Remembering the extraordinary films that cashed in on the cult of Bruce Lee.
When Bruce Lee died on the eve of Enter the Dragon being released, a movie icon was born – the athletic, charismatic star whose mysterious death at a young age shook the world. Like all the stars who died young, Lee would never grow old, and never wind up making any old crap that came along, destroying his legacy in the process.
Well… unlike most dead film stars, Lee would have his name and his likeness attached to all manner of nonsense for years to come. Some of it was vaguely authentic – Game of Death was cobbled together out of footage from the project that he was working on when he died, and so did indeed star Bruce Lee, however briefly and however much the resulting film was a cack-handed mess filled with sort-of lookalikes and a convoluted plot to explain the star’s absence (such was Lee’s global popularity, the film managed to rake in a fortune anyway). Various pseudo-documentaries and fiction films like The Real Bruce Lee and Fist of Fear, Touch of Death also featured actual footage of Lee – albeit rarely in martial arts action, but never mind.
The main films that kept Lee’s name alive – and, more importantly, on the marquees of grindhouse cinemas across the world – were the knockoffs that would become known as Bruceploitation. Ground out with indecent haste from the moment of his death, mainly though not exclusively originating in Hong Kong, these films riffed on his film titles (Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger) or posited themselves as sequels to his earlier work; often, they would use his name in the title of the movie, Hong Kong having rather loose laws prohibiting such naked exploitation. Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave, Clones of Bruce Lee, Goodbye Bruce Lee, Bruce Lee – The Man, The Myth and more nakedly exploited his name and likeness in what were often shoddy productions that were nothing less than a slap in the face for Lee, his family and his fans. A few were genuinely mad – 1977’s The Dragon Lives Again is the most infamous, with Lee sent to Hell to fight Dracula, assorted mummies and zombies, the Exorcist, the Man with No Name, James Bond, Emmanuelle, the Godfather, and Zatoichi the Blind Swordman, with Popeye and David Carradine’s character from Kung Fu as assistants. Come on – you need to see that, don’t you? Well, today’s your lucky day:
If the film titles didn’t take Lee’s name in vain, then the cast did. Assorted actors and jobbing martial artists who bore even the slightest resemblance to Lee were pressed into service, renamed Bruce Li, Bruce Lai, Bruce Le, Dragon Lee, Bronson Lee even Bruce Thai in the hope of fooling inattentive cinema-goers. The subterfuge was hardly necessary – the audience for these movies was not, by and large, a discerning one, and as long as the film delivered the prerequisite amount of martial arts mayhem, naked girls and distracting nonsense, people seemed happy enough. Serious fans of the genre may have shaken their heads in despair, but there is no evidence of audiences complaining that they had been ripped off by going to see The Big Boss 2 and finding it to be Bruce Lee-free.
By the end of the 1970s, the Bruceploitation boom was effectively over – far from being a flash in the pan, the martial arts film proved a resilient format globally, and eventually found its own stars like Jackie Chan and international hits without the need to cash in on Lee. They would, however, have a second life on videotape, as indie labels snapped up the movies and released them on VHS before most of Lee’s actual movies were available for home viewing. Many a fan of a certain age probably saw Bruceploitation movies before they saw the man himself in action.
The Bruceploitation films are still seen as a bit of an embarrassment by serious kung fu movie fans, but in recent years have built their own cult, thanks to the wild plots and sheer audacity of the concept.
For more on the genre, we recommend Stewart Home’s book Re-Enter The Dragon, which is an exhaustive and entertainingly opinionated guide to the genre.