If he have lived beyond that saddening day in 1973, martial arts legend Bruce Lee would have celebrated his 75th birthday on November 27, 2014. Though he didn’t get a chance to see the theatrical extravaganza of the seminal Enter the Dragon when it debuted in Hollywood in ’73, particular home video releases of this genre-changing film – notably the 25th Anniversary Special Edition DVD released by Warner Brothers in 1998 – featured the cut of the motion picture Lee himself “was most proud of,” with restored philosophical sequences and even a pre-feature introduction by wife Linda Lee Cadwell. Yet while Lee is immediately connected with Enter the Dragon to many who hear or speak his name, the truth is that this incredible martial arts powerhouse has been the driving influence for action and martial arts films that have come in the wake of his legacy, in addition to being an unmistakable driving force behind the Kung Fu craze of the ‘70s – while starring in a plethora of other films somewhat less-recognizable than Enter the Dragon.
Co-starring John Saxon (who would go on to find character actor cred in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street) and the late Jim Kelly (of Blaxploitation cinema fame) amongst a bevy of Asian martial arts faces, 1973’s Enter the Dragon was a tour de force showcase for Lee and his outrageously sleek, measured but viscerally explosive fighting style. Director Robert Clouse worked tirelessly with Lee in coordinating and staging all the vital fight sequences, the resulting film yielding what fans and critics have labeled a fusion between a James Bond-esque ‘70s spy thriller and martial arts masterpiece. And when one truly analyzes the fairly shoestring plot, it’s easy to see these elements at play: Lee portrays a Shaolin monk who accepts a job going undercover for a British spy agency looking to bring down an ex-Shaolin monk known as “Han.” He’s sent to a martial arts tournament Han holds on his isolated island fortress under the guise of just another competitor in the tournament, the job being to find out exactly what kind of illegal operations Han’s running there. It turns out that operation is churning out opium, along with some other nasty tendencies Han exhibits such as using the tournament as a recruiting tool for his operations, but the highlight of Enter the Dragon is, of course, the way Lee punches and kicks his way through Han’s security force to finally square off with the honor-robbing ex-Shaolin monk.
In July of 1973, Lee tragically passed away at the age of 32, just before the American opening of Enter the Dragon and just after writing, directing and starring in a little motion picture called Return of the Dragon. While it didn’t have the immediate cache of Enter the Dragon, the film resonated with many martial arts fans for reasons beyond Lee headlining on the marquee; from his character bellowing out his now-famous battle cry as he took down bad guys with one sweep of his mighty fist to disarming Mafia hit men with only his fighting skills, Lee’s character in Return of the Dragon was as memorable as it was visually enthralling. Called in from Hong Kong by Chinese friends attempting to open a “chop suey joint” in Rome but who are strong-armed by Mafia figures, Lee’s assignment finds him protecting the restaurant from the mob.
Other memorable titles in Bruce Lee’s all-too-short film career include Game of Death, The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, with The Big Boss remaining among rabid Lee fans’ top picks. Working within a somewhat typical revenge-oriented plot setup, Lee portrays “Cheng” in The Big Boss, a Chinese character from Guangdong who moves to Thailand with the help of his uncle to work with his cousins in an ice factory. Eventually, he gets embroiled with a gang who has ties to his entire family being murdered, which sets up the inevitable final fight confrontation between Lee’s character and “Hsiao Mi,” the leader of the vicious gang.
Released on November 7, 1972 and directed by Lo Wei, Fist of Fury — also known as The Chinese Connection and The Iron Hand in the United States — put Lee in his second major role after The Big Boss playing “Chen Zhen,” a student of “Huo Yuanjia,” who fights to defend the honor of the Chinese in the face of foreign aggression. In continuing to keep with the quasi-revenge backstory Lee’s films tended to dabble in, Zhen looks to bring justice to those responsible for his master’s death in 20th century Shanghai. Returning to the Jingwu School to marry his fiancée, he soon faces tragic news when he learns Yuanjia has passed away, apparently from illness. This all leads to confrontations of nearly biblical proportions between the master martial artist and various characters, as Lee again displays his hand-to-hand combat prowess with polished panache.
Game of Death marked Lee’s final project in the filmmaking arts, as he died while making the picture, the unfortunate incident leading to the title’s “incomplete” status bestowment. Here, Lee portrays famous martial arts master and film star “Billy Lo” who dodges a murder attempt on his life, forcing him to fake his own death. In reality, the master showman is merely planning his revenge on those responsible — and those people turn out to be a crime syndicate that wants him and his girlfriend Ann Morris to join their “management firm.” Altering his appearance after his faked death, Lo goes after the syndicate and takes them out one at a time…in the way only Bruce Lee knows how.
But beyond the sheer entertainment value of his motion pictures, Bruce Lee will forever be immortalized as the first action hero, the first martial artist to really expose the world to this Asian sport, the first to shape superhero culture and the first to really kick down racial barriers – quite literally. Marvel, purveyors of the now-immediately recognized comic book empire, even produced Lee-inspired comic series including The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu and Iron Fist, and Lee’s almost superhuman-like abilities and its influence have seeped into many other areas of pop culture (who could forget the Street Fighter video game in arcades?). If you’re interested in delving deeper into Lee’s films, as well as many inspired by his work, the El Rey Network on DirecTV is running a “Way of the Turkey” marathon on Thanksgiving this year since it falls on Lee’s birthday, so consider vegging out to that instead of football.
For many, Bruce Lee was a superhero without a costume…and if his iconic allure from the past is any judgment parameter, his legacy will continue to live far into the future.