The 6 Essential Bruce Lee Movies
Essential Bruce Lee Movies: When one thinks of Asian cinema, the glitz and glamour of Bollywood, the samurai films from Japan and the kung-fu classics from China come to the fore. These films are synonymous with the country and themes they represent. Also, such offerings have a defining character that is almost always at the tip of one’s tongue when referring to these films as a collective.
For the Hong Kong martial arts films, this name is none other than Jeet Kune do practitioner, Bruce Lee. The actor and martial artist embodied films from the region throughout the early 1970s. Lee dabbled in Hollywood in the late 1960s before returning to his home country, where he established himself as a global action star. The fame he accrued back home coupled with his stint as Kato in The Green Hornet helped legitimize him overseas. Yes, the Bruce Lee in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is inspired by the real man’s stint on the show.
Though Lee passed away before he really got into the groove as a martial art star, his choice films are revered nearly half a century later. Moreover, his turn as the martial arts action star managed to draw some attention to a few of his earlier films that are seldom heard of or even remembered. Furthermore, his popularity was such that filmmakers even resorted to using stock footage to complete certain unfinished films. Though these aren’t revered as much as the other ones, they still have a special place in Bruce Lee’s lore. It is through these films that people may have deemed martial arts as cool and engaged as practitioners of the self-defense technique. Here are some of the best movies of Bruce Lee:
1. Marlowe (1969)
This is one of Lee’s film appearances from the days before he became a Hong Kong martial arts phenomenon. In this adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s, ‘The Little Sister’, starring James Garner, Gayle Hunnicutt, Rita Moreno, and Sharon Farrell, Lee plays a minor role as the mobster, Winslow Wong. It is one of the late great’s rare English-speaking roles. It is also one of the roles where Lee doesn’t exhibit his insanely sculpted torso.
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Wong’s purpose is to dissuade James Garner’s Marlowe from pursuing a case against Steelgrave, who is the mobster boss. At first glance, the actor doesn’t fit the character stereotype. However, he explodes into action to show Marlowe he isn’t messing around. Later, he makes another appearance where the private eye seems to have gotten a grasp of Wong. It seems highly amusing as audiences get to see Bruce Lee tricked.
2. Game of Death (1978)
Game of Death makes the list for different reasons, but quite frankly, this film is an atrocious abomination. Though it gives Lee fans moments of nostalgia, it takes an effort to just sit through it. Game of Death was filmed and completed under trying circumstances following Lee’s untimely demise. However, it’s so obvious that there was a stand-in used for his character.
‘Bruce Lee’ plays Billy Lo, an actor who is fending off the advances of a syndicate. They aren’t non-violent in the efforts to persuade him, and he isn’t non-violent in his efforts to repel them either. Fight clips are taken from all the movies that are on this list and edited into the film in an atrocious manner. If one watches Bruce Lee’s films in chronological order of release, they would recognize the films from which certain clips are cut into Robert Clouse’s directorial venture. Moreover, the plotline which permits Billy Lo to have a different face is conveniently forgotten as we get a glimpse of the real Bruce Lee at one point in the climax.
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Despite my disdain, it makes the list as the clips from Lee’s finished films can serve to provide nostalgia to fans. Furthermore, it is this film that gives the world the iconic image of the legendary martial artist. Game of Death sees Lee don the yellow jumpsuit that has become synonymous with him. It is this Lee that sits atop Bruce Lee CD collection boxes. Furthermore, it is the yellow jumpsuit clad Bruce Lee that greets fans at various Madame Tussauds Museums all over the world. One wonders what might have been had Lee finished filming this film. His fight scene with Kareem Abdul Jabbar could have been polished, and his presence could have elevated Game of Death even more.
3. The Big Boss (1971)
If cinephiles were to watch Bruce Lee’s martial arts films in chronological order, they can look at this film as the gateway. Directed by Lo Wei, and starring James Tien, Maria Yi, and Han Ying Chieh, ‘The Big Boss’ has the typical tropes of honor, respect, and importance of family as key elements that drive the character’s rage.
The Big Boss is one of the bloodiest Bruce Lee films. It is brutal, and it doesn’t shy away from blood and gore. It also has sprinklings of a mystery movie within it and is not just a pure martial arts flick. Here, Lee stars as Cheng Chao-an who travels to northern Thailand in order to earn an honest living as a laborer in an ice factory. He is told to stay away from fighting and has a token as a symbol of his oath to his mother.
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Given what Lee is famous for, the audiences wait for him to erupt. Once the strings are off, Lee unleashes his fists and kicks of fury to avenge his family members who go missing as they realize the truth about their workplace and threaten to disrupt the status quo. The film’s best fight scene takes place when Lee single-handedly takes down the Big Boss’ son along with all his henchmen. The somewhat evenly matched scene between the main villain and the protagonist too is gripping.
4. Fists of Fury (1972)
Starring Bruce Lee, Riki Hashimoto, Nora Miao, and Tien Feng in pivotal roles, this film is released in some countries as The Chinese Connection. It focuses on the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and the war between martial art forms. Whilst the Japanese practice karate, the Chinese practice Kung-fu at the Jingwu school. The school is the primary setting for this film, which focuses on the Fist of Fury’s desire to avenge his master. Lee plays Chen Zhen, an angry young man who is away when his teacher passes away. Whilst many believe that it was unfortunate, the protagonist refuses to buy into this theory. He involves himself in the war with the Karate dojo, and as the pieces join he realizes that it’s not a general battle. Instead, the feud is personal.
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At times, Lee’s character comes across as a freedom fighter. This is evident in a scene where he obliterates a sign. The scene gives audiences a glimpse of his insane strength, which is seen throughout the 108-minute offering. Furthermore, the scene is symbolic of Lee being one to sacrifice for the greater good. It is another theme that is evident throughout the film. Being a Bruce Lee film, fight scenes are expected and martial arts fans get their fair fill of non-exaggerated fights. At times, I felt that this film was a collage of fights with a sprinkling of dialogue to build up to them. The best fight scenes of this film are when Lee storms to take on the dojo and has to fight the sensei, the head instructor, and their guest.
5. The Way of the Dragon (1972)
Starring Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, Huang Tsung Hsing, Robert Wall, and Chuck Norris, The Way of the Dragon, was Lee’s final film to hit cinemas before his untimely demise. Lee takes charge of this film set in Rome as the director and actor. In ‘The Way Of The Dragon’ Lee tones down the brute violence and fiery nature he exhibits in The Big Boss and Fists of Fury. Instead, this film sees some elements of humor play a role as audiences get a glimpse of culture shock. It can be seen as the genesis of the kung-fu comedy that Jackie Chan would popularise over the next three decades.
As Tang Lung, Lee plays a Hong Kong native from the New Territories who heads over to Europe to assist a friend. They are having trouble with the local mafia, who are keen on usurping their property and are driving away business. The Way of the Dragon has the usual shtick of the one man being more than a match for anyone else in his path. Lung treats fans to exquisite martial arts displays with his speed, his unique way to counters guns, the nunchakus. He brands martial arts as a way one can express themselves.
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With Lung’s arrival, the villains are unable to intimidate the restaurant and hence they summon some assistance in the form of Colt (Chuck Norris) to tackle the menace that has plagued their operations. Filmed at the Colosseum, it is a symbolic location for a gladiatorial battle that is about to unfold. Martial arts come to the fore as fans get an enthralling 8-10 minutes of fighting of the highest order.
This battle is symbolic of martial arts, as despite being from opposing factions, there is respect among the duo who let each warm-up for a fight to the death. Furthermore, there are no underhanded tactics, and as a final act of respect, the deceased is treated with reverence. In this iconic fight scene, the actor gave rise to a technique known as the oblique kick which is one of the most dangerous offensive moves in mixed martial arts tournaments.
6. Enter the Dragon (1973)
Many cinephiles take the name of this movie when asked to name a film that embodies martial arts. Robert Clouse’s Enter the Dragon was the obvious choice to feature atop a list involving Bruce Lee films. It is a piece of cinema featuring Hollywood actors (John Saxon and Jim Kelly) and was supposed to be Lee’s vehicle to Tinseltown. However, it transformed into a posthumous vehicle. Being a Bruce Lee film, it has an abundance of martial arts and this forms the crux. However, its presentation can be likened to the Sean Connery James Bond films of the 1960s. Hence, one could label this as a spy-martial arts film.
In Enter the Dragon, Lee features as Lee, a Shaolin disciple who is invited to an isolated island for a karate tournament. Though reluctant, he consents to go as he sees it as a chance to avenge the temple’s honor. However, he receives another mission from an intelligence agent. Initially, Lee treats it as a task. But, he gets another reason to make this journey. This second reason could be what gave rise to the non-tournament combat scenes. Well, why else would he put so much on the line for a mere mission?
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Enter the Dragon also touches a chord with audiences as it showcases the city of Hong Kong in a manner that would appeal to the west. We see the crowded streets and the different types of people in the scene where the protagonists make their way from the shore to Han’s boat. While showing us the city, and the characters’ backstories, the film ensures that this isn’t Bruce Lee being shoved down the throats of the audience. This helps elevate the production.
The film has two mesmerizing fight scenes. These come right at the climax after minutes of back-and-forth between the protagonist and the henchmen on the island. On a first watch, the fight sequences seem like brutal dance routines choreographed by Lee as his limbs appear to glide through the air with offensive intent. One of the fights can stake a claim as the greatest fight scene in film history for its cinematography and its underlying message. The fight in question has spawned several parodies as well. Han vs Lee is a work of art and when viewed in sync with Lalo Schifrin’s score it takes the experience up a few notches.
How many of these films have you seen? Which is your favorite Bruce Lee moment from these films?