1973 was the year that kung fu broke in America. The release of the popular Five Fingers Of Death (aka King Boxer) in March set the fuse and when Enter The Dragon (the first Hong Kong martial arts film co-produced by a major US studio) followed in August, it exploded.
Although Bruce Lee was billed as a co-star in Enter The Dragon alongside John Saxon because casting an Asian actor in the lead role of an American film was unheard of at the time (and would remain so until 1982 when Sho Kosugi topped the bill for Revenge Of The Ninja), it was Bruce who captured the public’s imagination. His amazing look and style, his astonishing talent for acting, writing and directing, and his unparalleled martial arts ability made him an icon for the genre and an inspiration to millions. His image was inescapable, adorning all manner of merchandise and plastering teenage bedrooms worldwide. The problem? By this time, he was already dead…
On July 20th 1973, Bruce Lee visited the apartment of actress Betty Ting Pei to go over his script for Game Of Death. Feeling a little worse for the wear, he took a headache tablet, lay down to sleep and didn’t get up again. Ruled as “death by misadventure” – a cerebral edema brought on by a reaction to the painkiller – it was a shocking way to go for a guy whose screen presence made him seem indestructible.
More than that, it just wasn’t fair. Here was a filmmaker about to hit the absolute top of his game. It was a hard-won victory too, smashing at last the race barriers that had stood in the way of his American career for so many years. All those years of rejected Hollywood pitches and, finally, he was America’s hero.
Hong Kong, having known for years that their cinema had international appeal, celebrated Lee’s crossover yet, at the same time, mourned the loss of their favorite superstar. What could be done? The demand all across the world for Bruce Lee was feverish and – besides the 40 minutes of unfinished Game Of Death footage languishing in the vaults at Golden Harvest – there was nothing left to give.
There was only one thing for it. Send in the clones.
A number of bit-part actors and stuntmen who bore a mild resemblance to the Dragon (often just a similar haircut at best) were rechristened. Bill posters advertised new films starring Bruce Le, Bruce Li, Bruce Lai, Bruce Lea, Bruce Leong, Dragon Lee, Bruce Thai, and many more, boasting titles like Enter Another Dragon, Enter Three Dragons, The New Game Of Death, Fist Of Fury 2, and many more besides.
Arguably these started out as exploitative trash, cashing in on a man’s name in outrageous and tasteless ways. In The True Game Of Death, for example, they recreate Bruce’s cerebral edema as he spasms in agony next to a writhing naked girl while “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” blares on the soundtrack (music copyright was not something these people cared about any more than they did good taste). However, as time went on and the genre developed, some of these low-rent actors became credible martial arts stars and their films got more ambitious and interesting.
Some Bruceploitation just amped up the craziness as far as it would go, turning Bruce into a fantasy being who’d fight everyone from Superman and Dracula to black magicians and gangs of midgets. Others played it straight, using the Bruce name and image as a base but delivering seriously good, low-budget martial arts films that stack up easily against the bigger, more legitimate titles of the era. Sometimes genuine big stars like Lo Lieh appeared to fight the Bruce clones (thus giving kung fu fans a fight they’d always dreamed of – King Boxer vs The Dragon!).
Often, those who’d starred alongside the real Bruce (e.g. Bolo Yeung, Dan Inosanto, Wei Ping Ou) would appear in Bruceploitation as well. You never knew the calibre you were going to get because the quality varied so wildly but, at its best, it was some of the most uninhibited and exciting martial arts cinema of the age.
By the time the boom ended (sadly, in a blaze of ruined careers and collective embarrassment), the two main Bruce clones – Le and Li – had started directing their own films and were masters of many onscreen martial arts. Although they could never shake the stigma of being ‘impersonators’ and to this day haven’t been reappraised critically (except by Quentin Tarantino who claims to prefer Bruceploitation to the real thing), they did good work.
I’ve sacrificed many days of my life trawling through the Bruceploitation barrel and while I’d never argue that it’s all good, I’ve selected ten of the most enjoyable efforts (some silly, some serious) that I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in martial arts cinema:
10: Bruce Lee, The Man, The Myth (1976)
Dir: Ng See-Yuen
Bruce: Bruce Li
“All new! All true!” promises the poster of this sincere but preposterous Bruce Lee biopic/fanfic. Bruce Li plays the Dragon, going through a whistlestop story of his life with a ton of added fighting. No matter where he goes in the world, Bruce is challenged by oncomers (Thai boxers, Japanese karate fighter, American gym bunnies, Italian mafioso!) to prove that his Chinese kung fu is the best. Bruce can barely go two minutes without brawling (even on the sets of his own films where crew members attack him frequently) but it’s okay because he always wins and offers wicked one-liners to his defeated foes like, “This isn’t me talking – it’s kung fu!”
Despite being an exploitation movie in a lot of ways there’s an almost poignant sense of national pride to some of this; the message is clearly that the world didn’t believe enough in either Bruce Lee or the Chinese in general as nation of artists and that he proved them all wrong. The ending is a fantastical twist on reality and utterly ludicrous but, again, has a certain genuine emotion to it. You get the impression that this film was made from a place of real grief and the transformation of its subject into an all-fists-flying superhero is a coping mechanism.
The fighting’s not too shabby either. Bruce Li is one of the better Pretend Bruces and Ng See-Yuen (who brought the world Jackie Chan and Corey Yuen via his production company Seasonal Films) oversees things with both a talented hand and – for the genre – a reasonable budget. They had enough cash to actually fly Bruce Li around the world to all the old locations for Bruce Lee’s films so the scenery’s quite pleasant too. One of the better entry points for anyone new to Bruceploitation.
9: The Clones Of Bruce Lee (1980)
Dir: Joseph Velasco
Bruce(s!): Bruce Le, Bruce Lai, Dragon Lee, Bruce Thai
This is among the daftest and most ridiculous Bruceploitation films and earns its place on the list through audacity and imagination alone. Here, Bruce Lee (seen in brief public domain stock footage) dies but is cloned by scientists working for the SBI (Special British Intelligence). The SBI is run by a James Bond style character who has a photo of the Queen on his wall and sends the newly cloned Bruce One, Bruce Two, and Bruce Three (played by Dragon Lee, Bruce Le, and Bruce Lai respectively) off on special missions around the world (well, Hong Kong and Thailand at least).
It starts in an episodic fashion with an extended training montage and some unrelated scenes in which the Bruces carry out their work but, in the final third, all comes together in a wonderfully crazed way, when arch-villain Dr Nai (Thailand’s answer to Dr No) rocks up with his cheap shirts, kipper ties, endless cigarettes, maniacal laughter and plan to take over the world. He has a secret formula that can turn men into metal and creates an army of invincible bronze men! The three cloned Bruces must then team up if humanity has any hope for survival.
It’s hard not to love this. In addition to the mad plot and the star power (the three Bruces bump into a Brucie Bonus of Bruce Thai when they hit Thailand!), there’s a ton of dirty fighting, gratuitous nudity, and endlessly quotable dialogue. My favorite lines include Dr Nai’s proclamation “I’ll make an army of bronze men! THAT will surprise the world! Hahaha!” and his response when told that there are men invading his lair and that “two of them might be Bruce Lee!” – he screws up his face and declares solemnly, “This sounds like the work of the SBI”…
Clones Of Bruce Lee is total trash but it’s trash with a shiny (and most definitely toxic) coat of bronze paint on the top. I enjoyed it immensely.
8: Enter The Game Of Death (1978)
Dir: Joseph Velasco
Bruce: Bruce Le
It’s the early 1940s and the fate of China rests on a secret document that must not reach the hands of Japanese. Chinese and American resistance groups plot and scheme and all seek to enlist the help of the world’s greatest martial artist (Bruce Le) so he can recover the document from the top of a pagoda guarded by mysterious fighters.
This is a very loose adaptation of Bruce Lee’s original concept for Game Of Death but, being a Bruce Le film, it takes things further into the realms of the nutty. Of all the Bruces, you could rely on Le to be the strangest. The different ‘temples’ here take on a surreal, mythological quality – bizarre, almost supernatural characters sleeping in spooky rooms, awakened only to fight Bruce and protect the documents. The scene in the ‘Temple Of Snakes’ is jawdropping as not only do we get some Grade A snake style kung fu, but the guy fights Bruce with a pair of actual cobras in his hand while about a dozen others slither around their feet! Le’s lack of regard for his own safety often made for some incredible scenes but this is one of the maddest and best.
The middle 40 minutes or so of Enter The Game Of Death are about as good as Bruceploitation ever got; a pagoda of delirium. The fighting is exceptional (Le showcases so many styles in a performance true to the spirit of Jeet Kune Do), the settings are original and the cast fantastic (we get Bolo Yeung in a far bigger role than usual, Yeo Su-Jin as a beautiful double agent manipulating the action for the love of her country and even the mighty Steve James fighting Bruce).
Unfortunately it is a little too rough around the edges to be a bona fide classic: there’s a Bruce/Bolo swordfight at the start that’s blatantly spliced in from another film to pad time (a frequent trick of director Velasco, who was almost as splice-happy as Godfrey Ho) and the ending drags on longer than it needs to, as Bruce methodically duffs up every character still standing who hasn’t already been duffed up like he’s ticking off a checklist. But these flaws aside, Enter The Game Of Death is still great fun and shows that you don’t need a lot of money to showcase some stunning and imaginative kung fu.
7: The Dragon Lives Again (1977)
Dir: Law Kei
Bruce: Bruce Leong
This utter insanity opens with the recently deceased Bruce Lee (Bruce Leong) waking up in the Underworld. He is told, by way of explanation of his unfamiliar face, that “your features change a little when you die” (classic!). Unfortunately, things are not well in the Underworld. A Mafia of pop culture icons (including James Bond, Clint Eastwood, Zatoichi, Emmanuelle, The Godfather, and The Exorcist) who were “used to running the show up there” are terrorizing the lesser-known inhabitants like Popeye and The One-Armed Swordsman. Bruce Lee champions the underdogs, teaches them to fight and leads them into battle against an increasingly bonkers series of attackers, including Dracula, an army of skeletons, a troupe of Mummies, and the Devil himself.
If that plot appeals to you, you won’t care about any of this film’s flaws. It delivers exactly what it sets out to and while it’s arguably cheap and exploitative, the dedication at the start (“To the millions who love Bruce Lee”) almost makes it feel like it’s done with love. There’s a vicious subtext as well; a satirical assault on the west that continually rejected Bruce. Seeing him as an immortal hero fighting off many of western cinema’s biggest icons from the ’70s is cathartic and the ending – as absurd as it is (Bruce floats away like Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz) – is even quite poignant.
Despite the crassness, I’d like to think that, of all these movies, this is the one Bruce would probably have enjoyed the most. Surely even he could crack a smile at some of the first class nonsense in here. There’s even a “romantic” sub-plot where loads of naked underworld nymphs fight over Bruce’s manhood (“Beat me with your terrible weapon!”). Honestly, you have to see this to believe it even exists.
6: My Name Called Bruce (1978)
Dir: Joseph Velasco
Bruce: Bruce Le
Right from the opening credits that include (in addition to the mangled title) “super-starring Bruce Le” and “screenplay by Zackey Chan”, My Name Called Bruce is shoddy in the best way and beautifully grindhouse in tone: grimy to look at, drenched in (stolen) disco numbers, and lacking in any fucks that were available to give.
The plot involves a stolen vase that’s smuggled around various countries by a bad dude called “Nifty.” Bruce Le as “Tiger” (a freelance secret agent) and Christina Cheung as “Detective Li” are both in pursuit of it. But who will get there first? This premise seems straightforward but My Name Called Bruce pays little concession to narrative convention (SPOILER ALERT – the vase gets broken half way through the film so no one gets it, but they still carry on fighting!) and is full of surprises as a result.
The cast is fantastic. It’s a shame that Christina Cheung didn’t do anything else (excluding Ninja vs Bruce Lee which reuses her footage from this film, cut-up and redubbed into a new story) because, in another dimension somewhere, she could’ve been A-list. She’s stunningly beautiful and can fight like hell, holding her own against and alongside Le, whose choreography once again shines here. There are some bravura fights (including one where Le is tied to a chair and blindfolded and still wins!), a cool motorcycle chase and all the martial arts on display are dirty, brutal and old-school. The final Eagle Claw fight by the sea is a classic.
Despite its cheapness (and the fact no one says the word ‘Bruce’ throughout), My Name Called Bruce is a great Bruceploitation film and essential to those interested in the more obscure side of Hong Kong cinema.
5: Exit The Dragon, Enter The Tiger (1976)
Dir: Lee Tso-Nam
Bruce: Bruce Li
This one begins with “Bruce Lee” telling Bruce Li that he has received strange phone calls and may die soon. He urges Li to avenge his death should anything happen. Cut to actual stock footage of Lee’s funeral, edited together with shots of Li in mourning as he vows to always honour martial arts and find out the truth behind his master’s death. Li uncovers a drug dealing conspiracy that (for reasons) killed Bruce Lee and duffs everyone up by way of revenge.
This audacious and baffling plot succeeds through the energy and style of its execution. The fights are stunning, pilfering random imagery from Lee films (the gymnast in the yellow tracksuit is hysterical) but adding much of Li’s own martial arts style to it. There’s a skyline fight (always a winner) and the finalé – hero and villain scrapping on the rocks at the edge of Hong Kong as giant waves roar over them – is nothing short of majestic. It’s livened further by some knowingly fun meta gags too, like a scene in which Li is mobbed by young girls who mistake him for the real Bruce Lee.
Despite some choppy editing and a nasty tasteless streak (Bruce’s mistress “Susie Yung” is embroiled in the drugs plot and is a thinly veiled caricature of Betty Ting Pei), this is a well-made and highly entertaining kung fu film with top class fights and one of Bruce Li’s most powerful performances.
4: Enter The Fat Dragon (1978)
Dir: Sammo Hung
Bruce: Sammo Hung (!)
Sammo Hung took on Bruceploitation at full force with Enter The Fat Dragon, at once a hysterical skewering of the genre and one of the best of its kind. Hung plays Ah-Lung, an overweight pig farmer and Bruce Lee fanatic who’s sent to Hong Kong to work for his uncle on a food stall. He soon learns that what’s acceptable in Bruce Lee movies (duffing up everyone you have even so much as a minor disagreement with) doesn’t mirror what’s actually acceptable in Hong Kong, to hilarious effect.
There’s almost no plot in Enter The Fat Dragon. It’s an episodic collection of Ah-Lung’s adventures but almost all the vignettes are a great mix of low-brow physical humor and the satire has sharp teeth, like the scene where Ah-Lung winds up on the set of a crap Bruceploitation movie or the way in which the “Jim Kelly” character is an Asian man in blackface, poking fun at how Hollywood would cast white actors in Asian roles.
Hung’s martial arts skills are phenomenal too – he is a gifted choreographer with a love of flamboyant, original and crowd-pleasing moves. The dinner party fight during which he spontaneously invents new kung fu styles based on different types of food is the stuff of genius; as funny as it is jawdropping.
It’s easy to see, even from this early film, Hung’s unique and brilliant talent emerging. Although Enter The Fat Dragon‘s loose structure doesn’t quite sustain itself for a full 90 minutes, the highs are sky-high and Hung’s imitation of Bruce Lee’s onscreen presence is immaculate.
3: Challenge Of The Tiger (1980)
Dir: Bruce Le
Bruce: Bruce Le
It’s the team up-you’ve always dreamed of! Umm… If you’re me?
Richard Harrison (Ninja Master Gordon from the Godfrey Ho films) and Bruce Le are a pair of CIA buddies on the trail of a secret formula that, if unleashed, will sterilize everyone on earth. Also in pursuit of this season’s must-have McGuffin are a whole bunch of baddies (Viet-Cong, Neo-Nazis, you name it!) played by Hwang Jang Lee, Bolo Yeung, Nadiuska (Conan’s mom), and a star-studded cast of international trash superstars and who all deliver the goods with gusto.
Before the opening credits have finished rolling, Bruce Le’s duffed up about ten dudes in a streetfight and Richard Harrison has played topless tennis with some fashion models. About five minutes later, Bruce is kung fu fighting a bull (an actual… live… bull!) and it only gets nuttier from there. The dialogue is sleazy and the plot ridiculous but the whole thing bludgeons viewers into joyful surrender with its gratuitous nudity, brutal fighting and low-rent daredevil stunts, culminating in a massive, very dangerous looking explosion. This is what happens when you put Bruce Le behind the camera (he wrote and directed this one, as well as starring in it)…
Challenge Of The Tiger is one of most vulgar, crass and dirty martial arts movies I’ve ever seen. It’s so colorful and entertaining and tries furiously to give the audience what they want without ever thinking about whether it fits or is in remotely good taste. Obviously it comes with the trappings of extremely low-budget trash cinema but, if you’re a fan of the genre, this is solid exploitation gold.
2: The Chinese Stuntman (1981)
Dir: Ho Chung-Tao (aka Bruce Li)
Bruce: Bruce Li
Bruce Li directs this one and stars as a lowly insurance clerk who – via a scam that involves the intended murder of a popular kung fu star – gets enmeshed in the corrupt end of the Hong Kong film industry. He’s initially hired as a stunt double but soon becomes a star himself and, the higher he goes, the deeper the corruption runs…
The Chinese Stuntman is, without any competition, Li’s masterpiece. It’s got a strong plot with actual twists and characters you care about. It’s a semi-autobiography, a homage to a golden age of eastern stuntwork, a vicious swipe at industry sharks and an effective action film loaded with passionate, brutal kung fu in many styles. The cast is great too and boasts a rare fighting appearance by Bruce Lee’s best friend, Guru Dan Inosanto.
The postmodern aspect of the film is way ahead of its time. From the clever thematic subtexts (e.g. various iconic Bruce Lee costumes appearing on background characters, the idea being that Lee fades into the background as Li as a viable actor/director in his own right, reaches the foreground) to the outright film-within-a-film self-reference, this all works better than it has any right to given the era. It’s witty, perceptive and cleverly executed.
The Chinese Stuntman still hasn’t been reappraised as one of the better films of its epoch, which is tragic because it’s a fantastic martial arts piece and deserves better than to be confined to the niche prison of Bruceploitation. Sadly, it was to be Li’s final film. He claims he saw the traditional martial arts film as a dying art and didn’t want to go down with a sinking ship although it’s just as likely that The Chinese Stuntman‘s subversive nature upset one too many producers. Still, as swansongs go, this is an impressive full stop and says all it needs to say.
1: Game Of Death (1978)
Dir: Robert Clouse
Bruce(s): Bruce Lee, Yuen Biao, Kim Tai-chung
It’s hard not to compare Robert Clouse’s Game Of Death with the film that Bruce Lee began shooting in 1972 and, obviously, comparisons are unfavourable. A mythical masterpiece that no one will ever see versus the reality of a film spliced together to capitalise on pieces of unused footage isn’t really a fair fight.
Yet Game Of Death – while nothing like Bruce’s original vision – is a great movie in its own right. There’s a ton of talent involved; Clouse himself, the gifted Sammo Hung as the choreographer, a strong supporting cast (including Colleen Camp – who also sings the amazing John Barry penned theme song) and they all pull some fine tricks out the bag.
The twitchy scenes where flickers of real Bruce reaction shots are edited into new conversations have not fared well on DVD (where you really notice it) but, these quirks aside, it’s technically way above any other Bruceploitation film. The photography is stylish and there are some gorgeous neon street settings. It has an eerie atmosphere (made eerier by several spooky coincidences, like the bullet trick scene mirroring Brandon Lee’s death some 15 years later) and a plot that, while slightly strange (and ironically borrowing heavily from the previous five years of Bruceploitation), somehow works.
Bruce – and a couple of doubles in sunglasses, fake beards and shadowy lighting – plays Billy Lo, a stuntman who’s persecuted by a mysterious “syndicate” out to exploit him. After they shoot him and leave him for dead, he gets reconstructive surgery, fakes his demise and takes revenge from beyond the grave. We even get the obligatory Bruce Lee funeral stock footage thrown in for good measure.
Of course, where this really wins out over its peers is the use of Bruce’s original Game Of Death footage. Nowadays, we’ve all seen all the full 40 minute pagoda scene in its astonishing glory (and if you haven’t, please do yourself a favor and watch Game Of Death Revisited right now) but the 11 minutes used here represent the first time the public had seen any of it and wow. It is pure magic. Even outside of the spiritual and philosophical context Lee intended for them, these fights are incredible; some of Bruce’s best and, by extension of that, some of the best ever committed to film. You could’ve had 80 minutes of random Chinese dudes belching the music from Enter The Dragon and followed it with the pagoda fights and it would’ve been worth it, so the fact that Game Of Death provides solid entertainment as a prelude is a bonus.
As much as the Bruceploitation boom created a slew of fascinating martial arts films – some terrible, some brilliant, some brilliantly terrible – Game Of Death goes to show you can’t beat the real thing. It also puts it all into context – the almost supernatural talent of a man so good at what he did he inspired a whole genre devoted to imitating him – and (ironically) reaffirms his uniqueness.
Brucie Bonus – honorable mentions: Bruce Lee Fights Back From The Grave, Return Of The Tiger, Bruce The King Of kung fu, Bruce And The Shaolin Bronzemen, Bruce Li In New Guinea.
Bruce Abuse – the worst of the bunch: True Game Of Death, The Young Bruce Lee, Superdragon vs Superman, Goodbye Bruce Lee: His Last Game Of Death.
This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK on July 7th, 2015.