Bruce Lee, one of cinema’s most iconic, ambitious, and tragic heroes, lives on through his TV and movie performances long after he was taken from the world at the age of 32. His short career brought us some of the most recognizable and often-imitated fight scenes in cinematic history, but one of Lee’s most famous fights occurred off-screen and behind closed doors.
Birth of the Dragon is a dramatized version of that fight, a private match, a one-on-one contest of skill and style between Lee and martial arts master Wong Jack Man. The 1964 fight is steeped in controversy with one side claiming that the Chinese martial arts community was enraged by Lee’s instruction of non-Chinese, while the other side claims it was simply due to Lee’s boastfulness. Regardless of the impetus or outcome, the fight acted as a catalyst for Lee’s particular brand of training and development of Jeet Kune Do which perfectly complemented his on-screen persona.
It’s to Lee’s famous fight scenes, the ones actually captured on film, that we look to today. From his start on The Green Hornet to Game of Death, the film that ultimately took his life, Lee brought us some of the most charismatic and, at times, brutal fight sequences the world has ever seen. We’ll celebrate the best of the best below.
Here’s a look at Lee’s fighting filmography in TV and movies:
- The Green Hornet (1966-67)
- Batman (1966-67)
- The Big Boss (1971)
- Fist of Fury (1972)
- Way of the Dragon (1972)
- Enter the Dragon (1973) *Posthumous release
- Game of Death (1978) *Posthumous release; incomplete
It’s also worth noting that Lee, born into a wealthy family whose patriarch Lee Hoi-chuen was a famous opera and film actor, had been in the entertainment business for a very long time–like, almost from infancy–before gaining attention in America. Notable non-fighting appearances include the 1957 drama Thunderstorm, adapted from a very popular Chinese play, and Marlowe, a 1969 crime-drama centering on Raymond Chandler‘s famous noir-y protagonist.
‘The Green Hornet’
Lee may have had quite a few feature films under his belt by the mid-1960s, but it was his role as Kato in The Green Hornet that brought his martial arts prowess to television and the attention of a nation. You can watch the series’ first episode in its entirety above or jump to Lee’s first bit of action in which he dispatches some gunmen with ease.
This is a relatively subdued performance from Lee, who would soon become known for his shirtless stances, imposing kiai, and disdain for masks. Here’s a step closer to the Bruce Lee we would come to know and love:
The man Kato goes up against in this bout is Low Sing, as played by the late, great, Oscar-nominated Mako in the episode “The Preying Mantis.” That’s pretty great, but it only gets better from here.COLLIDER VIDEO OF THE DAY10 SecChristopher Nolan’s New Movie Lands at Universal with Lengthy Theatrical Window
The Green Hornet and the 60s series Batman (which you may have heard of) crossed paths on-screen a number of times. Sometimes it was just the cameo appearance of Van Williams and Lee in costume, poking their heads out of the window as the Caped Crusaders climbed steadily up a building. Other times, Bruce Wayne simply namedrops The Green Hornet as appointment television. The real action comes when Lee gets to exercise his skills against Batman’s Rogues Gallery, and against Batman and Robin themselves!
There were only three such cross-overs: “The Spell of Tut” (in which Lee was uncredited) and the two-part episode, “A Piece of the Action” and “Batman’s Satisfaction.” (The Dynamic Duo returned the favor on a pair of The Green Hornet episodes, as well.) Interestingly enough, Batman and Robin were happy to have The Green Hornet and Kato’s assistance in taking on Colonel Gumm and his gang, but soon took the fight to the masked vigilantes themselves! Let’s see how that played out:
While the WHAM!s and the POW!s are great, let’s look at a few scenes where Lee really gets to let loose in feature films.
‘The Big Boss’ AKA ‘Fists of Fury’ … or ‘Chinese Connection’
Let’s take a moment to clear up some movie title confusion. These sections will start out with the films’ original English title, a translation of the Chinese title used when preparing the pictures for American distribution. The following titles are then the mistakenly released title and the intended release title, all of which got mixed up and moved around in the 70s but have more recently been restored to their originals. Now, on with the show!
The Big Boss was Lee’s first major film and he makes the most of it; he was given the lead over bonafide movie star James Tien and the rest is history. You can really start to see Lee’s charisma, choreography, and sense of character (and humor) come through in as he puts himself at the center of multiple, epic fight sequences. The movie’s synopsis offers the perfect setup for Lee to play in:
Cheng (Bruce Lee) moves with his cousins to work at an ice factory after promising not to be involved with fighting. When members of his family begin disappearing after meeting with the management of the factory, he breaks his vow and takes on the Big Boss. In his quest for vengeance he breaks open a drug-trafficking ring, beating down wave after wave of opponents.
After that last fight, you’d think that word would spread that knives aren’t going to cut it (literally) against this guy, but to no avail. However, in the hands of a competent villain, like say The Big Boss, even the mighty Cheng Chao-an isn’t invulnerable. (I have no idea what’s going on with the Big Boss’ birds, however.) All Cheng needs is his bare hands to get the job done.
Apparently there’s an even bloodier version of this film that has not been seen since its 1971 Hong Kong release and likely never will be.
‘Fist of Fury’ AKA ‘The Chinese Connection’ … or ‘Fists of Fury’
Does it get much better than watching Lee take on an entire dojo? Yes and no; if you’re looking for one-on-one fights packed full of emotion, this isn’t it. But if you just want to watch Lee be a badass and take out a bunch of redshirts, Fist of Fury has one of the best fight scenes going. Just don’t let him get his hands on nunchaku.
If it’s personal vendettas you’re into, this movie has what you’re looking for. Just, remember what I said about nunchaku.
Unfortunately for Lee’s character, an act of betrayal forces him into a situation that even he can’t fight his way out of. This final act of defiance tells us everything we need to know about Chen Zhen.
‘Way of the Dragon’ AKA ‘Return of the Dragon’
Lee’s directorial debut might just feature his most famous fight. Unfortunately, it’s also his only complete directorial effort; more on that in a moment.
There’s a curious little bit of dialogue in the script that has Lee’s character Tang Lung, aka Dragon, praising a variety of martial arts, not favoring either the traditional Chinese or Japanese style over the other. This is a nod to Lee’s personal outlook that favors an experimental style of “fighting without fighting”, basically assimilating anything that works. He’ll need everything that works in this movie since he goes up against the Meme God, Chuck Norris.
Dragon is an unassuming martial arts master, so much so that even the people he’s been hired to protect doubt his prowess. Like the best fighting movies, he starts off against enemies that may be too tough for the common man to deal with but are ultimately no match for him. Case in point, these back-alley thugs:
Oh, did you forget that warning about nunchaku? Too bad. Now, let’s escalate things a bit. The mob boss, having been embarrassed enough already, hires skilled fighters to take out Tang. Dragon’s going to have to fight his way up the ranks to get to the heavy hitter, an American fighter named Colt (Norris). It’s a classic tournament-style of martial artistry that is meant to simultaneously weaken our hero and show just how gutsy he really is.
And now, the battle you’ve been waiting for!
‘Enter the Dragon’
Here’s the crowning achievement in Lee’s career as a martial arts performer and actor. The film, sadly, was released just six days after his death in 1973. This gem also features the late Jim Kelly, who famously played martial arts action stars in 70s Blaxploitation films like Black Belt Jones and Black Samurai; that latter film is getting a TV series adaptation on Starz with Common in the lead.
Enter the Dragon, which is just chock full o’ martial arts legends, gets right into the fighting. Even if it’s just a training session, this opening scene pits Bruce Lee against a young Sammo Hung in an uncredited role. Lee’s skill gain the attention and approval of a British intelligence agent who recruits him for a dangerous mission to infiltrate a hidden island where a deadly fighting tournament is taking place. (Isn’t this movie great?) Check out the warm-up fight:
Now that he’s been recruited, Lee soon gets revenge for his sister’s death by fighting (and killing) the man responsible: O’Hara (Robert Wall). Sharp-eyed viewers or martial arts super-fans will spot Bolo Yeung in this scene; he’d go on to play the villainous Chong Li in the 1988 film, Kickboxer.
Now that the vengeance is out of the way, Lee can get back to dispatching scores of redshirts/guards. One of them happened to be the legendary Jackie Chan who has a great story about the scene. (Oh, and guards, you should also keep him away from the bo staff as well, if you know what’s good for you … You gave him nunchaku again, didn’t you?)
Lee finally gets some help (not that he needs it) from fellow combatant, Roper (John Saxon), and dozens of freed prisoners. But perhaps Lee’s most iconic fight scene ever captured on film is yet to come…
‘Game of Death’
The original 1972 feature by this title remains incomplete due to the death of Lee, which occurred during its making. He had written and produced the picture and was in the process of both directing and starring in it, having filmed enough footage to be patched into the eventual 1978 effort re-written and directed by Robert Clouse. In bad taste and just straight-up low-budget tactics, stand-ins were used for Lee (who looked nothing like him) along with archival footage, footage from his actual funeral, and, slightly less egregious but more hilarious, a cardboard cut-out of his face:
If nothing else, this should give you a renewed appreciation of modern CG effects and actor replacement tech, for better or worse.
The good news is that some of Lee’s fight footage has been released posthumously. It’s a shame that we never got to see his character Hai Tien / Billy Lo take down the Korean underworld gangs who have kidnapped his siblings after fighting through a number of levels of a pagoda guarded by martial arts experts. (It’s synopses like this that make me so, so sad that Lee didn’t get to continue his filmmaking career.)
Lee’s character, accompanied by fellow martial artists, soon takes on Filipino Escrima master, Pasqual, played by Dan Inosanto (a training partner of Lee’s). Don’t be surprised when bright yellow nunchaku make an appearance; they’re fashionable accessories, especially when rocking a bright yellow jumpsuit:
Next, it’s on to Korean Hapkido master, played by Ji Han-Jae:
And then, the giant Hakim (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar):
Unfortunately, we never quite find out what’s being guarded at the top of that pagoda and Lee never got a chance to finish the film. It’s impossible to know what the storied genre of martial arts movies would have become had Lee not died well before his time, but his legend and his legacy will live on in his films, his fans, and everyone inspired by him.