After Bruce Lee ɗ𝔦ᥱ, a period known as “Bruceploitation” followed, and it spawned a number of Bruce Lee clones. This took place primarily within the Chinese and Hong Kong movie industries in the 1970s, and it happened as a direct result of the unprecedented success that Bruce Lee brought to the kung fu genre in the early 1970s.
Despite the fact that Bruce Lee, whose skill in kung fu transformed him into a beloved martial arts legend, is now a household name, Lee actually starred in only five movies: Fist of Fury, The Big Boss, Way of the Dragon, Game of ɗᥱαꚍɧ, and Enter the Dragon. Enter the Dragon was released a month after his passing in July 1973, and at the time, Game of ɗᥱαꚍɧ hadn’t even finished filming yet. So even though Bruce Lee only made a handful of films, he succeeded in making a huge mark on the martial arts genre, and it had a irreversible effect on how filmmakers approached kung fu. It made studios realize that trained martial artists were essential to kung fu movies
Bruce Lee created the kung fu craze of the 1970s, and at that point, martial arts movies were at the height of their popularity. The industry was understandably rocked by Bruce Lee’s sudden passing. Lee’s ɗᥱαꚍɧ was a huge loss, and instead of moving on, many in the filmmaking industry found a way to continue Lee’s legacy. How these studios responded was a practice that became known as “Bruceploitation.“
With Bruce Lee gone, some studios began looking for actors who could pass for Bruce Lee. One of the studios guilty of this was Golden Harvest, the same studio that made Lee’s movies. The actors chosen by Golden Harvest and others were trained to impersonate Lee and all his unique mannerisms. Most of them shared similar names, like “Bruce Ly” or “Bruce Le.” Studios profited off the resemblances between the actors and the martial arts icon, even if no real connection between them actually existed. Sometimes, his name would even be used in the title, such as The Image of Bruce Lee. These actors starred in numerous kung fu movies in which they played roles of heroes who were inspired by Bruce Lee’s characters. Quite a few of them wore costumes that resembled Lee’s yellow tracksuit from Game of ɗᥱαꚍɧ, and did other things that the actor is remembered for.
Bruceploitation films became common in the 1970s and were generally poorly received. With studios and filmmakers focusing on Bruce Lee lookalikes, audiences and critics alike came to believe that these attempts to cash in on Bruce Lee’s name and image indicated that producing quality movies was no longer priority. That being said, several of these films have reached cult status, regardless of the attempts to copy Lee’s image. For their fight scenes and choreography, many are fondly remembered by kung fu movie fans, including critically-acclaimed director Quentin Tarantino.
The Bruce Lee Clones (& What Happened To Them)
The Bruceploitation years were flooded with Asian actors (mostly from mainland China and Hong Kong) who headlined movies like Bruce Lee Fights Back From The Grave, Enter the Panther, Bruce Lee’s Secret, and more. Here are the actors who were presented as Bruce Lee knock-offs in during the 1970s:
- Dragon Lee
- Bruce Li
- Bruce Lai
- Jun Chong
- Bruce Le
- Bruce Ly
- Bruce Chan
- Bruce Lie
- Bruce Thai
- Dragon Lee (known then as “Bruce Lei”)
- Saro Lee
- Bruce Leung
- Myron Bruce Lee
- Lee Bruce
- Dragon Sek Tin-Lung
- Tang Lung
- Ramon Zamora
- Chang Yi Tao
- Rey Malonzo
The biggest problem that these actors faced was the stereotype of being a Bruce Lee knockoff; when this subgenre of martial arts movies eventually faded, their careers suffered. One of the era’s most bankable Bruce Lee clones, Bruce Li, made dozens of martial arts films in the 1970s, but his acting career ended in the early 1980s. Situations like this happened to actors like as well, who found themselves only being cast in movies in which a Bruce Lee stand-in was needed. Bruce Li has spoken of his frustration with this in the past. Others tried changing their screen names, and a few saw some degree of success in their careers in the years that followed. One actor in particular, Dragon Lee — formerly known as “Bruce Lei” — starred in several kung fu movies through the 1980s and the 1990s.
Jackie Chan Was Supposed To Replace Bruce Lee
One of the many actors groomed to be the next Bruce Lee was Jackie Chan, who worked for Lee as a stuntman in Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon. Prior to Jackie Chan becoming a martial arts icon in his own right, he was utilized in a much different way than the roles he’s known for today. The attempt to make Chan like Lee was much more subtle than it was with actors like Bruce Li and Bruce Le, but the similarities were still there, especially in the movie New Fist of Fury, which was Chan’s first starring role. The film, which was a sequel to Bruce Lee’s second movie, clearly pushed Chan toward being the new Bruce Lee.
Several more films followed, and they were all martial arts films with serious tones; however, things took a turn for Chan and he was able to make a name for himself, both in Asia and in the West, when he was finally given a chance to show off his comedic talents. In 1978, Jackie Chan starred in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, which were both directed by Yuen Woo-ping. These movies helped Chan forge his own signature, comedic style, and from there, Chan’s popularity soared.
Luckily, Bruceploitation was only a phase for the martial arts genre. It faded in time, due in part to actors like Jackie Chan, Gordon Liu, Jet Li, and the Five Venoms, who all managed to breathe new life into the kung fu genre with their own unique styles and films. While Bruce Lee remains a beloved icon of kung fu movies, the genre has thankfully continued to develop and thrive without him.