Bruce Lee is the greatest international movie star in history. An iconic cult figure whose larger than life persona still looms forty years after his mysterious death, Bruce Lee made martial arts the it thing in the United States during the 1970’s.
Find a kid in the 1970’s or 1980’s who didn’t emulate Bruce Lee in some way and I’ll show you a deprived kid.
My first glimpse of Bruce Lee was on a poster in my cousin’s bedroom. Bruce was in his famous stance; scars on his chest and face courtesy of Mr. Han, Lee’s antagonist in Enter the Dragon — his last full length movie. It was one of the most popular posters of the 1970’s, and the only one more scenic was Farrah Fawcett’s bathing suit shot.
My Saturday afternoons were spent watching Kung Fu flicks on television or at the movies. Punches, kicks and shrieks — symbolic of our hero — were at a premium once the credits began rolling and nothing was more nerve-racking to parents than a pre-teen version of Fists of Fury. Kids who weren’t quick or skilled enough by our weak standards ended up on the side licking their wounds or headed to the medicine cabinet.
When Bruce Lee let out one of those cat calls, you can bet someone was going to die or be seriously injured. With us, it just meant we zigged when we should’ve zagged.
And that was just on Saturdays.
After going over with participating classmates what we watched over the weekend, Kung Fu Theater played out during morning and afternoon recess –which was all fun and games — until someone got hurt.
When the injuries were too painful or visible to suck up, the nurses office began to fill up. Before you knew it, the school placed a ban on kicking and horseplay of any kind. With the threat of suspension hanging over our heads, we were through as aspiring martial artists.
That was Bruce Lee’s effect on us. As inner city kids, we easily aligned ourselves with Bruce because his characters came from humble backgrounds. They remained timid and unassuming until a switch was flipped. There was something unmistakably bad ass about a 5’6″, 145 dynamo going through twenty guys at once, and if he got his hands on a pole or unsheathed his Nunchakus, double that tally.
Whether it was Bruce Lee or later classics released by the Shaw Bros., martial arts was in our blood and our two-hour training sessions took place in front of the television.
And none of us knew what the hell we were doing.
I don’t have a favorite Bruce Lee movie. I’ve seen Enter the Dragon and Fists of Fury the most. Enter the Dragon was his best work and the first Kung Fu movie produced by Hollywood. Lee passed away three day’s before the premiere in Hong Kong (July 20, 1973) at the age of 32. Appearing in the movie with Lee was African-American martial arts star Jim Kelly. Kelly passed away on June 29, 2013 at the age of 67.
Lee was at his physical peak in Enter the Dragon. If it was possible for Lee to be any more explosive, it was evidenced in editing when some of the fight sequences were shot in slow motion to add emphasis and look more realistic.
The best scene in the movie and one of Lee’s greatest fight scenes is his showdown with Mr. Han. Han trafficked drugs and had a prostitution ring and camouflaged his “business” with a martial arts school — which held an annual competition for him to handpick his cronies. One of Han’s henchmen, O’Hara, was responsible for the suicide of Lee’s sister. Ironically, Lee meets O’Hara in the competition and before they begin, O’Hara breaks a board in a display of strength. Unimpressed, Lee responds, “Boards don’t hit back” and Lee promptly avenges his sister when O’Hara doesn’t respond to defeat. Han has already killed off Kelly’s character Williams and is looking to do the same to Lee’s character — who with Williams was hired by Braithwaite to serve on an undercover mission on Han’s secluded island.
Prior to their confrontation, Lee charges Han accordingly, “You have offended my family and you have offended the Shaolin Temple.” After opening up with several kicks to the face, Lee was on the receiving end of Han’s prosthetic claw. After tasting his own blood, Lee strikes Han with a front roundhouse kick, seemingly decapitating the dope-peddling pimp. Ultimately, Lee disposes of Han in a classic house of mirrors end scene.
My favorite Bruce Lee fight is probably the dock scene in The Big Boss or Fists of Fury (1972). It was Lee’s first major movie, and propelled him into stardom throughout Asia. Lee’s character, Cheng travels from China to Thailand to live with relatives while working in an ice factory. The factory serves as a front for a drug smuggling ring led by the owner, Hsiao Mi. Two of Cheng’s cousins are killed by Mi when they discover the secret but refuse to cooperate. Two more cousins are also killed by Mi — who later bribes Cheng by making him a foreman and distracting him with whores and booze. When one of the prostitutes tells Cheng the truth about his family members, he kills one of Mi’s sons. Upon returning home, Cheng finds Mi has slaughtered the remainder of his family — setting up a showdown with Mi.
The sign reads: Sick man of Asia, a reference to the Chinese.
The Chinese Connection (United States) or Fist of Fury (1972) was Lee’s most socially conscious work. Lee’s character Chen defends Chinese tradition in the face of Japanese oppression and carries the classic student avenges slain master plot.
Chen returns the the Jingwu school to marry his fiancee to find his teacher was poisoned by the Japanese in the Hongkou district.
After Chen defeats the Japanese dojo, he’s refused admittance into a park and shown a sign that reads: “No dogs and Chinese allowed”. Chen is approached by a Japanese man who says he’ll take him into the park if he pretends he’s a dog and after Chen beats up three Japanese men in about ten seconds, he destroys the racist sign and goes on his way. The plot thickens as Chen is eventually wanted by the Japanese, but the Jingwu will not turn Chen over. Once Chen learns the truth behind his teachers death, he exacts his revenge at the same time members of the Jingwu School are killed. Bruce slowly goes into a rage that takes him to the edge of madness. The master of the Hongkou School, Suzuki, has informed police of Chen’s actions. He is expected to surrender and the end scene is Chen running at police as they open fire.
The fight scenes eventually altered the style of fighting in Hong Kong cinema by doing away with swordplay and switching to bare-handed fighting. This ushered in the Golden Era of Kung Fu we witnessed in the 1970’s following Lee’s death.
Lee’s greatest fight scene occurred in Way of the Dragon or Return of the Dragon (United States, 1972). Tang Lung (Bruce Lee), travels from Hong Kong to Rome to help his Uncle Wang because Wang’s restaurant is being shaken down by the local mafia. Tang befriends several Chinese restaurant owners and teaches them Kung Fu in order to defend themselves. After surviving several attempts on his life from the mafia and betrayal by his uncle, Tang meets the mafia’s top fighter Colt (Chuck Norris) in the Colosseum.
The only thing more impressive than Lee’s breakdown of Norris in this fight was his warm up. The range with which Lee flexed and contorted his body was reminiscent of a spring; no matter the direction it’s turned in, it always returns to its natural form.
The Game of Death (1972), Game of Death (1978) wasn’t completed because of Enter the Dragon shooting and his untimely death. The intended cast for the uncompleted version was to include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Jim Kelly, Chuck Norris and Bolo Yeung — a Kung Fu version of the Magnificent Seven. The filmed version of the movie did include Abdul-Jabbar — who fought Lee in a memorable scene. The only portion of the plot which remained consistent was Hai Tien (Bruce Lee) fighting through a pagoda of guardians on five floors, ending in his battle with Hakim (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
Lee’s legacy has lived on through books (he has written three) and movies. His impact on popular American culture is matched by few. Prior to his movie debut, Lee appeared in the Green Hornet series (1966-1967) as well as cameo appearances on Batman, Blondie and Ironside.
Like most iconic figures passing before their time, Bruce Lee is larger in death than in life. His following ranges from fans of his movies to those who have followed his philosophy. A philosophy influenced by Buddhism, Jiddu Krishnamurti and Taoism. One of my favorite Lee quotes may best explain his view on life:
“Be formless … shapeless, like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You pour water into a bottle; it becomes the bottle. You put water into a teapot; it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or creep or drip or crash! Be water, my friend …”
Kobe Bryant’s Zoom V is a tribute to Bruce Lee.
Lee’s cult following inspired the NBA’s Kobe Bryant. Nike and the Los Angeles Lakers superstar paid homage to Lee in 2010 by releasing a shoe commemorating Enter the Dragon. The shoe is black and yellow — the colors Lee wore in The Game of Death — with four red stripes in the front of the shoe. The blood is symbolic of Lee’s blood in his fight with aforementioned Mr. Han in Enter the Dragon, and Lee has been depicted in several video games as well.
Bruce Lee was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the 20th Century, and on June 15, 2013, a statue of Lee was unveiled in Chinatown in Los Angeles.
The death of Bruce Lee gave birth to several cheap facsimiles of the original and produced several movies starring Lee look-alikes. Bruceploitation took over in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan and before you knew it, we were watching Bruce Li mixed in with old Bruce Lee movie footage. We knew we were being faked out, but anything Bruce was better than no Bruce. Despite some of the actors resembling Lee physically and even in choreography, the plots were poor, so before long, I was pulled into movies made by the Shaw Brothers.
Watching Bruce Lee knockoffs was like listening to Shyne because he reminded you of Biggie.
Our love for Bruce Lee comes from a cool factor on the level of the afro, Soul Power and anything else we could muster in the 1970’s. There was a new kind of Black coming out of the Civil Rights Movement and it was aggressive, aware and proud. Bruce Lee let us in his world with no strings attached. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar studied the arts under Lee and he was close to Jim Kelly. The “No dogs and Chinese allowed” scene in The Chinese Connection was as powerful as the “Whites Only” sign Blacks saw before and during the Civil Rights Era. Chen not backing down from the establishment or its minions and eventually giving his life for that cause won us over forever. Lee had to overcome racial stigmas here in the U.S. as a budding star, so there has always been a correlation between the same struggle Blacks experienced. I learned the physician giving Bruce his English name is Dr. Mary Glover. Maybe no relation to yours truly, but I have my connection.
I think back to an episode of Chappelle’s Show where there was a race draft, where races fictitiously selected individuals from other races to join their own race. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m taking Bruce Lee with my first pick.
Naturally, that ideology goes everything Lee believed in and if we are to be like water he spoke of, we should be able to see one another as pure, transparent and without color.