Lemme tell ya about my pal Karate Hottie. She's a smart, funny, cute and pulchritudinous bit of woman who is well-versed in many areas of interest and personal achievement save for two things that myself and some of our extended family are vying for her personal guru rights over: comic books — superhero and otherwise — and movies. I can understand how she wouldn’t have been exposed to the comic book thing (which is not to say that some of my favorite women aren’t stone cold comics geeks; shout-out to Amanda, Jewish Warrior Princess, Jessica, Joan, Andrea, Jill, Heidi and Pia!), but how about 99% of the movies that everyone in the world, even as-yet-undiscovered tribesmen deep within the Amazon rain forest, have seen managed to elude her I cannot explain. Too busy being foxy I guess…
Anyway, considering her practical enthusiasm for the martial arts I was shocked to discover she’d never seen that seminal chopsocky classic ENTER THE DRAGON, the film that I would bet my left arm caused more people to sign up for martial arts instruction than any other influence (although I do know a Wing Chun master who’s studied that art since he first saw THE GREEN HORNET television series back in 1966 and was wowed by Bruce Lee’s moves, some seven years before others had their minds expanded by Lee in ENTER THE DRAGON). Once I got over being appalled at this glaring omission from her education I promised to sit her through it, but the more I thought about it I realized that while ENTER THE DRAGON may be a landmark in the martial arts movie genre, it kind of sucks ass when Bruce Lee isn’t killing everyone within arm’s length. Oh, don’t look so shocked; sure, Bruce rules like a motherfucker, but the movie has one of the most feeble of plots for a film considered a classic, and while Jim “the Afro of the Gods” Kelly is indisputably awesome, he has too little to do. And if those points aren’t strong enough for you, all I have to say to you is three little words: John fucking Saxon. Quod erat demonstrandum.
That said, I nonetheless recommend ENTER THE DRAGON for its still-awesome fight sequences, but some of Bruce’s other completed films are better or at least more interesting than his most well known effort. So, caring about nothing other than educating Karate Hottie (and by default, you, Dear Reader) on the films of history’s most popular big screen ass-kicker, here’s a handy field guide to the all-too-sparse catalog of Lee Jun-Fan.
FISTS OF FURY (aka THE BIG BOSS, 1971)
You know you're in trouble when the poster is better than the movie.
Released in China as THE BIG BOSS, when this flick fell into the hands of American distributors it was supposed to be renamed THE CHINESE CONNECTION in order to link its drug-smuggling content with that of then-recent hit movie THE FRENCH CONNECTION, but thanks to a major fuck-up that title was instead given to FIST OF FURY — a film that has nothing whatsoever to do with heroin — while this flick ended up as the pluralized FISTS OF FURY. Anyway, everybody’s gotta start somewhere, and this was Lee’s first full-length foray into kung fu movies. Taken for what it is, it’s a sub par ass-whuppin’ actioner made notable solely by the presence of Bruce, but it established his onscreen persona as the highly skilled badass who uses his considerable ass-whuppin’ talents to fight for the “little guy,” in this case a bunch of workers at a Thai ice factory who get murdered when they refuse to become part of the boss’ drug smuggling operation. The fights are not spectacular by any means, but what is there is watchable and Bruce’s intensity definitely gets one’s attention. Worth seeing only for its status as a launching pad, your enjoyment — or mere tolerance, if you will — of this film can be much enhanced with the aid of several beers (or your potent potable of choice), a bag of decent weed and a bong, properly decorated with an easily-obtainable Bruce Lee decal. Oh, and this film was heavily censored during its initial Chinese run, excising much gore and violence perceived as too gratuitous, most famously a bit where Bruce stuffs a hand saw through a guy’s head (see below). Why the fuck would you edit something as awesome as that? Well, at least a still of this glorious moment in cinema exists…
FIST OF FURY (aka THE CHINESE CONNECTION, 1972)
THE CHINESE CONNECTION is an archetypal “You killed my master!” revenge flick that has Bruce as the top student at a kung fu school in Japanese-occupied China whose master is poisoned by the dastardly Samurai fuckheads at a local karate/swordsmanship/Japstuff dojo. Bruce and his schoolmates endure all kinds of shit from the intolerably obnoxious Japanese because their teacher did not believe in vengeance, but since this is a Bruce Lee movie it’s only a matter of time until Bruce puts his slipper-clad foot right up the collective ass of every motherfucker in the dojo, all while firmly standing up for Chinese pride in the face of imperialist racism and bullshit and being saddled with an unintentionally (?) hilarious dubbed voice that reminds the viewer of John Wayne.
Intense and violent as hell, complete with some of Bruce’s — and martial arts cinema’s — most spectacular fights, and the mother of all downbeat endings, this is simply the best film Bruce Lee ever made and it’s painfully obvious when Bruce stepped in to stage and choreograph the fights with his Hollywood trained eye since the hack director handles every other sequence in a rather pedestrian style that was common to much of Hong Kong cinema at the time. Seriously, if you're going to see only one Bruce Lee movie in your short time here on Earth, this is the one you should see.
RETURN OF THE DRAGON (1972)
Originally THE WAY OF THE DRAGON, this was released in the West after the success of the US/Hong Kong Warner Brothers collaboration ENTER THE DRAGON — more on that in a moment — , hence the cash-in moniker. The story, involving Bruce as a badassed country bumpkin sent to Rome to protect a relative’s Chinese restaurant from abuse by the Mafia, is no great shakes, but this is the only finished film completely directed by Lee from start to finish, and the fights rock some major ass. The highlights include Bruce decimating the mob’s attempts to fuck with his countrymen, employing hand-carved darts and two pair of 'chuks (nunchaku), and a stunning one-on-one battle between Bruce and Chuck Norris in the Colosseum that has justly been hailed as one of the classic set-tos of the entire genre.
Fuck WALKER, TEXAS RANGER! This is Chuck Norris at his very best.ENTER THE DRAGON (1973)
And just look at that kick! Sheer beauty.
And just look at that kick! Sheer beauty.
But to be totally honest, the only real reason to see this is for the fights. The story kind of just sits there and only comes to anything resembling life when Bruce is caving in heads with his limbs or a couple of pairs of deftly-applied 'chuks. Some form of inebriation is recommended here, probably a couple of stiff shots of tequila.
Perhaps no other film exemplifies what Westerners think of as a kung fu flick as much as this textbook tournament story. Bruce is a Shaolin monk/bad motherfucker sent by British intelligence to participate in an exclusive competition on a kung fu megalomaniac’s private island while simultaneously searching out a missing British operative/mole and gunning for the gweilo scumbag (Bob Wall) who caused his hapkido badass sister (Angela Mao Ying) to kill herself rather than endure being raped. The James Bond angle is a bit of a reach and in no way fits in with Bruce’s established “badass for the little guy” persona, plus the story is virtually non-existant, but when you have this much wall-to-wall, balls out ass-whuppin’ who fucking cares?
Lee’s fighting skills verge on the superhuman and there is not one other character in the whole piece that is even remotely a challenge for him — certainly not an out-of-his-league John Saxon — with even the final battle against the claw-handed main baddie being pretty much a case of Bruce Lee kicking an old man’s ass, but it’s a two-hands-on-your-cock pleasure nonetheless to see him and Jim Kelly, the god of the over-the-top Afro, beat the snot out of all comers.
Jim Kelly, taking time out from kicking ass and being generally awesome. NOTE: his 'fro is somewhat held in check in this pic thanks to his headphones, but I assure you it's a thing of great beauty and excellence. In fact, it's downright inspirational (well, it was to me at least).
ENTER THE DRAGON's highlights are many, but I have to single out two bits in particular:
1. Bruce’s so-unfair-that-it’s-embarrassing beat-down on Bob Wall, in which Lee’s movements were so fast that the film had to be overcranked — which renders the footage somewhat slower than live speed — so they could be seen on screen, and even then his leading fist is a virtual blur.
No bullshit, this sequence showcases some of the fastest and most beautiful hand techniques (Bruce's) that I've ever seen. When this part comes on I've been known to hit rewind and watch it over and over in slo-mo. Excuse me, I have something in my eye...
2. The battle in the underground dungeon/heroin processing plant where Lee takes on about a hundred guys using his fists, feet, a pole, two Escrima clubs and a pair of nunchaku.
The sequence that launched countless at-home concussions by way of (failed) imitation.
That fight shocked the living Hell out of people when it was first seen, and I can tell you from personal experience that when I first saw it I felt like someone had shoved a live power cable carrying four million volts right up my ass, so astounded was I by the incredible display of "fatal ballet" on the screen. I'd already been into the martial arts, but that scene was the moment that cemented that interest for life and also led me to learn how to use nunchaku; like many an errant youth, I was was mostly self-taught in the use of that particular weapon, and years later I was relieved to discover that I was not alone in nearly caving-in my skull during my trial-and-error efforts (Cocobolo wood is one seriously hard sonuvabitch, lemme tell ya!)
The sequence is also notable for an appearance by a very young, pre-eye surgery Jackie Chan on the receiving end of a savage neck-snapping.
Oh, and I don't care what anyone says: Bruce's character in ENTER THE DRAGON — the imaginatively-named "Lee" — is definitely a superhero. Could Batman kick this guy's ass? I answer that question with an unequivocal "no."
GAME OF DEATH (1978)
One of the most vile acts of crass exploitation in the entire history of film, GAME OF DEATH was released some five years after Bruce's untimely demise at the age of thirty-two in an attempt to give a Bruce-hungry fan base something, anything, new and rake in big bucks for the "filmmakers" in the process. You see, before Bruce took the dirt nap he had begun shooting a film that he both wrote and directed, and all that exists of this work is a sequence wherein Bruce and two other Chinese dudes who are best left out of it ascend a pagoda and Bruce fights a martial arts master of a different style on each level, finally ending up in a visually bizarre and stunning throwdown against one of his real life students, namely all seven feet and two inches of NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Unfortunately, production was interrupted when Lee was offered the chance to make history in ENTER THE DRAGON, the first martial arts flick made by a Hollywood studio (Warner Brothers), but he died before that film was released and was thus unable to resume the film he was crafting on his own. About ninety minutes of footage for the un-fucked-with GAME OF DEATH was shot, much of which was apparently lost or misplaced in the Golden Harvest studio's warehouses.
Some five years passed after Bruce's death, but then enter the greedy bastards at Warner Brothers and Golden Harvest studios (the company that gave Bruce his start in big screen martial arts films, by the way), who took the footage and crafted a “movie” around it featuring an utterly unconvincing double for Lee, and the resulting film is not only stultifyingly dull but it also has the nerve to paste a photo of Bruce to a mirror during a scene in which his double peers into the looking glass. I swear to God! But while the actual Lee footage used was pretty good stuff, the film upon which it was hung is an absolute floating turd of a movie that's on par with the typical bottom-of-the-barrel crap that was being churned out in Hong Kong by the boatload in order to meet the demand during the brief martial arts movie boom of the 1970's (roughly between 1972-1979), soon to be supplanted by the also brief ninja flick craze of the early/mid-1980's.
The lamer-than-lame plot is not even worth mentioning, but it goes without saying that since Bruce Lee had been moldering in the ground for five years it was necessary to find a lookalike to play him in the scenes that weren't shot for the unfinished film. The result is an eighty-five minute tortuously-boring endurance test that rewards die-hard audience members (victims, if you ask me) with just over eleven minutes of unseen fight scenes and a couple of clips from RETURN OF THE DRAGON. The "new" fights feature Bruce clad in his now-iconic yellow and black track suit, fighting his way up several levels of the aforementioned pagoda and encountering the master of a different combat style on each one (also aformentioned). His encounters with the first two masters are merely passable, but the real selling point of the entire misbegotten film is the fascinating battle between Lee and Abdul-Jabbar as "Hakim," the proponent of an "unknown" style.
The fight between the two is visually and conceptually interesting thanks to there being over a foot-and-a-half of difference between the combatants' heights, as well as Abdul-Jabbar having an exceedingly long reach with both arms and legs. The match is silent (save for various yells and grunts) and intense, but it in no way worth sitting through the entire film. Luckily the extant footage from Lee's original vision for GAME OF DEATH was put to far better and more respectful use over two decades later, but more on that in a moment. Despite all of the explanation you've just waded through, all you really need to know about the final theatrically-released version of GAME OF DEATH is that your life will in no way be diminished if you never see it, and if you loved what Bruce Lee did and was about, both onscreen and off, you owe it to his memory not to particpate in this wanton act of cinematic necrophilia. Truly ghoulish and offensive, this is one of the worst films ever made for a plethora of reasons, so I suggest you avoid it like the plague and stay home and mine your own ass-crack instead. The turds you extrude will be of infinitely more legitimate creative value, and will stink considerably less.
BRUCE LEE: A WARRIOR’S JOURNEY (2000)
Of the many Bruce Lee documentaries — most of which were cheap and offensive cash-in exploitation trash, and I should know because I've seen them all — this is hands down the best and it does the Nobel Peace Prize-worthy service of including the full-length fight sequences from the unfinished Lee-directed GAME OF DEATH, thereby sparing you the torturous experience of sitting through that posthumously-released act of cinematic necrophiliac rape. But never mind that bollocks; the documentary is both fun and informative, with a wealth of screen tests and home movies, and of course the un-fucked-with ass-whuppin’ footage.
So, to sum up: next to THE CHINESE CONNECTION, I'd rate BRUCE LEE: A WARRIOR'S JOURNEY as the must-see of the lot, followed by ENTER THE DRAGON for historical and ass-whuppin' reasons, and RETURN OF THE DRAGON, mostly for the fight with Chuck Norris. You can totally afford to miss FISTS OF FURY due to it being mediocre, and, as you may have gathered from my unbridled vitriol, GAME OF DEATH is recommended only if it's a choice between seeing it and having your genitals slowly torn asunder with a pair of pliers wielded by an expert and uncaring "interrogator" while you're tied to a chair with no hope of escape or rescue.
There you have it, Karate Hottie (and by default, you, Dear Reader). I hope this little lesson has been of some small use.