My “Five Essential Movies” series is typically reserved for a genre/subgenre/whathaveyou made up of a million movies, distilling them down to the five that you need to know. Bruce Lee, the iconic martial artist and filmmaker, however, only made four-and-a-half “Bruce Lee movies” before his untimely death, so this is more of a primer for those ready to dive into the work of the superstar/athlete/groundbreaker that was the ’70s actor.
The Big Boss (1971)
After breaking out as Kato on the American television program, The Green Hornet, Lee was ready for his first starring role in movies. The Big Boss is a Hong Kong production that sees Bruce trying to figure out what his screen persona will be. The Big Boss that he takes on is The Big Boss of an ice factory, but that’s really a front for cocaine (as most ice factories are). The Big Boss is a bad boss, and employees who disagree with him seem to vanish. Instead of leading an effort for unionization, Bruce beats the hell out of everybody. It’s not his best movie, but it shows that Bruce knows how to fight and isn’t afraid to do it (even if it means breaking the promise he made to his mother that he would never kick ass again). There’s even a scene where Bruce is surrounded by goons, but is so relaxed about the whole thing that he just munches on some chips. He always knew he wanted to be cool as ice … factories.
Fist of Fury (1972)
This flick is best known for a scene where Bruce beats up an entire dojo’s worth of bad guys. He’s upset because he thinks these guys poisoned his master, so he busts out his fists of fury. And his feet of fury. And his nunchaku of fury. And his screams of fury.
Fist of Fury is obviously a great title (and one that makes for easy fodder), but I would argue that the long-used U.S. title, The Chinese Connection (an obvious play on The French Connection, which was released the year before), actually works better. You see, this film is largely about Chinese-Japanese relations and might require some homework on the part of a Westerner to fully understand their histories with imperialism. What is not difficult to understand, however, is the park sign that reads NO CHINESE OR DOGS, which feels like the WHITES ONLY lunch counter or drinking fountain signs in America. But what’s so crazy is that the guard lets a dog in! So it’s really just the Chinese they want to keep out. It’s these race relations that lead to Bruce having to unleash those fists of fury.
The Way of the Dragon (1972)
The Way of the Dragon is the only film that Bruce Lee directed (and finished) before his death. He plays Tang Lung, a young martial artist who visits Italy to help a family friend defend his restaurant from local gangsters. It’s not a bad premise, but Lee struggles with the film’s tone, opting to make the first 30 minutes of the movie a comedy – one where his character keeps missing all the fighting because he can’t stop pooping. He thinks that IBS is really funny.
But when the action gets going, Bruce obviously shines. The most famous (and best) scene of the film is when the gangsters hire an American to kick Bruce’s ass since their goons with guns can’t match Bruce’s guns. The man they hire is then-unknown Chuck Norris (they reach him by asking the operator for “A-mer-i-ca” on the telephone). Lee directs the hell out of this climactic battle set at the Roman Coliseum, (making you ask, “Where was this cinematic prowess the whole time?”) Powerful zooms, slow motion to watch the athletic abilities at work, point-of-view shots from a fighter’s perspective – it doesn’t last very long, but it’s awesome. Bruce knew action.
Enter the Dragon (1973)
This is Lee’s most American film (it’s in English, has identifiable American actors, it’s a Hong Kong-America co-production) and it came out exactly a month after his untimely death, so it’s the most recognizable to general audiences. It features Bruce in what might be his physical peak, and it’s probably the most accessible film in his catalog to those who aren’t well-versed in kung fu, making it the most iconic and synonymous with Lee.
Lee plays a character named Lee, a Shaolin Temple martial artist and instructor who is recruited by British intelligence to infiltrate a high-stakes underground fighting tournament on a private island owned by Han – a trafficker of sorts whose missing hand is often replaced with weaponized prosthetics. Still with me? Good. It’s just James Bond – sneak into the supervillain’s lair under a different persona and take it down from the inside.
Luckily, Lee is on board because he was already going to represent the Shaolin Temple and restore honor to their recently disgraced name, as Han is a former monk. It’s not until after he gets the mission that Lee realizes that this is also a personal vendetta for him – Han’s henchman, O’Hara, caused the death of Lee’s sister. So he’s coming at this from at least three different angles.
From the jump, it would be a tad outlandish if it wasn’t for the fact that Bruce Lee is so incredibly convincing as the coolest man of all time. You want him to find any excuse to kick some ass – so three excuses is plenty!
The underground tournament features blaxploitation newcomer Jim Kelly (Black Belt Jones) and real-life black belt John Saxon (A Nightmare on Elm Street) on the good side. The bad guys counter with Bolo, played by Bolo Yeung, who is best known for this underground street-fight tournament movie and the other famous underground street-fight tournament movie, Bloodsport). It also features Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung in uncredited parts, so not only is the movie awesome, you can play Where’s Waldo? the entire time.
It’s easy to see how, between his death and this movie, Lee’s persona was catapulted into the international consciousness – he’s so incredibly badass and iconic, the “I can’t believe he’s gone already” disbelief only added to his mystique.
Game of Death (1978)
Lee died at age 32 from “death by misadventure” (it’s a whole thing, feel free to look into it – I have limited column inches), but his stardom was bigger than ever. Enter the Dragon would go on to be a smash, and the world wanted more Bruce. The only problem was that Bruce didn’t have much in the pipeline, aside from 30 minutes or so of footage for a movie he would call Game of Death, a flick where he would climb five different levels of a martial arts master pagoda, reaching the top to fight (his student in L.A.) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He was basically inventing the video game premise of boss battles that increase in difficulty, culminating in the 7-foot-2 giant, “Mantis.”
A few years after his death, with his stardom still raging, production company Golden Harvest hired Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse to complete the film Bruce-less. They repurposed the footage for a story about a movie star who fakes his death after gangsters who don’t like him shoot him in the face. They use a couple of guys who look absolutely nothing like Bruce, but cover their faces in bandages and sunglasses before filming them over the shoulder in an attempt to cover up the fact that they are very obviously not Bruce. It’s pretty tasteless (footage from Bruce’s real funeral is used for the movie’s fictional fake death funeral), but it’s not a bad movie, all things considered. A shocker to no one, however, Bruce’s actual footage is the best part of the movie (you can find a re-edit of Bruce’s footage only in the short film, Game of Death Redux.)
That was all a result of riding the wave that was “Brucesploitation,” the martial arts subgenre that popped up after his death. The genre was built entirely on capitalizing on Bruce’s fame by making movies with guys named Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bronson Lee, Dragon Lee (newcomer Jackie Chan was even billed as “The Next Bruce Lee”). These knockoffs starred in titles such as Revenge of the Dragon, Bruce Takes Dragon Town, Goodbye Bruce Lee: His Last Game of Death, The Big Boss Part II, New Fist of Fury, and Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave, which has one of the greatest posters I’ve ever seen: