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Profiles in Badass #1: BRUCE LEE

Late last year there was this new entertainment websight or lifestyle brand or whatever that was kind enough to recruit me for a bi-weekly column about the films of badass cinema. After twelve installments I decided to quit, and a couple weeks later they closed up shop, because what would be the point of doing it without my column, and/or there was an unrelated scandal involving the company that owned them. But they were nice enough to give the writers permission to put up our pieces on our own blogs and what not.

Meanwhile, the Criterion Collection is on this very day releasing a Bruce Lee box set. And I believe they will accomplish something I’ve been trying to do for years now: get people to watch all the Bruce Lee movies. In fact, that was the goal of my first Profiles in Badass column. So for those of you who didn’t go through the Rebeller pay wall to read it back in January I am proud to present column #1 to you absolutely free of charge and without any corny anti-PC stuff next to it.

PROFILES IN BADASS #1: BRUCE LEE

Everyone knows who Bruce Lee is. Kind of. They know the flying kick guy on the posters, the philosophical inspirational quotes guy, the nunchaku guy, the DJ on Tony Stark’s t-shirt. Maybe they’ve even seen Enter the Dragon, or heard about Lee’s concept of “using no way as way” being a precursor to today’s mixed martial arts, but I think that’s as far as it goes for many.

It doesn’t have to be that way! I believe many people who are only familiar with the idea of Bruce Lee would enjoy finally sitting down and watching his movies. And it’s an easy fix. Though the multitude of alternate titles, documentaries, lookalikes and posthumous-footage-extrapolations could give the impression that it’s an inaccessible “Where do I even start?” body of work like Sun Ra or Frank Zappa or somebody, set aside his work as a child actor and his TV appearances and there are really only 4 1/2 true Bruce Lee films. I know you watch more than that in a weekend when a new season of a streaming show drops. You can do this! Let me guide you.

 


The Big Boss
, a.k.a. Fists of Fury (1971)

In his first starring role, Bruce plays a Chinese immigrant in Thailand who tries to stand up for the rights of his fellow workers at an ice factory. The boss is actually a drug trafficker and tries to corrupt him, but it doesn’t take. There’s a crazy scene where Lee fights a bunch of dobermans, and two where he kicks people through walls (once leaving a Looney Tunes-style body-shaped hole!), but my favorite badass maneuver is a small gesture when he’s storming the boss’s mansion. Outnumbered and surrounded in enemy territory, he shows his complete lack of concern by casually munching on a chip. (It was a great year for badass chewing – Dirty Harry also foiled a bank robbery while finishing his hot dog.)


Fist of Fury
, a.k.a. The Chinese Connection (1972)

Bruce plays Chen Zhen, a fictional character avenging the death of the real historical figure Huo Yuanjia. Taking place during Japanese control of Shanghai, it deals largely with tensions between the two nationalities, including a classic scene where Chen Zhen goes alone to a karate dojo and beats up every last person there. Convinced that the karate school poisoned his master, he camps out at his grave like a crazy person and, wearing a variety of disguises, goes after each of the conspirators. His representation as a superman standing up for his people is so important that there are two iconic scenes where he wrecks degrading anti-Chinese signs, and it ends on a freeze frame of a defiant flying kick in the face of martyrdom.

Chen Zhen was later played by Jet Li in the excellent remake Fist of Legend (1994) and by Donnie Yen in Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010).


The Way of the Dragon
, a.k.a. Return of the Dragon (1972)

My personal favorite Lee film is the only one he completed as director. Lee plays country boy Tang Lung, whose uncle sends him to Rome to help a family friend deal with the mafia trying to take over his restaurant. The staff don’t take him seriously (largely because he has to use the toilet a lot!) but when they see how well he beats up gangsters they agree to his plan to teach them kung fu.

Eventually it comes to one of the greatest one-on-one fights in cinema history, against the American karate champion Colt, played by Lee’s student Chuck Norris in his first credited movie appearance. He’s a cocky hired thug with barely any dialogue, and during this duel in the Colosseum he falls victim to a dismissive gesture for the ages when Tang Lung tears out a clump of his thick chest hair and blows it like dandelion seeds. It’s an incredibly detailed chess match of a fight with Tang Lung using the set moves of traditional kung fu until he decides he needs a different approach, and begins to dismantle Colt one body part at a time. I love the non-verbal communication like the “don’t try it” head shake he gives right before the conclusion.

Lee was seriously striving for excellence as a director – unusual for Hong Kong filmmakers of the time, he insisted on seeing the dailies in color, and worked closely with composer Joseph Koo – even playing some percussion! – rather than using library music. Because he disliked the way westerners were dubbed in most Hong Kong movies, he did some of those voices himself. And his script for the climactic duel was reportedly 20 pages long, precisely describing each shot and move. Therefore I believe Way of the Dragon is the purest expression of Bruce Lee on film.

 


Enter the Dragon
(1973)

The one that made Lee a posthumous international superstar is the most American of them – it’s in English, he beats up entire armies like an unarmed Rambo, he shares his screen time with John Saxon and Jim Kelly. But it’s also Lee at his physical peak, clearly knowing the spotlight is on him, primed and ready to send it crying home to mama. Seemingly inspired by James Bond as much as martial arts movies, it nevertheless cemented the timeless format of the underground fight tournament movie, and boasts a particularly colorful villain (with interchangeable weaponized prosthetic hands like an action figure) and a funky score by Lalo Schifrin.


Game of Death
(1978)

This posthumous production is the one that I’m only counting as half a film. Though it contains one of the best and most iconic fights of Lee’s career – the yellow-and-black jump-suited duel with Kareem Abdul Jabbar – it’s also a tasteless exploitation of his death and a bastardization of the movie he was trying to make. Lee’s story about a retired champion forced by gangsters to battle martial arts masters through five levels of a pagoda was abandoned in favor of one about a movie star who fakes his death after gangsters attempt to assassinate him on set. Footage of Lee’s real fans mourning his real death is crassly used as part of the fictional story.

For a truer Game of Death experience I recommend the documentary Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey, released separately as well as in the extras of some editions of Enter the Dragon. It tells the story of Lee’s unfinished passion project and uses his notes and storyboards to re-edit all the completed footage (the climax of the movie) as originally intended.*

*The Criterion set has a new thing like this called ‘Game of Death Redux’


Extra credit: Marlowe (1969)

Those who hated seeing the fictional Bruce Lee taken down by Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood might not want to see the real Lee playing a character who loses a fight to James Garner. But (much like Norris in Way of the Dragon) Lee makes a big impression in a few scenes as a henchman in this hippie-era take on the works of Raymond Chandler.

 

It’s a small filmography to represent such a huge life. Born in San Francisco but raised in Kowloon, Lee came back to the States as a teenager. In Seattle he studied acting and philosophy, fell in love, started a family and a kung fu school. In the Bay Area he continued his teaching and both promoted and challenged Chinese traditions. In Hollywood he made a mark as an actor, trainer and guru. But racism blocked him from the leading man and creator roles he knew he could excel at, and he had to return to the Hong Kong film industry to get that opportunity. Then Hollywood listened, and Enter the Dragon made him a global superstar… but only after his death.

Though Lee’s excellence inspired and created opportunities for many, it’s only very recently that we’re starting to see more than a handful of mainstream American movies with Asian leads. So in addition to all those other things I listed in the first paragraph, Bruce Lee is a quintessential story of America’s promise and unending struggle for improvement.

If you’re going through the box set, I also have more in-depth reviews of all of them:

THE BIG BOSS

FIST OF FURY

THE WAY OF THE DRAGON

ENTER THE DRAGON

GAME OF DEATH

GAME OF DEATH II (not mentioned in the column, but included in the box set)

MARLOWE (not included in the box set, but mentioned in the column)

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26 Responses to “Profiles in Badass #1: BRUCE LEE”

  1. Criterion released this set because I finally got the Shout box earlier this year and went through them all.

    Oddly, the ones I used to like the absolute least are kinda my favorites now: THE BIG BOSS and GAME OF DEATH

    I used to think BIG BOSS reeked of amateurism but now I think it adds to the movie. Also, now working a real job I can now relate to the story and the catharsis way more now than when I originally watched it.

    GAME OF DEATH I used to hate because… well… ya know… it both sucks AND it’s morally repugnant. But dagnabbit, I kinda love this goofy offensive p.o.s. now.

    Oddly, I seem to like ENTER THE DRAGON less and less the more I watch it. I DO still like it, but I think the Hong Kong audience had it right back-in-the-day and it is easily the worst and least engaging of his movies.

  2. Vern! After reading that bit about Bruce Lee eating chips in The Big Boss, I had to stop and look up the scene on Youtube. Sure enough, it’s there, and it’s so badass that I have to post it here so others can bask in that glorious scene.

    Great work as always!

  3. The Big Boss- Bruce Lee and his chips

    Bruce Lee annihilates the henchman while enjoying his potato chips.

  4. Another reason it is his best!

  5. Looking forward to a brief update from you, Mr. Vern, on whether GAME OF DEATH REDUX contains all the same footage as in BRUCE LEE: A WARRIOR’S JOURNEY, so that an aspiring fan such as myself should plan to hunt down both or can settle for just one.

    I would have done the research myself, but my reserved copy of Criterion’s BRUCE LEE: HIS GREATEST HITS was given to someone else today with a similar name before I got to the store to pick it up! Luckily, a replacement is on order for me, but it’ll take time…would Cheng from THE BIG BOSS have stood for this? Dobermans/men or otherwise?

  6. Thanks to a perfect storm of getting a gift card and the Barnes and Noble Criterion sale, I was able to get this. Only got to watch BIG BOSS and see some of the extras, but the packaging is awesome and the transfer is gorgeous. It’s loaded with extras, and I look forward to poring through it for the next week!

  7. Mine just arrived!
    I really wish they did thinner cases in a slipcase rather than seven discs crammed into one gatefold (with the incredibly annoying ‘one disc stacked on the other’ design). But nitpick aside, it’s certainly attractive. I had a bunch of other things to do today, but that’s not going to happen (nor tomorrow, or the next day judging by all these extras)

  8. My favorite Bruce movie is still his first…Big Boss. It simply has the best ending, I love a dude walking up to some rich bad guy’s mansion and then taking out the trash and then having a big one on one fight. His other movies are more iconic in some ways. But Enter the Dragon with the James Bond stuff…eh. And to me the fights are more boring. Fist of Fury is fine. Way of the Dragon…it’s been awhile but I remember thinking that movie was just pretty bad, with of course the excellent Chuck Norris fight.

    It’s really interesting to watch The Big Boss because you can see a lightswitch flip in that movie. Bruce doesn’t fight until halfway through. There are still fights, but at that time there were two kinds of fights in HK. Really stagy shapes fights like opera where you can count every move because it’s so slow, or the sort of modern uncoordinated sloppy swinging arms fighting. This is doing the second. Until Bruce finally gets involved and it’s like FUUUUCCK. And that’s it. But after Bruce died they stuck with the opera style for the most part.

    You see the switch from old school again in The Young Master. Jackie has been doing 70s style fighting the whole time, then halfway through the villain comes out and suddenly fights really fast and feels more vicious and modern. And then when they fight at the end it’s sort of a hybrid.

  9. Wow. People preferring BIG BOSS is crazy to me. I find it to be nearly unwatchable. A shrill, boring, badly made movie with like five minutes of mediocre action at the end. If Bruce wasn’t in it, it’d come in 20-packs of pan-and-scan kung fu with, like, THE CRIPPLED MASTERS and SHOGUN’S NINJA. I’d say his best movie is either ETD, more for being a glorious slice of 70s schlock than a kung fu movie, or WAY OF THE DRAGON, if you can make yourself suffer through all the scenes with the buffoonish restaurant employees.

    Then again, maybe I’m the wrong guy to ask. I think the man himself is cool as shit, but I hold that there’s probably no better way to dispel the legend of Bruce Lee than to actually watch his movies. They are full of iconic moments and the occasional great fight (most are pretty pedestrian, even by the standards of the time) but in general his filmography doesn’t even stand up to that of your average Shaw Bros contract player. I can’t imagine anyone raised on a steady diet of JOHN WICK and THE RAID being able to see what the big deal was. I’m not taking anything away from Lee’s impact or his own abilities as a performer and personality, but I’m convinced that his actual filmography, removed from its early canonization, is mostly one of those “I guess you had to be there at the time” things.

  10. I think I would prefer to watch any of Brandon Lee’s movies before I would see a Bruce Lee movie.

  11. Even LASER MISSION?

  12. Majestyk is right, Bruce’s movies just don’t really hold up. So as the most fun I’d say Enter the Dragon because at least stuff is happening and it’s colorful, it’s just a bit bland for me. I would sort of disagree with the idea that Bruce’s fights were pedestrain of the time though…no, I don’t think they were. He was fighting with a kind of power and speed and there was a real combat specificity to a lot of what he was doing. Go compare his fight in Big Boss to what Wang Yu was doing in 1970. Wang’s fights are pretty good but look more fake and stagier. Wang is a better director than fighter, he was never really that great. A Touch of Zen made the year after? GREAT movie, fighting is opera style. I’m talking 1970 here.

    Then later, the HK stuff stepped up, fights are better but Bruce was maybe not always better but he was unique and that’s the difference. Look at all of the guys doing action back then, how many of them were so specific? Makes you stand out. Bruce died in 73. A lot of these other guys were picking up from where he left off.

    I mean for me if I’m choosing, something like Five Fingers of Death is was better than almost anything made at the time…that’s actually pretty brilliantly made.

  13. If somebody put a gun to my head and said I could never watch either another Bruce Lee movie or another Brandon Lee movie, I would choose Brandon Lee. Even if Laser Mission is one of them.

  14. I think Bruce’s movies are obviously foundational to what we think of as action/martial arts movies now, but, like a lot of things that have had a massive influence in culture, they can seem kinda tame if you’re coming to them for the first time now. I think they’re worth watching as historical artifacts if nothing else (though even as a ’90s kid, I still thought ENTER THE DRAGON was awesome as hell when I first saw it). His movies were like a boulder thrown into the lake of action films- they caused a huge splash and raised the level of everything. Even if you don’t wanna swim down and look at the boulder now, nothing would have been the same without it.

    Also, absolutely buck-wild to think about how I’m years older now than he was when he died. I haven’t even developed a groundbreaking martial arts technique! Gotta get on that soon.

  15. I probably also enjoy Brandon Lee movies more than Bruce Lee movies but Bruce Lee definitely has the more important career in regards to the development of martial arts and action movies. Bruce Lee also had developed quite the persona outside of his movies that puts him in the upper echelons of badassery.

  16. I agree that Bruce Lee’s influence and lasting legacy on cine Martial Arts is indisputable, but equally can’t deny that he did more for his movies than the movies did for him. And a lot of that blame can be laid at Bruce’s formidable feet. If only he wan’t insistent on being this “untouchable invincible master” in most of his fights, they’d still be spoken about with the same awe we reserve for some of Jackie Chan’s best stunt pieces like Police Story.

    I probably need to revisit THE BIG BOSS but as I recall the sole damage to Bruce was a torn short in the end. Only a hail of bullets finally hurt him in FIST OF FURY, and for a guy who whupped so much ass in ENTER THE DRAGON, Bruce ends the film with just a stylish and strategically placed claw mark to show for it.

    Only Chuck in WAY OF THE DRAGON got a few licks in and I recall an article where he only agreed to do the movie on condition the fight wasn’t so one-sided.

    And speaking of WAY OF THE DRAGON, as the movie’s director as well, Bruce sure made some strange choices: With a budget to shoot in Rome, he stages not one but 2 fights in a studio back-lot alleyway, and his 1st lot of opponents look like beer-buddies pulled out, mid-meal, from a fish-n-chips joint to be in the scene, with one I recall being some skinny jive-talking black guy and another one looking like (pre-fat loss) Kevin Smith. It’s one thing to stage fight scenes where Bruce frequently finished off his opponents in 3 moves without them ever laying a hand on him, and quite another to pick those who look like they couldn’t, on their best day, take him with both his hands tied and one feet stuck in a bucket of cement. Add a throwaway scene where Bruce’s country bumpkin follows an Italian chick back to her place just to set up a titty shot and all I can say is that this DRAGON FREQUENTLY LOSES IT’S WAY.

    Sadly, it’s in the re-edited longer take of the pagoda fight scene which closes the excellent WAY OF THE WARRIOR documentary where you can see what a great Bruce Lee fight could have been like. He goes up against equals, gets his ass kicked, re-evaluates his strategy and then wins. He finishes the fight bloody, bruised and exhausted. And doesn’t end up any less a bad-ass for it.

    My fav is FIST OF FURY, as it’s Bruce at his unfettered, savage best, has largely good fight scenes, it’s a little bit more emotionally resonant, plus I can slot it into my 4-movie thematic binge which I start off with Ronny Yu’s FEARLESS, which functions as an unofficial prequel to FIST, progress on to FIST OF FURY, follow it up with FIST OF LEGEND which gives me a happier alternate take on Chen Zhen’s fate and cap it off with Donnie Yen’s Chen Zhen, legend of The Fist, which I would have called my Fisting Marathon if it didn’t sound so wrong.

    GAME OF DEATH was, is and will always be a certified, disrespectful piece of shit.

  17. Yes, I do believe ENTER THE DRAGON is overrated and would have explained why had Paul Bramhall from cityonfire not already beat me to it and said it with far more structure and eloquence than I could:

    https://cityonfire.com/enter-the-dragon-the-most-overrated-kung-fu-movie-ever/

  18. Good points, Mr. Majestyk, and I’d further add that every movie is a ticking time capsule the moment it’s released.

    Never mind Bruce Lee films, actions fans of today who became fans of the genre via JOHN WICK, THE RAID, IP MAN, ONG-BAK, FURY ROAD or a slew of terrific Isaac Florentine/Jesse V Johnson DTV flicks, would see the 1st DIE HARD or LETHAL WEAPON and declare it “talky”.

    Because after 3 decades of the Hostage/Terrorist and Buddy-Cop trope bled dry via every conceivable permutation, the only way to justify these landmarks is with the “You had to be there” defense.

    You had to be there…to see the transformation of that quippy private dick with the perennial smirk from Moonlighting into a Bona Fide Action Icon…before he stopped giving a shit 20 years later, but that’s another story

    You had to be there…to realize that the volatile, unhinged and borderline suicidal white guy in the cop movie wasn’t the BADDIE, OR BADDIE’S CHIEF ENFORCER or the Hero’s Partner who bites the bullet twenty minutes in, BUT THE HERO HIMSELF, and that was cool too! Then 20 years later, you realize it wasn’t Mel Gibson playing Martin Riggs, but Martin Riggs playing Mel Gibson…but that’s another story.

  19. But GAME OF DEATH has Bruce getting whooped by Karim at first, then he changes strategy and wins. With the iconic footprint on his chest. I love that scene, probably favorite Bruce fight on film, and some of the other fight scenes in the movie are good too. Yes it is a shameful and embarrassing movie but the parts with Bruce himself are really good.

  20. KayKay, Well, I don’t think Die Hard is a “you had to be there” movie. I’ve shown it to people who had never seen it and are younger and they loved the shit out of it. Ip Man and John Wick have fights but they’re not constant wall to wall action.

    The Big Boss fight does not go down how you remember…in fact it’s fairly even with Bruce always having the edge. But the first punch landed in the fight is by the guy guy to Bruce’s face. Then eventually Bruce gets a kick in, THEN, it’s still relatively even but for the most part only Bruce is actually landing punches, with the bad guy getting in 1-2. Then the bad guy picks up his knives and cuts Bruce up quite a bit, then gets killed. But it’s not a pure ass whooping in the Seagal mode.

    In Way of the Dragon you are confusing story with pure fights. You’re talking about fat guys or load looking dudes who couldn’t take Bruce in a fight. Well, that’s the point. They’re not a bunch of trained martial arts badasses, they’re goombahs who shake down money. It’s like if Bruce went against The Sopranos, is there anyone in that crew who looked like they would last three seconds in hand to hand combat with Bruce in a fair fight, besides Tony who would get saved for the end? No, he’s beat the shit out of Paulie and Chris in three seconds. And THAT’S why, in that movie, they bring in Chuck Norris.

    In Game of Death he gets beat up by everyone in the dojo, not just Jabbar. Each time Bruce is still doing well, but the one guy throws him all over the place, the nunchuck thing does on for awhile, and then Jabbar really lays him out a lot.

    But let’s get to Jackie…first of all Jackie is one of the all time greats, but when he made Police Story e also got to use almost 20 years of HK film history to use, and had already made like 20 movies…so he had a chance to get past his learning stages. When Bruce came on, hand to hand combat in HK kung has literally existed for maybe 4 YEARS. Sure there were martial arts movies, but until Yang Yu showed up it was all sword based. He was the first to really lean on hand to hand, it had not been done before, he was a pioneer. And go compare the movie Wang Yu did in 1970 to The Big Boss in terms of fighting. It’s no contest.

    Back to Jackie though…he may not have played unstoppable, but in a large sense, storywise, he was as much as Bruce until the ends of his movies. Look at Police Story…First big shootout, he does stunts, catches the bad guys. First fight sure he has some trouble, but that’s because he has to fight like SIX guys wit baseball bats. Yet not one of them touch him and he’s kicking all kinds of ass. Next fight is when he saves the woman, he does this by kicking the shit out of 3-4 guys without too much trouble, and only gets caught because a horde of men with guns come in and blindside him. Only at the end do we see him taking real punishment, and that’s because he’ always having to fight 3-4 armed men at a time. Even the big henchman he basically exchanges one big set of moves with and then throws him through a window and then down the escalator.

    Then do Drunken Master 2, his other fight classic. First fight is pretty even, not bad for going against an old master soldier. Next fight is Jackie taking on five thugs, which he does so easily and doesn’t get touched (very Bruce Lee). Then he has a fight in atea house and yeah he has some trouble but only because there’s 100 MEN WITH AXES all attacking him at once. But he;s so good he’s laying them out and again, no one touches him. Then you have the fight at the end, and only THEN does he have problems. He beats the chain guy without too much trouble, not bad considering he’s unarmed. Then takes some hits but he’s fighting like 5-6 men at once. And then you finally have a real fight where he takes punishment.

    So what I’m saying is, Jackie gussies up his movies with a different favlor, but in the end he’s kind of still using the same exact formula that Bruce did.

  21. You know who is the worst of never looking like he is untouchable? Steven Seagal.

  22. Yeah and with Seagal it’s always his ego. I don’t quite feel like t was wit Bruce…it may be to some extent, but he was trying to create larger than life characters, so he’d save taking punishment for when it was needed. With Seagal even when he would go against the big villain in the end it was no contest, that shit sucks.

  23. But he is the funniest looking

  24. To give myself a pat on the back, if you had never seen Police Story before doesn’t this line…”Even the big henchman he basically exchanges one big set of moves with and then throws him through a window and then down the escalator” totally make you want to see it?

  25. I think it’s hard with Bruce Lee because what we got was the beginnings of a thesis statement but we didn’t get to really see him flesh it out into a full blown thesis. I wish we would have gotten more but I’m glad we got what we did.

  26. That’s right…like if Jackie died right after…let’s say The Young Master, we’d be talking about him very differently.

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