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The 7 best movies from martial arts master Bruce Lee, ranked

It's time to binge these stellar Bruce Lee movies

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, though. Despite the reputation that he’s developed in the years since his death, Lee is an icon of cinema history for a reason. He was a master in acting, writing, directing, and — of course — fight choreography.  What’s more, Lee’s influence has been sewn into the fabric of fighting movies, where it can be felt everywhere from Quentin Tarantino to The Raid 2.

Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon (1973)
Warner Brothers/Getty Images

These days, Lee is more known for his influence than the films he actually created, which is a shame considering how good the movies he starred in, choreographed, and created are. Now, we’re here to break down the best of his output.

(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.)

7. The Way of the Dragon, aka Return of the Dragon (1972)
7. The Way of the Dragon, aka Return of the Dragon
58 %
r 100m
Genre Action, Crime
Stars Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, Chuck Norris
Directed by Bruce Lee
Although The 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.

6. The Kid (1950)
6. The Kid
Stars Bruce Lee, Chau-shui Yee, Lee Hoi-Chuen
Directed by Fung Fung
At just 10 years old, Lee was already working regularly in movies, but The Kid was his first chance to really show off his potential. Playing the starring role in the film, Lee is a child who finds himself being trained by a thief, even as he attempts to make a life with his uncle. Really, though, the movie is just a great opportunity for Lee to show off his command of his body. He’s seen mocking his teacher, squaring off against opponents, and doing some of the signature movies that would eventually become hallmarks of his career. Even at 10 Lee was already a star, but The Kid was only the beginning of the legendary career he would eventually have.

5. Fist of Fury, aka The Chinese Connection (1972)
5. Fist of Fury, aka The Chinese Connection
68 %
r 108m
Genre Drama, Action, Thriller
Stars Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, Maria Yi
Directed by Lo Wei
Bruce Lee specialized in choreographing fight scenes where he was 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, but is charming nonetheless. 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.

4. The Big Boss, aka Fists of Fury (1971)
4. The Big Boss, aka Fists of Fury
r 100m
Genre Action
Directed by Lo Wei
Although not considered one of Lee’s best movies, a critical reading of The Big Boss‘s politics reveals subtle Marxist themes relating to worker uprisings, lifting it intellectually above some of Lee’s flashier films. In the movie, 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.

3. Game of Death (1978)
3. Game of Death
36 %
r 101m
Genre Drama, Action, Thriller, Crime
Stars Bruce Lee, Gig Young, Dean Jagger
Directed by Robert Clouse
Let’s get this out of the way: Game of Death was made in poor taste. The movie, filmed partially before Bruce Lee’s death, replaced him 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 Lee doesn’t always look like himself 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 filled with imagery that is now synonymous with Lee’s legacy.

2. The Orphan (1960)
2. The Orphan
Stars Bruce Lee, Pak Yin, Ng Cho-Fan
Directed by Lee Sun-Fung
Giving one of the most grounded, complicated performances of his career, Lee didn’t let one of his early chances to be at the center of a film go to waste. Lee apparently modeled the troubled teenage character in the film off of James Dean’s performance in Rebel Without a Cause, and it shows. The film, which tells the relatively simple story of a street hood who gives up his life as a thug after befriending the headmaster of a local school, works largely because of Lee’s central performance. His swagger and commitment to the role had some concerned that he was a bad influence, but it was impossible to deny that he was a star in the making.

1. Enter the Dragon (1973)
1. Enter the Dragon
83 %
r 102m
Genre Action
Stars Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly
Directed by Robert Clouse
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 U.S. 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 about post-colonial Asia, but if that’s above your head just sit back and enjoy the gorgeously choreographed fight scenes and sleazy 1970s charm.

Editors' Recommendations

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