Bruce Lee, one of the most iconic Asian-American actors of all time, once famously said: “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”
But Lee was more than a pithy quote-generating machine. Despite recent questionable depictions of the martial arts superstar in films like Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Lee was a master in both acting, writing, directing, and — of course — fight choreography. Lee has sewn his influence into the fabric of combat cinema, where it can be felt far beyond Tarantino.
These days, Lee is more known by his influence than the films he actually created, which is a shame considering how good the movies he starred in, choreographed, and created truly are. Now, we’re here to break down Bruce’s best of the best.
(Note: Lee’s films were often renamed in different regions of the world meaning that each film has a few different titles depending on where they were released.)
5. Way of the Dragon AKA Return of the Dragon (1972)
Although Way of the Dragon is one of Lee’s better-known films, the tone is starkly different from his more serious endeavors. It’s actually a pretty silly movie, and Lee’s comedic timing is astonishingly impeccable throughout. There’s definitely a sense of pure pleasure to be had in the movie’s unapologetic stupidity and near incoherence, and Chuck Norris’s ridiculous presence and terrible acting cement it as a camp classic. The plot is ostensibly about Lee defending restaurant-owning relatives in Italy from an onslaught of gangsters, but it barely matters, to be honest.
4. Fist of Fury AKA The Chinese Connection (1972)
Bruce Lee specializes in choreographing fight scenes where he’s absurdly outnumbered, and Fist of Fury shows off this specific talent of his in spades. The story is paradigmatic of the “I must avenge my master!” trope in a truly charming way. There’s certainly some jingoism in there, too, with Lee representing the honor of the Chinese fighting against the wanton imperialism of the Japanese. The English dubbing was described by John Gillett of the Monthly Film Bulletin as “inept,” but if you can’t find the appeal in that, perhaps you’re missing the point.
3. The Big Boss AKA Fist of Fury (1971)
Although not considered one of Lee’s best movies, a critical reading of the movie’s politics reveals subtle Marxist themes relating to worker uprisings, lifting it intellectually above some of Lee’s flashier films. In The Big Boss, an inexplicably gifted martial artist (obviously played by Lee) moves in with his extended family and finds work at an ice factory. When Lee discovers the whole operation is a cover for drug smuggling, he undertakes a quest for justice that pits him against an entire criminal enterprise, as the proletariat rises up to fight for their rights. The choreography is sparser here than in Lee’s better-known movies, but Thailand provides an interesting backdrop and gives the film a unique aesthetic.
2. Game of Death (1978)
Let’s get this out of the way: Game of Death was made in poor taste. The movie, filmed partially before Bruce’s death, replaced Lee posthumously and then used footage of his actual funeral in the final edit. The movie was then pieced together by making quick work of unused bits from Lee’s other films, resulting in a barely coherent story including a plastic surgery subplot that explains why Bruce doesn’t always look like Bruce in the movie. But if you can ignore the indignities, Game of Death is shockingly compelling and — importantly — features Lee’s iconic yellow and black jumpsuit.
Structured like a video game, Lee’s character ascends a tower to fight an ever-increasing series of bosses, one of whom just happens to be the basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Game of Death is certainly accursed, but it’s still somehow a deeply entertaining movie whose imagery is now synonymous with Lee’s legacy.
1. Enter The Dragon (1973)
Widely considered one of the best movies of 1973 and one of the best martial arts movies of all time, Enter The Dragon is probably Lee’s magnum opus. It’s also the last complete film he appeared in before his death that same year. It’s no surprise that in 2004 it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, having officially been deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
With aesthetic cues taken from the James Bond franchise and with the blaxploitation movement just getting started, Lee teams up with James Minton Kelly and John Saxon to take on a criminal empire. Academics have since interpreted the film to be an allegory of post-colonial Asia, but if that’s above your head just sit back and enjoy the gorgeously choreographed fight scenes and sleazy 70’s charm.
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