Top-5 Bruce Lee Movies
I’ve been on a bit of a Hong Kong movie binge as of late. While I’m more of a Jackie Chan fan, I’ve recently also familiarised myself with the works of Bruce Lee, the man who popularised martial arts films. Lee’s career as a starring actor was short-lived with only four completed and one incomplete movie made between 1971 and 1973. Still, his movies are considered incredibly influential and he made martial arts known to the world.
Here is how I personally rank Lee’s five motion pictures…
1972 was the busiest year of Lee’s career. Not only did he complete two features, he also began production on Game of Death, which he famously never completed. Way of the Dragon was his third starring film and the first he directed himself. It was also a departure from his darker and more serious films, a culture-clash comedy where he plays a Hong Kong native protecting his uncle’s Roman restaurant from gangsters.
Unfortunately, Way of the Dragon loses most of its comedic punch in the international version where all the characters speak English. Lee’s character’s problems with adjusting to life outside Hong Kong come through a little weak which sadly robs the film of some of its potential. Even most of the fight-scenes are surprisingly rudimentary for Lee, despite him upping the ante from Fist of Fury with double-nunchuk action seen on-screen.
The film isn’t an entire waste and at least some of the sight-gags and fight scenes work pretty well. The biggest problem is the film’s finale, the famous throw-down between Lee and his real-life student, Chuck Norris, at the Colosseum. Unfortunately the fight doesn’t convey true seriousness and looks incredibly lumbering for a climactic fight between the good guy and bad guy. Even the finale is surprisingly dark for what seemed to have been a comedic film.
Way of the Dragon does show a lot of potential for Lee’s directorial debut and I would think that had he been given time to work on the dramatic pacing of his films, Lee could have become as competent as a drama director as he was as an action-director. As it is, The Way of the Dragon is sadly his worst film.
Game of Death is easily the most famous unfinished film in history. Bruce Lee completed three fight sequences, running just under 40 minutes, before he had to interrupt production to work on Enter the Dragon. Sadly, Lee died not long after ending the production of his fourth movie and Game of Death wasn’t finished. Not until 1978 at any rate, when Robert Clouse, the director of Enter the Dragon, attempted to finish the film by shooting the remaining parts of the film, using a clumsy combination of stock footage, body doubles and actual footage from Lee’s funeral.
While Clouse might have unintentionally raped Lee’s unfinished project, Game of Death is still a vastly superior film to the Way of the Dragon. Specifically, I’m referring to the some 40 minutes of fight footage that Lee committed to film before his death. Lee displays incredible physical prowess as well as good dramatic and comedic timing. His show-down with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is fantastic as are the two fights leading up to it. All the fights contain that extra “umph!” which the fights in Way of the Dragon were sadly lacking.
The film can feel a bit like a promotional video for Jeet Kune Do, Lee’s own martial arts style, and it’s probably displaying the film’s only weakness – showing Lee more as a fighter who can act rather than an actor who can fight. If you can forgive the film’s choppiness and terrible attempts at hiding the identity of the false Bruce Lee look-a-likes, Game of Death is definitely worthy of watching.
The 1971 film which launched Bruce Lee into fame all across Asia may seem rudimentary on the off-set, but actually holds up very well despite its age. In this film, Lee is an ice-factory worker, whose co-workers begin to disappear as the factory owner’s drug-smuggling operation begins to get accidentally revealed. The movie does a good job maintaining the character drama and isn’t just a martial arts extravaganza.
In fact, there aren’t that many fight-scenes to speak of, but by being sparing the film makes them feel like a great pay-off. James Tien also does a good job acting as Lee’s friend and the film also uses a little bit of tongue-in-cheek comedy. The film’s characters feel genuine and fleshed out. The movie definitely takes a dark turn towards its end, but the drama keeps the film alive all the way to the finish.
There are a few quirky aspects to the film, such as the factory workers not realising what’s going on and some of the characters performing completely super-human jumps. However, the pay off of this film is superb. The only problem with the film is perhaps its lack of novelty as there is really nothing in the film you wouldn’t see in any other Bruce Lee film.
Fist of Fury is a period-piece film, set loosely against real historical events in occupied Shanghai. Lee is the prize student of a martial arts school whose master is assassinated by a spiteful Japanese school. The film follows a destructive circle of vengeance as Lee’s character targets the Japanese school and their response escalates further and further. Along with the brutal finale, it’s probably the darkest of Lee’s films.
Fist of Fury is also one of his finest from the action point of view. We have Lee beating hordes of Japanese fighters, facing off against a variety of foes and performing many powerful stunts. It also shows the most range from Lee’s character, who isn’t nearly as cool and collected as he appears in Enter the Dragon. In this sense, the film satisfies both the action hounds and those who want to see something a bit more substantial from the film’s story.
Unfortunately, the film’s strong story is also its biggest weakness. Ironically, where the film makes a point about displaying the oppression of the native Chinese during the era of occupied Shanghai, the movie itself is guilty of racist or, at the very least, unflattering portrayal of the Japanese. This slightly undermines the film’s message and can even make it feel a little hypocritical. Never the less, it’s easily one of the most powerful films Lee made.
As predictable of a pick as this may seem, I have to concur that Enter the Dragon is easily Lee’s best movie. And not simply from the aspect of the fighting, which is definitely varied and well made – it’s easily the most well-rounded of the films. Story-wise, Enter the Dragon is quite simple. Lee is asked to participate in the underground fighting tournament held by the crime boss Han. Han’s henchmen led Lee’s sister to commit suicide and Lee wants revenge.
Apart from Lee, John Saxon and Jim Kelly add a bit of variety with their own fights, although Lee definitely steals the show from the half-way point onward. You can also see early appearances by Sammo Hung (who receives a beating from Lee at the very beginning) and Jackie Chan. As hokey as the plot setup of Enter the Dragon is, it really paved the way for all other martial arts movies to come. The choreography and production values are easily the best in any of Lee’s movies.
Enter the Dragon is a definite must-see for all fans of the martial arts genre, but it may spoil your appetite, so I highly recommend viewing some of Lee’s other films before watching this one, just to see how far Lee had come as a film-maker before his untimely demise.