In the long history of action cinema, there have been numerous icons, legends, and then there was Bruce Lee, whose name alone conjures up thoughts about a man of impeccable physical prowess, unparalleled martial arts technique, and a magnetic presence in his movies.
However, to reduce this man to a mere action star would be an understatement because we are not just talking about his well-known flying kicks and echoing battle cries here: his legacy has forever transformed the way Asian culture is perceived by the rest of the world.
Indeed, his contribution goes beyond combat cinema, for Bruce was not only the greatest warrior ever to appear on the silver screen, but he was also a teacher, philosopher, and pioneer of a way of life that we could condense into Jeet Kune Do.
It was when he emigrated to faraway America, with only $102 in his pocket and a luggage full of hope, that he perfected his winning formula to break the traditional restrictions of martial arts by creating something flexible, practical, and affordable for all those eager to learn, the ancestor of what we all know today as MMA, Mixed Martial Arts.
As with anything involving most legends, the cinematic industry has tried many times to replicate the magic of Bruce Lee movies, from look-alikes to biopics, countless directors and actors have tried to honor this martial arts prodigy.
And it is precisely this cinema that we will talk about today, presenting a series of tributes to life, death, and even beyond (read to believe) everything about the myth of the tremendous invincible dragon who came from faraway mysterious Hong Kong.
Table of contents
Birth of the Dragon (2016)
The first movie is about the San Francisco turmoil of the 1960s, with a young Bruce Lee trying to make his name in martial arts circles.
While a large majority of people already recognize his talent, many others criticize his provocative approach and modern outlook on martial arts stirring up controversy.
Among his students is Steve McKee, a young American with a passion for martial arts, who one day by chance meets Mr. Wong Jack Man, who recently landed in town after being in a self-imposed exile.
Indeed, the man was once a Shaolin monk with legendary fighting skills, yet he loses his reputation after severely wounding an opponent with a forbidden blow.
His appearance stimulates the eagerness for confrontation in the resourceful Bruce, who looks for any way to get to a duel where he can finally demonstrate the technical superiority of his martial style.
Initially, Wong Jack refuses to fall for his provocations but ends up accepting the fight to save from slavery young Xiulan, an illegal immigrant having an affair with his new protégé Steve.
Everything will culminate in one of the most epic underground fights ever, with an outcome as surprising as it is unpredictable.
George Nolfi‘s direction falls within the American standard for a production with adequate technical means and two skillful Asian actors, Philip Ng and Yu Xia, who respectively play compelling Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man.
It’s fun to see Bruce still young, arrogant, and impulsive before he was a legend, against the wiser and quieter penitent monk who will succeed in opening his mind at the final step to success.
Leaving aside the poor historical and psychological script, Birth of the Dragon nevertheless remains one of the most entertaining and recent cinematic tributes to Bruce Lee’s life.
Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010)
With the next movie, we move to the heart of 1940s and 1950s Hong Kong for a story that is almost more about family and friends than the actual Bruce Lee.
It all begins with his birth in San Francisco in 1940, where his father, Lee Hoi-Chuen, was touring as an actor and singer along with his famous theater troupe.
Later returning home, the family grows up in a prosperous and happy environment, although young Bruce (called Phoenix by everyone, a female name for superstition against demons) often gets in trouble with constant street fights along with his small gang.
The darkest period began with the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, which made life extremely hard for the Chinese population, with constant harassment and abuse by the military authorities.
Meanwhile, the bonds between Bruce and his friends grow stronger, especially with Unicorn, a producer’s young son introducing him to cinematic studios and then martial arts, taking him to the famous Ip Man‘s dojo to study the Wing Chun style.
But the trouble with a dangerous gang of traffickers will ruin his life forever, so young Bruce Lee must flee to faraway America, where he was born and then will become a legend.
The story by no means aims to mythologize beyond the human the young Bruce or his family, describing a challenging environment where amidst a thousand difficulties, the will and spirit of this extraordinary warrior still successfully emerge.
Anyone who wants to explore a different side of this iconic actor, beyond the famous fights of his movies, will surely find a sweet unexpected surprise.
Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993)
After his family background and early years in America, let us switch now to a movie about the most glorious period of Bruce Lee’s career and life.
After quitting his humble job as a dishwasher, Bruce began attending college, studying philosophy; while to earn a few bucks, he taught martial arts to some classmates who admired his incredible physical prowess.
During these lessons, he meets Linda, his future American wife, but their relationship is hampered by cultural discrimination and racial tensions.
Nevertheless, their love thrives and is solidified by the birth of their first child, the equally famous (and unfortunate) Brandon Lee.
After facing the prejudices of his Chinese compatriots, reluctant to teach martial arts to foreigners, Bruce concentrates on perfecting his style, writing his philosophy/fighting memoir Tao of Jeet Kune Do, which would lead to his first television roles.
However, authentic success would come only after his return to Hong Kong, where he would finally get a chance to make it big with veteran producer Philipp Tan; later also came to Hollywood with the movie Enter the Dragon, which, unfortunately, Bruce never got a chance to watch in theaters.
This time we have at the helm Rob Cohen, the well-established action director of the first Fast and Furious (the only one I save in the entire saga), staging an entertaining showcase with the milestones of Bruce Lee’s career.
In short, we are undoubtedly talking about a highly debatable but also passionate and exciting biography that will delight any fond of dear old Bruce.
No Retreat No Surrender (1985)
The next movie is boorish and ignorant to the extreme, yet with a bit of a romantic dedication regarding our beloved dragon of Hong Kong cinema.
The protagonist of this American-style all-action is Jason, obviously a martial arts enthusiast who idolizes Bruce Lee.
After his father, Tom is brutally defeated in his gym by a powerful and ruthless opponent named Ivan, the family relocates to a new town to leave the trauma and humiliation behind.
Unfortunately, The new home fails to be quite welcoming, and Jason catches the attention of some local bullies, who make life hard for him both at school and the gym.
Trying to find a place to train in peace, Jason discovers an old abandoned dojo, and, on the very first night, the guiding spirit of Bruce Lee unexpectedly appears, accepting him as a student and teaching him all the tricks of his famous fighting style.
With the help of Bruce’s ghost, Jason rapidly improves in the martial arts, just in time for the arrival of an illegal fight promoter in town, who challenges every possible opponent by having the fearsome Ivan as his own champion.
As said, let’s take this movie for what it is: disposable entertainment for the direction of the certainly not unforgettable directors Corey Yuen and David Worth.
Still, it’s fun to witness the cinematic resurrection of old Bruce Lee as a charismatic sensei teaching the basics of his lifestyle and fighting today as in the past.
Equally hilarious is Jean-Claude Van Damme as a psychopathic villain, strictly of Russian descent, who blusters with style in a series of really well-choreographed fights.
A pleasant and mouth-watering sin we can indulge in since, in cinema, fortunately, we do not live solely on masterpieces.
The Dragon Lives Again (1977)
Finally, I want to conclude with an absurd movie virtually unknown to today’s audiences, nonetheless one of the warmest tributes not only to Bruce Lee but also about the whole cinematic universe in general.
It all begins after the myth’s death, in the afterlife, where Bruce awakens confused and lost in a bizarre parallel paradise inhabited by characters of fame and legend from the world of fiction.
While trying to understand the rules of this strange new reality, Bruce realizes his fame precedes him, but not necessarily in a good way.
Indeed, not even arrived, he already has enemies, some hosts of this otherworldly realm such as James Bond, the Exorcist, Dracula, or Sergio Leone‘s famous Man with No Name, who see his presence as a threat to their power and decide to join forces to eliminate him.
Fortunately, Bruce will not be alone in his struggle, being able to count on the alliance with Popeye, the sexy erotic star Emmanuelle and above all, the great hero Kwai Chang Caine, the protagonist of the martial western series Kung Fu, paradoxically a role Bruce Lee himself was supposed to play but later went to the charming David Carradine, renowned Bill from Quentin Tarantino‘s Kill Bill saga.
I honestly wouldn’t know what else to say about this movie, except it’s an experience every Bruce Lee lover should try once in a lifetime.
Indeed, despite the low-budget poorness of this production made of paltry special effects and cheap cardboard sets, director Chi Lo‘s work remains a unique and bizarre example of 1970s Hong Kong cinema.
Lead actor Bruce Leung fares well as an imitation dragon, exploiting the trend of that film period to capitalize on popularity after Bruce Lee’s death.