Bruce Almighty

Nick Pinkerton on Bruce Lee at the Museum of Modern Art

Bruce Lee, Robert Clouse, and Sammo Hung, Game of Death, 1978, 35 mm, color, sound, 90 minutes. Bruce Lee.

BRUCE LEE IS AMONG THE HANDFUL OF MOVIE STARS to attain a celebrity beyond mere stardom. Not long after his premature death in 1973, he joined the elite ranks of the few figures who would be recognizable from Madagascar to the Amazon basin, such as John Wayne and Muhammad Ali. Lee’s image, like Wayne’s and Ali’s, had political import. A late friend of my father’s, Bill Wood, who was in Iran in the 1970s, once recalled to me how much the Shah’s army loved Lee’s movies: “The first international Asian hero; he emboldened a lot of people, including a few we’d rather not talk about.” (Osama bin Laden was a superfan.)

Lee’s cult received a fresh infusion of energy in the early 1990s by way of a pulp biopic (the 1993 Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) and the replay of the curiously familiar pattern of brief celebrity and tragic death in the case of his son, Brandon, who died at age twenty-eight on the set of OST tie-in The Crow (1994). This was the period of my own adolescence, and I wonder if there is a child of my generation who hasn’t at least once acted out the clucks and drawn out cat-fight hisses with which Lee interspersed his combat. Lee has often been imitated. In 1973, Marvel Comics put a knockoff in print and called it “Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu.” Following Lee’s death, hosts of imposters flocked to fill the void he’d left, the so-called Lee-alikes of the Brucesploitation boom: Bruce Li, Bruce Lei, Bruce Le, and, my personal favorite, Bruce Liang, whose The Dragon Lives Again (1977) catches up with Bruce in the Underworld, where he tangles with the likes of Dracula, Popeye, and the Man with No Name. Some years later, Lee would reappear in new digital avatars: Liu Kang in Mortal Kombat, Fei Long in Street Fighter II, and still others. His name survives as a byword for peerless excellence—a few years back, Eminem could express the desire to be “the Bruce Lee of loose leaf” and everyone still pretty much knew what he meant. And while the image of Lee continues to perpetuate itself, the Museum of Modern Art’s tribute, “Eternal Bruce Lee,” consisting of the five features in which he stars, allows one to consider the slim cinematic legacy from which the extracinematic legend grew.

Lee was, among other things, an ambassador for martial arts. In the Lee-directed The Way of the Dragon (1972), a character saying the words “kung fu” prompts a hard cut to an impossibly cut Lee practicing his forms, flexing and rippling muscles that names hadn’t yet been devised for: a man in full. You can almost hear the jangle of cash registers at kwoon halls and dojos across the world.

Lee was perhaps uniquely situated to play the role of popularizer and exporter. Though raised in Kowloon, Hong Kong, for most of his formative years, he was a dual citizen, born in San Francisco. Show business was in Lee’s blood. His father was a Cantonese opera singer, and Lee made his film debut as a baby in 1941, appearing in Golden Gate Girl, a since-lost independent effort by the Chinese American filmmaker Esther Eng. As a teenager in Hong Kong he began to study Wing Chun with the legendary teacher Yip Man—the subject of Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (2013), among a great many other pop films—and after returning to the US he became something of a celebrity in competitive martial-arts circles. This led to television roles, the most prominent of which was sidekick Kato on the single season of the ABC series The Green Hornet (1966), and a gig as a sought-after teacher to the stars. His students included James Coburn, screenwriter Sterling Silliphant, future The Game of Death (1978) opponent Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and director Blake Edwards, who subsequently gave his Inspector Clouseau a punch-line sidekick, Cato, in his Pink Panther franchise.

Despite his growing rolodex, Lee’s acting ambitions stalled due to the lack of roles for Asian actors in 1960s Hollywood—famously, he lost the lead role in ABC’s Kung Fu to David Carradine—and so he signed a two-film deal with producer Raymond Chow’s Golden Harvest and headed to Hong Kong, beginning the meteoric rise that would end with his death only three years later.

Bruce Lee, The Way of the Dragon, 1972, 35 mm, color, sound, 99 minutes. Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee.

Lee’s filmography is a hoot to revisit, though it conspicuously lacks a masterpiece. Probably the best all-around movie that Lee ever appeared in is Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976), which includes a scene where Isabelle Adjani gropes Polanski’s crotch while they watch Enter the Dragon (1973). His Golden Harvest movies, The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972), introduce Lee’s screen persona, that of a defender of the little man. In the first he’s a newly arrived immigrant in Thailand who becomes the champion of exploited workers at the ice factory where he takes a job; in the second, he is a pupil of martial-arts master Huo Yuanjia, who as the film opens is dead from poisoning, leaving Lee’s Chen Zhen to wreak revenge on the Japanese interlopers who swagger around Shanghai like they own the place. His character became an emblem of indomitable Chinese pride and strength in an era of national humiliation. (The movie is set in the early years of the nineteenth century, but the production designers didn’t overtax themselves in evoking the period.) Among the enemies that Bruce wipes the floor with is a Russian giant, Petrov (Lee’s student and friend, the Californian Robert Baker), which established a pattern of pitting Lee against occidental bruisers that reached its apotheosis in the Roman coliseum faceoff with Chuck Norris in The Way of the Dragon (1972).

Both Golden Harvest films are kept moving along adequately enough by director Lo Wei, though they really spring to life in the combat set pieces, which Lee took in hand himself, bringing to bear knowhow he’d accrued during his time in American movies and television. He combined remarkable strength with whip-crack speed, and his hand-to-hand scenes still play beautifully, save for the occasional handheld POV interstices, which were an unfortunate hallmark of the period. But Lee’s athleticism only goes part of the way toward explaining his popularity; the rest is in his self-presentation and showmanship, which was already legendary when he was making the rounds at martial-arts tournaments, doing pushups with a single finger and demonstrating his “one-inch punch.” He sells every punch, appearing as both combatant and appreciative spectator to his own combat—after dispatching an opponent with a deathblow he will remain holding his pose, a trembling tableau vivant contemplating the weapon of his fist as though it were not a part of him. In both The Big Boss and The Way of the Dragon, he teases the audience with his character’s initial pacifism, not giving the immediate gratification of a taste of his virtuosity but holding himself in reserve, making you want it, wait for it. When they finally come, his fights are always filigreed with little flourishes, like the nunchaku twirling performances that he loved to put on, the way he flicks open the top buttons of his tunic before going to town, or the bit of business where he spurs himself on with the taste of his own blood, first used in The Big Boss and then in Enter the Dragon. While playing a champion of the disenfranchised, he embodied the disdain of an aristocratic dandy, stomping on enemies as though snuffing a smoldering cigarette butt. Finally, he was an undeniably good-looking dude who exuded cool—a legitimate sex symbol in a way that later crossover stars such as Jackie Chan or Jet Li never were.

Enter the Dragon, a US-Hong Kong coproduction directed by Robert Clouse, appeared in theaters shortly after the shocking news of Lee’s death, circumstances which turned what probably would have been a hit movie regardless into a cultural phenomenon. Enter has the pleasure of costar John Saxon totally bluffing his karate and probably the most famous scene in any Lee movie, the pursuit of Shih Kien’s villain, Mr. Han, into a hall of mirrors maze lifted from Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1947), though the Rome-set The Way of the Dragon is his most purely enjoyable starring vehicle. Among other things it airs out Lee’s low-comic sense of humor, which suggests the matter of influence between him and Blake Edwards was a two-way street—fresh off the plane, he spends the first reel of the movie battling diarrhea, and the Norris fight contains the unforgettable moment where Lee rips a hunk of hair out of his hirsute opponent’s chest.

Later, after having bested Norris, Lee thoughtfully covers his foe’s broken, lifeless body, a sign of respect—though no such reverent treatment was forthcoming after Lee’s death, for there was still money to be made. From the existent footage of what was to be Lee’s sophomore directorial outing, Clouse cobbled together Game of Death, utilizing doubles as well as, in a plotline involving Lee’s character faking his own death, open casket footage from Lee’s own funeral. Rarely has a life been so thoroughly and shamelessly exploited, and yet Lee’s legacy has suffered from this treatment not at all. Heirs to the throne have come and gone, but none that move with such explosive force, with such panache.

“Eternal Bruce Lee” runs January 27 through February 4 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.