by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)
With Callum Petch still on a break from his regular DreamWorks Animation: A Retrospective series this week, Owen steps in to fill the void. Unfortunately, his knowledge of DreamWorks compared to Callum’s is fractional, so instead he’s sticking to what he knows; that happens to be action movies and their stars. In particular, perhaps the most iconic of them all, the legendary Bruce Lee.
“The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.”
Post the 1930’s, has there ever been a single actor who so drastically revolutionised the cinematic fortunes of one country on a global scale quite like the iconic Cantonese martial arts master, Bruce Lee? I don’t want to turn this into an amateur biography page, but it’s important to give some context before I go on to talk about his movies.
Born in San Francisco in 1940 (but raised in Kowloon) to a famous opera/film actor father and wealthy mother, he returned to the United States at the age of 18 when his parents were worried for his safety. Supposedly with a contract out for his life at one stage after beating up the son of a triad member, he eventually settled in Seattle, attending high school and working as a part time waiter at a family-friend’s restaurant. Graduating from University and still pursuing his keen interest in martial arts, specifically Wing Chun, a skill he developed whilst training under the [then] living legend, Yip Man; Bruce eventually created his own unique fighting style known as Jeet Kune Do (The Way of the Intercepting Fist), the “style of no style”, which he taught classes in.
A well respected businessman, a genuine martial arts master and from 1967 after co-starring in The Green Hornet TV series, Bruce Lee would go on to become one of the most recognisable pop-culture icons and celebrated movie stars of all time. This despite being the lead actor in just one American movie, 1973’s Enter The Dragon. Tragically, he would die from a cerebral edema a week before it went on general release and would never know just how massively successful it would be.
Cynically suggested by some as being the astronomical success he was almost solely due to his untimely death, that simply isn’t true. Comparisons are commonly made with the likes of Jim Morrison, River Phoenix, Kurt Cobain, even Heath Ledger, for having such a lasting legacy ultimately due to his unfortunate passing, it’s important to remember that Bruce Lee was already a huge star on the other side of the world anyway.
He is also far from the only iconic movie star to come from the relatively tiny (but densely populated) island of Hong Kong. To name but a few; Sammo Hung, Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Stephen Chow, Jet Li, Tony Leung, Donnie Yen, Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung and of course Jackie Chan, they all hail from this little region of southern China. It’s impossible and probably unfair to comment on how well known they would have been if not for Bruce Lee, but by starring in the first big budget Kung Fu film produced in America, he certainly made it easier for them!
I don’t know how most people nowadays first come across Lee and his fellow countrymen’s films. I introduced a friend of mine to him just last year and even now, over 40 years later, Enter The Dragon still stands up as an excellent and thoroughly entertaining film. He just seems to be on TV hardly even half as often as I remember him being when I was younger. He’s talked about even less.
My first experience with Kung Fu movies probably occurred during my first year of secondary school in the late 90’s. My dad used to work nights back then, but me and my younger brother would stay up and watch the midnight-film seasons on the Sci-Fi Channel (that’s right kids, the Sci-Fi Channel, not the SyFy Channel). They would sometimes show a series of anime films, where I’d discover things like Akira, Ghost In The Shell, Perfect Blue, Violence Jack, Wind of Amnesia and other movies my mum probably didn’t realise we were way too young for. By the same token, the Sci-Fi Channel were also responsible for my first viewing of movies like Drunken Master, Master With Cracked Fingers, Fist of Legend and the entire filmography of one Bruce Lee.
It’s partly the reason that I’m writing this article right now. I have such a strong emotional connection to these movies. Deep down, I’m still that 11 year old kid who was mesmerised by the wavy hands of Mr Lee, the unbelievably cool way he danced across the screen and his high-pitched yelling as he battered large bearded Western white men or caricature Japanese bad guys. Despite having re-watched Enter The Dragon and First of Fury on numerous occasions over the years, it struck me recently that I hadn’t seen his other films for the longest time. Using a bit of extended annual leave from my real job, I did what most people would do in that situation and used a couple of those days to re-watch his five most important feature length films. Beginning in chronological order with…
1] The Big Boss (aka Fists of Fury) (1971)
Budget: Unknown (low)
Gross: HK $3,197,417. North America: $2,800,000 (US/ Canada rentals)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 60%
Already a hugely popular figure in his native Hong Kong, it’s rumoured he used to receive more fan mail for his role as Kato on the TV show The Green Hornet than its lead actor, Van Williams. It’s because of this, as well as his experience in minor roles in various TV shows and films whilst growing up, on top of his reputation for his respected Kung Fu skills and his relationship with producer Raymond Chow that were pivotal in his casting in Lo Wei’s kung fu film. Keen to forge his own path after recently parting company with the Shaw Brothers who planned to pull out of Hong Kong, Chow had an awful lot riding on the success of this movie and his faith in Bruce Lee.
Sworn to non-violence, the plot sees Lee play Cheng, a poor immigrant to Thailand, who joins his extended family’s ice factory. After he uncovers a sinister plot, he breaks his vows and kicks a lot of arse.
Despite some good visual gags (e.g. a man being punched through barn wall and leaving an exact silhouette outline, or flinging a bird cage into the air with it hooking on a tree branch perfectly etc), the trademark humour is still there as well as some very entertaining and surprisingly violent fight scenes. Whether pummelling people or stabbing them to death, it is actually incredibly brutal. The ending of the movie had to be edited for American release to bring it down from an ‘X’ to an ‘R’ rating due to the gruesome nature of it. However, it takes a long time for any decent action scenes to happen and suffers from being rather jilted, particularly as Lee isn’t the top billed actor. Although, that doesn’t stop him from overshadowing James Tien.
It’s not the strongest story, nor does it really showcase Lee’s philosophy in quite the way I assume he hoped it would. Not that it mattered as it broke him into the Hong Kong mainstream as The Big Boss became the highest grossing film in their history. It gave Lee the level of exposure that he craved across the rest of South East Asia which would be instrumental in his increasing success.
2] Fist of Fury (aka The Chinese Connection) (aka The Iron Hand) (1972)
Budget: $100,000 (estimated)
Gross: HK $4,431,423. North America: $3,400,000
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%
If you’ve been following our Decade In Film series at all, you may have already seen just how much I love Bruce Lee films. In my 1972 article, I included Fist of Fury (as I’ve always known it, although there is some evidence to suggest that its true title should be Fists of Fury). It surpassed the previous domestic box office records of The Big Boss and if his previous film shot him into fame, then this is the one that truly made him an international star.
In a very pro-China plot, Lee plays Chen Zhen, the brightest student at a martial arts school who are challenged by some Japanese thugs and who goes on to avenge the death of his master at their hands. It’s not an altogether uncommon theme for HK films of the time. Bruce himself lived under the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during his childhood for a short while and though the film portrays some rather, erm, broad stereotypes, it serves to both instil some pride in his home nation as well as act as a showcase for his Jeet Kune Do.
Which it definitely does with aplomb. The choreography of the fight scenes in Fist of Fury far surpasses those of The Big Boss. You just get the impression that in his second feature working with Lo Wei, they really figured out exactly how best to shoot the hand to hand (or hand to nunchuku) combat sequences. Whether taking on an entire dojo full of students and their master, or hypnotically waving his hands to confuse and disorientate his European opponent, it looks better in almost every aspect.
His character became so popular in fact that he has been reinterpreted many times since. He was the inspiration for the semi-remake Fist of Legend, with Jet Li taking on the mantle. He’s still popular even today with Donnie Yen taking over in 2010’s Legend of the Fist. But it would not be Lee’s most iconic film. That was still a year away from release.
3] Way of the Dragon (aka Return of the Dragon) (1972)
Budget: HK $130,000
Gross: US $85 million [according to Wikipedia, with citation needed]
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100%
In many ways, though he reportedly wasn’t keen on its release in the West, it was incredibly popular upon a re-release in 1974, a year after Bruce Lee’s death. After working on two films produced by Golden Harvest, where he was given more creative freedom than was usual for Hong Kong films of the time, Lee formed his own production company Concord Production Inc with Raymond Chow. This meant that for their first production, Way of the Dragon (a play on Bruce’s Chinese screen name meaning Little Dragon) Bruce took on the producing, writing, directing and acting responsibilities, giving him complete control of the film.
Set in Italy, it was also his first to be based in Europe rather than Asia. Working at a restaurant in Rome, Tang Lung (Lee) and his uncle get in trouble with the local mafia. After taking down a gang of heavies in the alley outside their restaurant, things go from bad to worse. Embroiled in various assassination attempts, he is challenged by different combatants, escalating all the way to a showdown with his one-time real life sparring partner and close friend, Chuck Norris.
Tang’s introduction to the audience is his arrival at an airport; an unfamiliar world with unfamiliar customs and languages. After stuffing himself with too many bowls of soup and unbuttoning his trousers, it becomes apparent that Lee does not intend to treat his project too seriously. He wants it to be fun, as well as entertaining and educational. Unfortunately, it would be Lee’s only completed directorial effort, but contains some of his most revered work. An improvised sparring scene with Chuck Norris around the Flavian Amphitheatre is testament to his aptitude in front of and behind the camera.
4] Enter The Dragon (1973)
Gross: HK $3,307,520.40. US $25 million. $200 million (worldwide)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
An as then unprecedented budget for America’s first co-produced (Warner Bros (US) and Golden Harvest (HK)) kung-fu movie helped convince Bruce Lee that the States were about to take him and his movies seriously. With director Robert Clouse at the helm, whom he knew from working with on Ironside, he even interrupted production half way through his own fourth film, The Game of Death, to return to the US and take the lead role. It would turn out to be the correct decision as not only has it so far grossed approximately $200 million worldwide, it gained him significant exposure and forever thrust him into the public’s conscious.
Things could so easily have gone wrong for Enter The Dragon. Tonally, it’s closer to 70’s exploitation movies than to a lot of other action movies of its time. There’s somewhat excessive nudity, violent deaths and a Bond-esque villain called Han who has organised a mixed martial arts tournament on his private island. Films of this ilk have often been derided, but there is something undeniably special about this particular one. John Saxon and Jim Kelly may spend a lot of their time busy lookin’ good, but they too are excellent additions to the series and are more than just a diverting side-story. Yes, OK, they’re both American – one of whom happens to be a white male – but in a roundabout way, they seek to represent a harmonising of cultures in society. A coming together of people from all over the world indiscriminately. Han’s purpose is to find the best fighter on Earth, whether that’s a debt-ridden Caucasian American, or a street wise African-American, a bruiser from New Zealand, or a Shaolin martial artist. Ethnicity is as unimportant to the characters as it was important for the film industry to have such a diverse cast.
The film also featured cameos and minor roles from the likes of Sammo Hung, Bolo Yeung and a fresh-faced Jackie Chan; an actor who would go on to become the closest thing to a “face” that Golden Harvest and kung-fu films would have after Bruce Lee’s death. Enter The Dragon would excite, inspire and influence a whole generation of film makers. Heck, it probably still inspires people in all forms of the entertainment industry, such is its longevity and timeless quality.
5] Game of Death (1978)
Gross: HK $3,436,169
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 75%
It was later on in the year of 1972 that filming was suspended on the movie Bruce Lee hoped would become his best and most personal project to date. Intended to finally be the picture that could display his Jeet Kune Do to its fullest; showing no matter how good other forms of martial arts were, it was his free-flowing, adaptive style that would triumph over their rigidity. A metaphor for life and indeed his own career.
Supposedly, he actually managed to shoot over 100 minutes of footage of The Game of Death before halting production temporarily. Alas, most of that has apparently been lost in the Golden Harvest archives, leaving just 39 minutes of original footage of Lee in his famous yellow jump suit, demonstrating his prowess with nunchucks, bamboo canes and of course his fists and feet on the top three levels of the pagoda. Footage that was originally meant to be the film’s main centrepiece.
Rising through the five levels of the Korean wooden pagoda with his chums, using his own developed technique to dispatch each enemy in order to reach the top and claim an unknown treasure that he could trade with the gangsters who’ve kidnapped his brother and sister, each battle is even more climactic than the last. Unfortunately only three of these fights were recorded; one against Dan Inosanto and the other featuring Ji Han-Jae before meeting former basketball star (and real life student of Bruce Lee’s), the 7ft 2in tall Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the top floor.
Whilst the actual full plot is never disclosed during the footage recorded, leaving it like some weird sort of home invasion film where Bruce rises through the floors of the pagoda beating up the inhabitants on each level for no real purpose, it is exceptionally well shot and choreographed.
And still makes more sense than the plot of the re-editing of Lee’s original The Game of Death into 1978’s posthumous Game of Death! Released five years after his passing, with a completely different plot about an actor called Billy Ho (played by about four different actors in total, all acting as stand ins for Bruce Lee) and some nonsensical guff involving facial reconstruction and assassination attempts, it blends a limited amount of original footage with entirely new shots by Enter The Dragon director, Robert Clouse. In fact, it opens with the fight scene from Way of the Dragon between Lee and Norris, which wasn’t even shot for The Game of Death! For all intents and purposes, like a lot of Brucespoiltation, it was a cash in as much as it was a chance for Bruce Lee’s fans to have one last opportunity to see their hero on-screen again, albeit via archival footage. It’s a shame that it’s so insufferably dire for the most part.
I suppose after watching these films, I’m still not entirely sure whether my fondness for the films is mostly because of the nostalgia I hold towards them, or if it’s because they’re actually that good. That said, I am absolutely certain that at least three of them definitely hold up due to their innovative style and for their sheer entertainment value. The most important lesson to learn from Bruce Lee and his movies can be summed up with my favourite quote of his from Enter The Dragon:
“Don’t think. Feel. It’s like a finger pointing at the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of the heavenly glory!“