(The following article was written for my colleague and Important Cinema Club co-host Justin Decloux’s zine, The Laserblast Film Society, #5)
A Beginner’s Guide to Bruceploitation
By Will Sloan, Bruceploitation scholar
When Bruce Lee died in 1973 after starring in only four completed films, he left a box office void that unscrupulous producers were eager to fill. Before long, a plethora of stuntmen and bit-part actors from the Hong Kong film industry were being outfitted with bowl-cuts and yellow tracksuits and branded “the next Bruce Lee.” Names like “Bruce Li” (Ho Chung Tao), “Bruce Le” (Wong Kin Lung), “Dragon Lee” (Moon Kyoung-seok), and others began gracing marquees across the world in dozens of disreputable films. The Bruceploitation canon is large and daunting, full of wrong turns and dead-ends. Here is a beginner’s guide to exploring this strange and wonderful genre.
Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger (1976)
“If something should happen to me, you’ll be my successor,” says Bruce Lee (Bruce Li) to his greatest student, Tiger (also Bruce Li). Sure enough, the Dragon dies under mysterious circumstances, and Tiger quickly finds himself immersed in an underworld conspiracy connected to Lee’s mistress “Suzy Young” (a stand-in for Betty Ting Pei). This reconfiguration of the Fist of Fury plot was one of Bruce Li’s most internationally popular movies, and the one that most aggressively pitched him as “the next Bruce Lee.” Not the best Bruce Li movie, but certainly the quintessential one.
Bruce Lee: The Man, the Myth (aka Bruce Lee: True Story) (1976)
Bruce Li starred in a lot of unauthorized Bruce Lee biopics, but this one—directed by Ng See Yuen (producer of Drunken Master and No Retreat, No Surrender)—is easily the best. Shot on three continents, it follows Bruce from Hong Kong to Seattle to Hollywood to Rome, defending the honour of Chinese kung-fu at every stop. It’s the most elaborate and expensive Bruceploitation biopic, but still pretty damn cheap (enjoy as Li stands awkwardly in a Kato mask outside the 20th Century Fox studios). Also, it’s one of the only Bruceploitation films to become a major hit in Hong Kong (these films were more popular on the world market). The film ends with several conspiracy theories about Lee’s death, including the tantalizing idea that he went into hiding and will make his triumphant return in 1983. Mark your calendars!
Soul Brothers of Kung Fu (1977)
After arriving in Hong Kong as an illegal immigrant, Bruce Li becomes a famous fighter. He soon runs afoul of the mob, and watches helplessly as everyone close to him dies a horrifying death. The darkest, most depressing Bruce Li film, this relentlessly bleak story of revenge is filmed (as my colleague Justin Decloux has noted) in a neo-realist style that makes Hong Kong look desperate and alienating. It’s also Bruce Li’s most violent film: at one point, our hero jabs the villain in the chest with his fingers, and we see an x-ray shot of the still-beating heart spewing blood. One of several Bruceploitation films to make extensive unauthorized use of the Rocky score.
The Dragon Lives Again (1977)
Bruce Lee (played by Bruce Liang, aka Leung Siu-lung, from Kung Fu Hustle) dies and finds himself in the Underworld, a purgatory-like state ruled by a corrupt emperor. He foils a coup attempt by James Bond, Dracula, Zatoichi, the Godfather, the One-Armed Swordsman, the Man With No Name, and Emmanuelle, and finds powerful allies in Kwai Chang Caine and Popeye the Sailor (played by a young Eric Tsang!). It has the tone of a hang-out movie and the sense of humour of a stoner comedy. Watch while drunk.
Enter the Game of Death (1978)
One of several Bruceploitation movies to draw inspiration from Bruce Lee’s legendary, unfinished Game of Death, this Bruce Le vehicle sees the genre at its most surreal. The plot has something to do with Bruce Le trying to find a secret document that can help defeat the Japanese during WWII, but forget that. The lengthy pagoda-set midsection features kooky characters, Pop Art-style lighting, and some of Bruce Le’s wackiest fights. The most shameless imitator of the Lee clones, Le is especially over-the-top here.
A Bruceploitation film about Bruceploitation. Bruce Li plays a humble taxi driver discovered by a producer on the day of Bruce Lee’s funeral and pitched as a possible successor. Before he knows it, Li finds himself a movie star, forced to contend with the pressures of fame and hounded by mobsters. Part mea culpa, part wish-fulfillment fantasy, this downbeat film was one of only three Bruce Li films that the man himself liked (the others: The Chinese Stuntman and Fist of Fury II).
The Clones of Bruce Lee (1980)
Bruce Le, Dragon Lee, Bruce Lai, and one-shot wonder Bruce Thai burn up the screen in this once-in-a-lifetime gathering of Bruceploitation legends. The plot: a scientist uses Bruce Lee’s DNA to create three clones. He puts them to work in the film industry, eventually planning to have one of them killed on camera. There’s also some intrigue around hidden gold, bronze henchmen, and a mad scientist. I suspect this movie was pieced together out of a few unfinished movies (Dragon Lee only rarely interacts with the other clones). It runs out of steam before the end, and doesn’t really live up to the promise of its title, but it does feature a hilariously gratuitous nude-beach sequence and the only Bruce Le/Dragon Lee fight scene. Recommended for anyone who likes this sort of garbage.
Challenge of the Tiger (1980)
Bruce Le fights. Richard Harrison fucks. Together, they’re two secret agents on the trail of terrorists for the stolen formula for a super-sterility drug. Bruce Le directed this ridiculously enjoyable buddy movie, and he doesn’t fuck around. Kung-fu bullfighting! Topless tennis! Stunning location filming at Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak! Richard Harrison’s toned, tanned, shockingly hairy body squeezed into a tiny blue speedo! Fights galore! A cast of badasses rounded out by Hwang Jang Lee, Brad Harris, and Bolo Yeung! Nudity! Richard Harrison’s moustache! Jane Seymour and Jack Klugman! (They make Bowfinger-style oblivious cameos when Bruce Le shakes their hands during the racetrack scene.) Did I mention the topless tennis? Holy moly, this movie delivers!
Fist of Fear, Touch of Death (1980)
The first original production by New York-based exploitation distributor Aquarius Releasing (the firm behind the legendary American releases of Doctor Butcher M.D., Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave, Cannibal Ferox, Deep Throat, and countless others), this hodgepodge of random kung-foolery almost qualifies as a parody of Bruceploitation. Set during a Madison Square Garden martial arts tournament that will allegedly “determine Bruce Lee’s successor,” it quickly veers into a series of random interviews and action scenes with Fred Williamson, Ron Van Clief, and NYC martial arts personalities Aaron Banks and Bill Louie. The centrepiece is a completely inaccurate Bruce Lee mini-biopic, with footage from one of the Cantonese melodramas Lee made as a teenager dubbed What’s Up Tiger Lily-style.
Game of Death II (aka Tower of Death) (1981)
Golden Harvest and director Robert Clouse bastardized Bruce Lee’s last footage for their 1978 film Game of Death. More fun is this goofy sequel, in which Tong Lung—Bruce’s main body-double in the first Game of Death—takes centre-stage. While investigating his brother’s mysterious death, Billy Lo’s brother uncovers a sinister drug trafficking ring in an ultra-cool underground tower. Co-starring Roy Horan, Hwang Jang Lee, and (stock footage of) Bruce Lee! Directed by Ng See Yuen, with uncredited assists from Sammo Hung and Corey Yuen! Fight choreography by Yuen Woo-motherfucking-Ping! This is the movie that a 10-year-old would write after watching a bunch of Bruce Lee movies.
The Chinese Stuntman (1982)
The Bruceploitation equivalent of The Player. Bruce Li stars as a lowly stuntman in the Hong Kong film industry who doubles for a vaguely Jackie Chan-esque superstar. He uncovers a plot by the unscrupulous producers to murder the star and cash in on the insurance policy. Only Bruce Li could have directed this sour depiction of the Hong Kong film industry as a place where stars are manufactured and cruelly tossed aside. The final fight scene, between Li and Dan Inosanto (one of Bruce Lee’s most accomplished students), is the most impressive bout in any Bruceploitation film.
Other Notable Films (a nowhere-near-complete canon):
Fist of Unicorn (1973) – Bruce Lee did martial arts choreography for this run-of-the-mill vehicle for his pal Unicorn Chan. Shady producers added documentary footage of Lee to the release.
Bruce Lee: A Dragon Story (1974) – Notable as the screen debut of Bruce Li, the first of many Lee biopics, and arguably the first true Bruceploitation film. A soapy, unpleasant, very cheap, and mostly inaccurate effort focusing on Lee’s affair with Betty Ting Pei. A complete piece of crap. Good for a few laughs.
The Death of Bruce Lee (1975) – Ron “The Black Dragon” Van Clief travels to Hong Kong to solve the mystery of Bruce Lee’s death. This movie is garbage, but I had to include a Ron Van Clief film.
Inframan (1975) – Every self-respecting cinephile has seen this Hong Kong kaiju film, but did you know that it co-stars Bruce Le (then a contract player for Shaw Brothers)?
Bruce Lee Against Supermen (1975) – Dressed as Kato from The Green Hornet, Bruce Li fights bad guys in tights and capes. Not as fun as it sounds.
Goodbye Bruce Lee: His Last Game of Death (1975) – Bruce Li’s entry in the Game of Death rip-off sweepstakes.
Bruce Lee and I (1976) – A sleazy Shaw Brothers production that focuses on Bruce Lee’s affair with Betty Ting Pei. Notable for starring The Killer’s Danny Lee as Bruce and Betty Ting Pei as herself.
Bruce Lee’s Secret (1976) – Bruce Li, Carter Wong, and Hwang Jang Lee star in this laughably cruddy biopic about Bruce Lee’s San Francisco days, shot in and around the suburbs of Hong Kong. Chuckles aplenty.
New Fist of Fury (1976) – Before he was the first Jackie Chan, he was the next Bruce Lee.
Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave (1976) – Aquarius Releasing bought a cheap Korean movie, added a scene of Bruce Lee popping out of his grave, and renamed star Jun Chong as “Bruce K.L. Lea.” Not nearly as fun as its title. FYI, Jun Chong now runs a tae kwon do school in Los Angeles.
Fist of Fury II (1977) – “Part one was the fuse… Part two is the EXPLOSION!” Bruce Li steps in as Chen Zhen’s brother.
The Real Bruce Lee (1977) – Marketed as “an early Bruce Lee film found in the Chinese film archives,” this compilation film was basically a scheme to introduce Dragon Lee to the American market, padded with some footage from Bruce Lee’s childhood acting roles.
Bruce Lee the Invincible (1977) – Bruce Li fights a guy in a gorilla suit.
The Dragon, the Hero (1977) – Dragon Lee made a lot of generic kung-fu movies with cut-and-paste auteur Godfrey Ho. Consider this film a representative sample.
Enter the Fat Dragon (1978) – The high point of this early Sammo Hung comedy comes when Sammo beats up a Bruce Lee clone on the set of a Bruceploitation movie. “Bruce Lee is my hero. You can’t destroy my idol!”
The Image of Bruce Lee (1978) – Folks, I gotta tell you: frequent Bruceploitation leading-lady Dana Lei spends a lot of this movie completely naked.
Game of Death (1978) – Worth it for the Bruce Lee footage, the Sammo Hung-choreographed fight scenes, the east-meets-west flavour, and the sheer chutzpah of it all.
Return of the Tiger (1978) – Bruce Li fights burly character actor Paul Smith (Popeye, Midnight Express).
Blind Fist of Bruce (1979) – A Drunken Master clone featuring Bruce Li and Simon “Sam Seed” Yuen.
Jackie and Bruce to the Rescue (1982) – Bruceploitation meets Jaxploitation, starring Tong Lung and Jacky Chang. The genre was running on fumes by this point.
Ninja Over the Great Wall (1987) – Bruce Le directed this surprisingly well-made, Fist of Fury-influenced WWII epic. The most accomplished auteur of the Lee clones, Le went on to direct the politely-received Category III film Comfort Women (1992).
Big Boss Untouchable (2002) – Schlockmeister producer Joseph Lai tried to reignite that Bruceploitation magic in a couple of cheap movies with Dragon Sek. This one was released the U.S. by VideoAsia as part of a compilation film called The Real Bruce Lee 2.