Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: once again, filmmakers have failed to do a decent job of giving Bruce Lee a biopic with Birth of the Dragon. We could grouse about this, or we could simply glance backwards to one of the films responsible for making Lee's legend in the first place.

The Big Boss is my favorite kind of movie, one where I get to start off the review by talking about a confusion regarding titles. It's not that tricky, though it matters to clearly indicate which of two films we're talking about. See, in 1973, the last year of its existence, distributor National General Pictures was all set to bring the first two films starring Bruce Lee in the lead role to the United States, presumably in anticipation of that summer's release of Enter the Dragon. The earlier of these was The Big Boss, from 1971, in which Lee's character faces off against a drug kingpin; in an attempt to steal some thunder from the recent Oscar-winning hit The French Connection, the film's U.S. title was to be The Chinese Connection. The second film, 1972's Fist of Fury, was to be released as Fists of Fury - note the additional "s". I have no idea why.

During the release, however, the titles were accidentally swapped - The Big Boss became Fists of Fury, Fist of Fury became The Chinese Connection. And ever since, it's been possible to find both movies under three different titles, though current convention is to refer to them both by the direct translation from the original Mandarin titles. Still, depending when in history you first encountered The Big Boss, it might have been as Fists of Fury. That's all there is to it, and we can move on. It'll be a hell of a lot more complicated if I ever get around to reviewing the other one.

Anyway, we have here the first movie starring Lee, who had already established himself a bit in the U.S. by this point: he was prominently featured in the one-season TV series The Green Hornet in 1966 and '67, and had a small role in the 1969 film Marlowe. He'd never headlined a project before, though. And he wasn't even the first choice for his role in The Big Boss. Beyond that, according to at least one rumor, the film was substantially re-written during production to foreground Lee's character, when the filmmakers realised what a rare treasure they'd lucked into.

Certainly, it's very conspicuous that the first half of The Big Boss doesn't focus on Lee the way the second half does, and by no stretch of the imagination is this to its benefit. The story is entirely devoid of any creative touches, though I suppose this wouldn't have seemed as deliriously hackneyed in '71 as it would have even just three or four years later. Cheng Chao-an (Lee) moves from the city to the country, in the specific hope that he'll be better able to maintain his oath of non-violence there. He gets a job working with his cousins at an ice factory owned by Hsiao Mi (Han Ying-chieh), and in hardly any time has discovered by accident that the ice is just a front for smuggling snow. Or actually probably heroin, but then I couldn't make the pun. Chao-an's cousin Hsiu Chien (James Tien) is actually the one who takes the initiative in trying to figure out what's going on, while Hsiao Mi plies Chao-an with drink and women; our hero doesn't really perk up until his cousin is dead, and his other cousin Chiao Mei (Maria Yi) has been taken prisoner.

I wouldn't go so far as to call any of this "bad", but it's certainly not very interesting. One of the secrets that we don't necessarily like to share is that, while Lee is one of the defining figures in 20th Century pop culture and all, at least three of the four films he completed before his horrifyingly premature death at 32 are simply not that good as cinema (the exception is Fist of Fury). This is, I am sure, not helped by the situation that applied to virtually all '70s Hong Kong films, in which countless minute edits and some major ones were made as the film was tweaked for new markets. I can't do more than to say that I watched the film in its original Mandarin mono mix, on the Shout! Factory Blu-ray released in 2016, and hope that what I saw is as close as possible to the film that director Lo Wei signed off on (and even then, there's around 5-10 minutes, cut due to graphic violence, that have gone entirely missing from every version of the film since the '70s). Any individual infelicities within the editing, or even the cinematography, are hard to complain about when they might just as easily be the accretions of too many modifications.

Still, the editing is a bit choppy, the lighting hard and flat, the angles indifferently chosen (and oh yes, there are crash zooms), and not all of this can be explained away by re-editing. It's simply that this is a film cranked out fast and cheap at a time and in an industry where fast and cheap was the standard. I'm no expert on early '70s martial arts films, but The Big Boss strikes me as being wholly unexceptional, neither very good nor very bad. In its aesthetic flatness and its narrative plainness, this is simply the sort of thing that got made.

And for 45 minutes, that's all she wrote. After 45 minutes, now that's where we get to talking: for 45 minutes is about the point that Chao-an starts to take over as the hero, and finally abandons his pledge of non-violence in the face of the rampant injustice he sees. And this, then, is the first time that audiences in the world got to see Bruce Lee in fully bloom, largely untrammeled by anything but the snipping to remove the bloodiest action. Subsequent history has robbed The Big Boss of some of its impact: Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon, and Enter the Dragon all boast substantially more creative, athletic, acrobatic fight choreography. But taken on its on terms, and without foreknowledge of Lee's subsequent legend, his work in The Big Boss is absolutely jaw-dropping.

Even with foreknowledge, the film's fight scenes remain impressive in at least one important way: you'll not that I said "creative, athletic, acrobatic" just then to describe Lee's later fight choreography; that is to say, in his later films, his work is primarily about demonstrating the amazing flexibility of his body, dazzling us through impossible spectacle as he does things with the human frame that the human frame isn't made for. There's certainly a bit of that in The Big Boss: if nothing else, there's at least the astonishing speed with which he is able to move his limbs, almost like hes arms are disappearing and reappearing in another space simultaneously. For the most part, though, the choreography remains rooted in the realm of street fights and action movies. It's not at all unrelated to the film's notorious, if substantially sanitised violence: more than any other Lee vehicle, The Big Boss is all about stopping the bad guy by punching him really fucking hard until something inside his body liquifies. It's not spectacle, it's not dazzlement (it's worth noting that Lee mostly leaves his shirt on, compared to his other films; for an actor whose sinewy, tightly muscled physique was its own special effect, used so effectively in his films, that's at least a useful symptom of what his intentions were). It's just brutal power, divested of romanticism and used as a weapon, not as violent ballet.

Lee's command over his body was so complete that even in this somewhat more realistic register, it's impossible not to be impressed by the movements he performs. Besides, no matter what else was happening, Lee was an actor of uncommon screen presence, born in his effortlessly upbeat showmanship and his highly expressive, beaming face. He's thrilling to watching doing anything: even something as simple as the way he turns his body to the camera, to make sure he's imposing with the correct amount of visual authority. When he's actually fighting, darting in all directions like a bird free from the constraints of gravity, he becomes one of the most astonishing human figures to have ever been in a movie. And that's true even here, in what is by almost every measure I can think of his weakest starring vehicle. The Big Boss suffers only if we know what was waiting just in the wings: on its own terms its an astonishing display of the limits of human physicality, married to action sequences that combine the ethereal beauty of limber bodies in motion with the harshness of raw violence. It's the most grounded of Lee's films, right down to its somber, downbeat ending, and if that makes it less extravagantly fun than his later work, it's still one of the most impressive feats of performance I've seen in any '70s martial arts film, and to hell with it if the film around that performance isn't up to snuff.