Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss literally saved my life. In the early 1970s, several weeks after my doctor said I would be dead in five years, my brothers took me to the Vestal Drive-In to see The Big Boss. I had already resigned myself to death and was just sulking in the inevitable, until Bruce Lee did those two, amazing, fast-as-greased-lightning kicks after the jade got ripped away from his neck, which stimulated him to fight. I literally screamed out. In a split second, I went from waiting to die to going to live because it led me up the path of martial arts and chi gong (qigong). Bruce Lee saved my life that day. Thanks, man. The Big Boss is not the best martial arts film ever made—not even in my top 20—but it is without a doubt the most important martial arts film in the world for one reason: It introduced the cinema universe to Bruce Lee, which launches a martial arts craze in the West and revitalizes a waning kung fu film industry in the East.
Become the ultimate Bruce Lee movie guru with our FREE guide—Our Bruce Lee Movies List: Little-Known Trivia From Bruce Lee's Pictures.It also features a straightforward plot and pioneers a novel style of street-fighting heroism in Hong Kong cinema. Lee plays a lad named Cheng, a bumpkin Chinese worker at a Thai ice factory who is perplexed by the disappearance of his co-workers until he discovers that Boss Mi (Han Ying-chieh) is using the factory as a front to smuggle heroin. Around Cheng’s neck is a jade amulet, which he wears as a reminder to keep his solemn vow to refrain from fighting. The “emotional content” of the film builds while Cheng helplessly stands by and watches his friends getting more beaten into pulverized pulp than apples at a cider mill. Suddenly, Cheng gets whacked across his face. Rage boiling through his veins, the jade reminds him not to fight. Although we’ve never seen Bruce Lee before and don’t understand the nature of the action, we know that we are in for something special when Cheng realizes the jade has been broken and he cradles the broken pieces like a newborn baby. What follows is more explosive than opening a can of beer after it has been cooked up in the back of a speeding truck at the Baja 500. Bruce Lee’s patented snarling face is pure elation as he deals out what everyone gets what’s coming to them. Although Han Ying-chieh was the fight instructor, Bruce Lee formed a close bond with Han’s assistant, Lam Ching-ying, who understood the boxing/kung fu combos that Bruce Lee insisted on spattering on-screen—a way of movement that Han was averse to incorporating into “his” film. Han was old school, Bruce Lee was new school, and we know which school had the superior graduation rate.