So is New Fist of Fury a good Jackie Chan movie? No, not really. Is it a good Lo Wei movie? No, it’s far from his best and it definitely seems somewhat phoned-in, padded and derivative. But is it a bad movie? Ehh… no, it’s not really that either; it’s more middle of the road than anything else. But for all its pacing problems and its inability to focus on Jackie, New Fist of Fury is also really well-shot and edited, and the fight scenes are pretty fun. The finale between Jackie and Chan Sing is especially good, but the rest of the film is probably too slow for some fans to even get that far. I did quite enjoy my time with the film, though, and I’d definitely recommend it to the JC hardcore. Fair-weather fans will once again want to continue holding out for a later film.
Next up in this chronological journey through the films of Jackie Chan: 1976′s The Hand of Death! This isn’t a starring movie for Jackie, so I was initially hesitant to do it for the series, but it’s an early John Woo film and it’s the first movie that Jackie, Sammo and Yuen Biao all appear in together. So I thought all that together was momentous enough to go ahead and do it even if Jackie’s only in it a bit!