Bruce Lee tragically passed away in 1973 while he was at the height of his popularity. The actor was only 32 at the time, and the circumstances surrounding his death were very mysterious. He seemed healthy, but cerebral edema brought on by taking Equagesic unexpectedly caused his brain to swell, and the rest is history. The world lost an icon.
Of course, that didn’t stop huckster filmmakers from capitalizing on the actor’s popularity. Lee’s death spawned a cinematic trend called Bruceploitation, which saw the release of 100-plus movies that had plots pertaining to Lee. They also starred actors who resembled Lee and adopted similar names.
These imitator actors had names Bruce Li, Bruce Lai, Bruce Le, Bruce Thai, Dragon Lee, Conan Lee, and Bronson Lee. They were well-versed in the art of martial arts, though you could say that their fighting talents were overlooked given the nature of the movies they starred in.
That’s the broad definition of the genre. Like every other genre and subgenre in the history of cinema, Bruceploitation has different branches that are quite distinct from each other. The through-line, however, is exploitation movies that connect to Lee in some way.
Some of the movies — Re-Enter the Dragon, Enter Three Dragons, Return of Bruce, Enter Another Dragon, Return of the Fists of Fury, Enter the Game of Death — rehashed Lee’s classics. New Fist of Fury is perhaps the most notable example, as it stars a young Jackie Chan before he became a megastar in his own right. The film was billed as a sequel to Fist of Fury, but it was essentially made to turn Chan into the new Lee.
It also wasn’t uncommon for movies to tell Bruce Lee’s life story (or a made-up version of it) or explore his death from a wacky fictionalized angle. The Death of Bruce Lee, for example, sees Ron Van Clief playing an investigator who wants to get to the bottom of Lee’s demise, only to encounter rival gangs who want to acquire the actor’s fighting manual.
However, some movies also incorporated fantastical and sci-fi elements into their plots. The Dragon of Bruce Lee, for example, sent Lee to Hell and pitted him against other pop culture icons. In The Clones of Bruce Lee, the actor’s scientifically-engineered replicas are tasked with doing missions for a government agency.
As Stewart Home notes in his excellent book Re-Enter the Dragon: Genre Theory, Brucesploitation and the Sleazy Joys of Lowbrow Cinema, the films had a tendency to depict Lee, the character, as a “mythical superman.” By doing so, they only boosted the actor’s legacy as one badass human being in their own strange way.
Of course, Bruceploitation isn’t exactly the most moralistic subgenre of martial arts movies. They milked the death of a human being for commercial gain, after all. Still, as lowbrow and disreputable as these movies are considered, many of them are very entertaining and come from a place of love and admiration for the actor.
Bruceploitation isn’t for everyone, but if you want to check the films out for yourself, I recommend starting with this little list.
Bruce Lee: The Man, The Myth (1976)
This is a biopic of Lee’s life, though it’s a highly fictionalized one that shouldn’t be taken seriously at all.
The story covers the cliff notes version of the martial arts legend’s life, but in the movie, he also travels around the globe getting into fights with all kinds of people, ranging from Taiwanese kickboxers to the Italian mafia. These moments are about as factual as the South Park episode where Russell Crowe goes fightin’ around the world.
Still, Bruce Lee: The Man, The Myth does contain some elements of truth in regard to Lee’s story. Watching the film, you get the impression that it was made by some knowledgeable fans of his work, albeit ones who wanted to sensationalize his story.
The Clones of Bruce Lee (1980)
I already mentioned this movie in the introduction, but it deserves its own blurb. The Clones of Bruce Lee represents the genre at its cheapest, silliest, most imaginative, and shamelessly exploitative. This makes it a great movie to start with if you want to know what Bruceploitation is all about.
In the movie, Lee dies — he makes an appearance courtesy of some stock footage — and his DNA is obtained by a mad scientist. The genius then creates three clones who are recruited by an intelligence agency to go around Southeast Asia dispatching the crime lords. The clones also receive some training montages with accompanying music from Rocky.
The crazy scientist has some nefarious plans of his own, though. After not being rewarded for his creations, he orders the clones to turn on each other until only one remains. The madman wants to take over the agency, with one of the super-soldiers to do his evil bidding.
In addition to being a Bruceploitation movie, The Clones of Bruce Lee is also a wannabe James Bond movie. There are British characters who are like caricatures of MI6 employees, and the Lee clones embark on some espionage missions which bring them into contact with some supervillains and scantily-clad women.
Enter the Fat Dragon (1978)
You know something has made an impact when it becomes the subject of a parody film. Enter the Fat Dragon — which was directed by and stars the legendary Sammo Hung — hilariously riffs on both The Way of the Dragon and the Bruceploitation genre. In the movie, Hung plays a rural pig farmer who’s so obsessed with Lee movies that they’ve informed his worldview.
Enter the Fat Dragon follows Hung’s character as he leaves the farm and moves to Hong Kong to work in the food industry. But it doesn’t take too long for him to start getting into fights, as every sign of trouble inspires him to act like his hero. What ensues is a series of vignettes featuring Hung showing off his impressive fighting skills and a knack for physical comedy.
You could argue that Enter the Fat Dragon isn’t a legitimate Bruceploitation movie as it was made to poke fun at the trend. The movie also contains some biting satire, making it a lot smarter than your average Bruceploitation flick. But good satire movies have a fundamental grasp of the trends they’re skewering, and this movie is no different.
A remake of Enter the Fat Dragon starring Donnie Yen was released earlier this year.
Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger (1976)
Footage of Lee’s actual funeral was a gift to Bruceploitation filmmakers, especially since the plots to some of these movies were centered around the aftermath of his death. I guess inserting clips of a real funeral only enhanced the realism, in addition to being cheaper than buying coffins and hiring actors to play mourners.
Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger imagines an alternate universe where Lee’s death is linked to Hong Kong gangsters, and it’s up to one of his students to get to the bottom of the mystery and avenge his master’s injustice.
This all leads to an epic showdown at the end where Lee’s student fights a villain wearing a bowler hat, which doesn’t fall off during their brutal battle. Waves crash around them as they kung fu on a giant rock, and it’s marvelous. Seriously, it’s a cool scene.
Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger features some pretty impressive fight choreography throughout, even during the scenes that aren’t stolen clips from real Lee movies.
The Dragon Lives Again (1977)
Here’s another one that was mentioned in the intro, but this utter madness deserves its own novel on top of a blurb. The opening credits alone are a whirlwind of insanity as Lee gets into confrontations with Bond and some men in skeleton costumes. I think the skeletons are supposed to be the undead, but the filmmakers didn’t have any money for special effects and just had some guys put on masks and sweaters instead.
Upon entering the Underworld, Lee discovers that the realm is dominated by an evil crime syndicate run by pop culture icons such as “The Godfather” and “The Exorcist.” Luckily for the hero, however, he gets help from Popeye the Sailor and the One-Armed Swordsman during his mission to save Hell from these villains. Dracula, Emmanuelle, and Zatoichi also make an appearance.
This movie should have been called The Copyright Infringement Lives Again, but it also deserves some credit for being one of the best crossover movies ever made. Legal or not.