Birth Of The Dragon hits theaters this week. A biopic of a famous fight between martial arts master Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man, a Shaolin monk and kung fu master in his own right, in 1965 in San Francisco. There are different accounts of what went down, and who was victorious, but this film (starring Philip Ng as Lee) has had many people who have seen it ask, who cares?
Which is no slam against Lee, the memory of whom lingers on nearly 45 years after his passing. In fact, what Birth Of The Dragon has done is reignite our interest in the body of work that Lee did create in his lifetime. Admittedly things were rough early on, but by the time he had gotten to 1973’s Enter The Dragon, it was obvious that the man was destined for superstardom.
Lee first came to the attention of American audiences when he played the Green Hornet’s sidekick, Kato, on the single season series The Green Hornet, crossing over to the Adam West/Burt Ward Batman series in which Kato and Robin fought to a tie (yeah, right!). A few television guest appearances took place here or there, with him recurring on four episodes of the James Franciscus series Longstreet (a show about a blind insurance investigator), teaching him out to defend himself.
What follows, though, is a guide to his films. The one we haven’t included is 1978’s Game Of Death, which was a project Lee was in the middle of when he died. What was released is pretty unwatchable, utilizing a stunt double who looks nothing like Lee to finish the incomplete sequences.
The original concept was that Lee would fight his way to the top level of a pagoda to obtain something (it was never revealed what it was), battling a master of a different martial arts style on each level, culminating with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Mantis. The released version had a plot described by Google as follows: “An actor (Bruce Lee) shot by gangsters fakes his death, has plastic surgery and seeks kung-fu revenge.” Ugh.
Fists Of Fury (1971)
Bruce Lee is Cheng Chao-an, who has decided to leave China to be with his family in Thailand. Cheng does his best to avoid fights, trying to live up to a promise he made to his mother that violence wouldn’t be a part of this life in Thailand. To remind himself of this pledge, he wears a necklace that does manage to hold him back. For a time. Things go south (not for Cheng, but pretty much everyone else) when he discovers that the factory he works for serves as a cover for a drug operation. When members of his family are murdered, it’s bye-bye necklace, hello Bruce Lee! Originally released internationally as The Big Boss.
The Chinese Connection (1972)
In this one, set in Shanghai at the early part of the 20th Century, Lee is Chen Zhen, who has returned to the Jingwu School to marry his fiancee. What he finds, though, is that the sensei who trained him is dead, seemingly by naturally causes. But as he finds himself in the middle of escalating tensions between Chinese and Japanese martial arts schools, he uncovers the truth that his sensei was actually murdered. This leads him down a path of vengeance that he likely won’t survive… though he does kick a hell of a lot of ass in the process. Originally released overseas as Fist Of Fury.
Return Of The Dragon (1972)
When a Chinese restaurant owner in Rome is terrorized by a local gang, the man’s niece reaches out to an uncle in Hong Kong. That uncle, of course, is Bruce Lee, who is playing Tang Lung (sounds like an astronaut’s disease). Tang starts taking on gang members, and trains others to do so as well. Desperate, the gang leader calls in an American sensei named Colt, who ends up fighting Tang to the death at the Roman Colosseum. Two things about this one: First, it marked Bruce Lee’s debut as producer/writer/director. Second, Colt is played by Chuck Norris. Say what you want about Norris, about how invincible he is, but what’s the one thing that Chuck Norris can't do? Beat Bruce Lee. Hah!
Enter The Dragon (1973)
This was the best of Lee’s films and, sadly, the last one he was able to complete. A strange hybrid of martial arts and blaxploitation, with elements of James Bond mixed in as well, Lee plays a martial arts expert named, uh, Lee (it’s called stretching, people!). He is approached by the government to stop a narcotics dealer. Reluctant to do so, he’s drawn in after his sister is killed, leading him to a remote island governed by Han (not Solo), played by Shih Kien. Han, it seems, runs a tournament that brings in martial arts experts from around the world, and Lee decides to enter it so that he can get closer to his operations and shut them down. Permanently. Other fighters include John Saxon as Roper and Jim Kelly as Williams. In all truthfulness, Enter The Dragon is a lot of fun, a far step above other martial arts films of the time. And Lee is genuinely amazing to watch in action. Extra bonus: wait for the final showdown between him and Han in a house of mirrors. Really great stuff.
Enter The Dragon was released on July 26, 1973, just six days after Lee had died from a cerebral edema. One of his dreams had been to break through the barriers and become a Hollywood star, leading the way for other Chinese people to do the same. He did accomplish that goal, but didn’t live to see the impact the film would have or the way it would secure his legacy. A legacy that anyone reading these words can agree with.