***Warning: some of these videos contain scenes of martial arts violence. Please do not watch if they’re likely to offend.***
Get ready for a masterclass in the art of fighting tonight as Bruce Lee’s best movie, Enter the Dragon, is on the box after chucking-out time (11:05pm, ITV1). I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that it’s a classic martial arts picture. Heck, to anyone other than hair-splitting genre purists, it’s probably the greatest kung fu film ever made.
But while lots of people have seen Enter the Dragon and the rest of Bruce Lee’s films, not so many have encountered the deluge of movies released after his death, which make up the wild and wacky sub-genre of Bruceploitation.
Bruceploitation, I hear you ask? Let me explain.
You see, when Bruce Lee died unexpectedly in 1973 at the age of 32, he’d only made five films as a lead actor. However, his popularity was so great that, between about 1973 and 1980, a legion of Asian film producers conspired to cash in on his box office power by releasing wave after wave of knock-off martial arts movies starring Bruce Lee lookalikes and passing them off as the genuine article.
Bruce Lee once said, “Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow.” Boy, did these film-makers ever follow his advice.
To give you some idea of the rampant popularity of this strange sub-genre, the online Bruceploitation resource clonesofbrucelee.co.uk lists some 168 films in its database.
So what makes a Bruceploitation movie? Well, Lee Holmes, who runs the Clones of Bruce Lee site, was kind enough to give me a quick rundown of the genre’s clichés:
* A script based around one of Bruce Lee’s movies, or a creative approach to his life story.
* Big sunglasses, to hide the fact that the actor doesn’t really look that much like Bruce Lee.
* The over-use of Bruce’s iconic yellow tracksuit.
* A fight scene that involves “Bruce” receiving claw marks.
* Add Bruce’s war cry, nunchakus, and thumbing of the nose and you pretty much have a typical Bruceploitation film.
The actors who appeared in these films were generally bit-part players who were elevated to the status of leading men by virtue of their resemblance to Bruce. So the actor James Ho Chung-Tao became Bruce Li, and Wong Kin-Lung found fame variously as Bruce Le, Bruce Lai and Bronson Lee. Other leading men went by such monikers as Bruce Lei, Bruce Ly, Brute Lee and so on. You get the idea.
And the titles of a lot of these films weren’t much more inspired, most of them just jumbling up the names of Bruce’s real movies: Big Boss Untouchable, Return of the Dragon, Enter the Game of Death, New Fist of Fury and, most fantastically of all, Enter the Fat Dragon.
But while the idea of the mockbuster is pretty common and still with us today, what’s great about the Bruceploitation movement are the exceptional and truly unforgettable films that appeared during the genre’s heyday.
I mean, who could resist the opportunity to see “Bruce Lee” battling Dracula, Popeye, James Bond and Clint Eastwood in hell in The Dragon Lives Again?
Which other movie genre would be tasteless enough to put together a film called Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave, featuring its “star” bursting out of his casket at the start of the picture?
And could you imagine a film featuring three different Bruce Lees battling it out, as seen in The Clones of Bruce Lee, being made while the star was alive?
Indeed, sometimes these cash-in efforts could actually be decent films in their own right, as Lee Holmes says of knock-off biopic Bruce Lee the Man, the Myth: “In my opinion it’s the best Bruce Lee bio made, much better than the glossed over Hollywood interpretation that was Dragon: the Bruce Lee Story.”
Bruceploitation was an odd but fun film movement, which gave a lot of very talented martial artists a chance to show off their skills, and gave fans of Bruce Lee something to turn their attention to after his death.
Ironically it was Bruce’s popularity that killed the genre in the end, as Holmes says: “After the successful release of Enter the Dragon, movie distributors went crazy to buy up any kung fu films they could get their hands on, even sometimes releasing the same movie several times under a different title.
“The flooding of the market could be blamed for the decline in interest in Bruceploitation. Actors like Jackie Chan took over the audience’s interest and made popular the ‘kung fu comedy’ with Drunken Master and by the early 1990s, the Bruceploitation stars were long forgotten, most having disappeared into total obscurity.”
While that’s a shame, it’s good to know there’s more than enough Bruceploitation out there to keep even the most ardent martial arts fan going for a while. So if you’re in the mood for more flying fists and dodgy premises after Enter the Dragon, you could do far worse than checking out some of these half-remembered knock-offs. After all, as Bruce himself once said: “We all have time to spend or waste, and it is our decision what to do with it.”