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He was an action movie star like no other. He had charisma, great presence, and a unique fighting style which fans—both famous and non-famous alike—loved and craved to emulate. It took Bruce Lee just four hit films released between 1971 and 1973 to cement his status as a martial arts icon. His premature death at the height of his fame on July 20, 1973 made him a legend.
Lee was just 32 when he died of cerebral edema in Hong Kong. Yet the San Francisco-born, Hong Kong-raised creator of the Jeet Kune Do martial art-form managed to leave a cinematic legacy that established him as the most iconic martial arts superstar of our time.
Though he appeared in many Hong Kong films in the 50s as a child actor—and on his return to America, was able to snare a television role as the pugilistic chauffeur Kato in The Green Hornet (1966-1967)—what made Lee a global sensation were his ‘70s action films which showcase some of the best martial arts scenes ever seen on the big screen.
They are as follows:
1. 'The Big Boss' (1971)
Produced by Golden Harvest, this film made Lee an overnight star across Asia. Set in Thailand, he plays a Chinese man who breaks his no-violence vow after his family members are killed by drug smuggling thugs.
There were action stars aplenty then but Asian film audiences had never seen anyone as mesmerizing as Lee Xiao-lung (Bruce’s screen name in Chinese; Xiao-lung meaning “little dragon.”) He acted well and had a fine physique, but what really took movie-goers’ breaths away were Lee’s pulsating self-choreographed fighting scenes that showcase his signature Jeet Kune Do moves and his trademark “flying kick” stance.
That year, The Big Boss became the highest-grossing film of all-time in Hong Kong, edging out 1965’s The Sound of Music.
2. 'Fist Of Fury' (1972)
Many fans regard this as Lee's best film. Set in Shanghai, he plays Chen Zhen who takes on members of a rival Japanese dojo to avenge his martial arts teacher’s death.
The film features the all-time classic scene where Lee single-handedly takes on an entire dojo, displaying not only his deft kung fu moves, but also his famous nunchakus on film for the first time. Another key factor to the film's wide popularity was that Lee’s stout portrayal of a Chinese standing up to Japanese villainy struck a chord with Asian moviegoers whose memories of Japanese atrocities during World War II were still raw. Lee also became a fashion icon when ardent fans, after watching Fury, zealously donned replicas of the white Zhongshan suit he wore during a funeral scene and the black Wing Chun garb he wore in most of the fight scenes.
Fist of Fury went on to break all Asian box office records set by The Big Boss the year before.
3. 'Way of the Dragon' (1973)
Lee wrote, directed, and produced this 1972 film in which he plays Tang Lung who goes to Rome to take on gangsters pressuring his cousins to sell their family restaurant.
An action comedy, Way of the Dragon is primarily renowned for the epic 10-minute showdown between Tang and Colt, an American martial artist hired by the gangsters, that takes place at the famous Colosseum. Colt is played by karate champion Chuck Norris, way before he became a famous Hollywood action star with works such as Delta Force and Walker, Texas Ranger. The scene starts off with Lee and Norris flexing their muscles and cracking their bones, before they relentlessly slug each other with a range of hand-to-hand combat skills until only one of them is left standing.
4. 'Enter The Dragon' (1973)
Produced by Golden Harvest and Warner Brothers, this Hong Kong-Hollywood production cemented Lee's status as a global martial arts icon. Budgeted at $850,000, it grossed $115 million worldwide, making it Lee’s best-grossing film ever (to date, it has grossed $200 million). Alas, the star was unable to busk in its glory as he died just six days before the film’s Hong Kong release in 1973.
Lee plays a Shaolin instructor assigned to spy on reclusive crime lord Han by entering an exclusive martial arts competition held on a private island. Directed by Robert Clouse, the film was ground-breaking in many ways. It was Lee’s first English-speaking role. Hollywood leading man John Saxon played sidekick to an Asian star. Karate expert Jim Kelly impressed so much in his second film that he went on to star in many 70s Blaxploitation films. It also presented to the world Chinese veteran actor Shek Kin, a master in playing villains in hundreds of Hong Kong action movies.
Most of all, the film has the memorable sequence where Lee pursues Han in a hall of mirrors and has to use his wits to identify which mirror image is his real target.
Special Mention: 'Game Of Death' (1978)
Lee was working on this film as an actor/writer/director/producer when he received the offer to star in Enter the Dragon. Before his untimely death, he had already film three major fight sequences that include the classic showdown between Lee, clad in his now-iconic yellow tracksuit, and NBA legend and former student, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Game of Death was completed and released controversially five years later by Golden Harvest who hired Enter the Dragon director Clouse to salvage the film with a new story and cast. Using body doubles and previously filmed footage of Lee, the film was poorly patched together and is only worth watching for the Lee-directed fight sequences—and one eerie scene that gained much notoriety 15 years later.
In Game of Death, Lee's character Billy Lo is a movie star who fakes his own death in order to infiltrate a crime syndicate. In one scene, Lo—played by a body double—pretends to be dead after being shot by an assassin on a film set. In 1993, Bruce's actor son Brandon tragically died after being shot by a prop gun on the film set of The Crow. Needless to say, this spooky coincidence rekindled stories of a "Bruce Lee curse."
In the world of cinema, there has and never will be another iconic martial arts star like Bruce Lee. If you have yet to see any of his films, do check them before Hollywood decides to remake any of them (Enter the Dragon is being considered as you read this).
Meanwhile, check out the clip below that highlights some of the icon’s best cinematic moments.