The Films of Bruce Lee – 1971 through 1978


Bruce Lee is a mythic figure in Cinema. His posthumous success led to 70s kung fu craze and a whole subgenre of Bruceploitation flicks. It’s a sad fact he never got to see the impact he would have internationally, even generations later. Yet his short filmography, his oeuvre of bonafide kung fu classics, has left a lasting legacy. Hopefully this article on the films of Bruce Lee will open your eyes a bit about this amazing martial artist.

The Big Boss (1971)

This was the first film on the Bruce Lee movies list to place Lee in a prominent role. While he doesn’t take the lead until the second half, his screen presence is a force to be reckoned with. The Big Boss is an On the Waterfront (1954) type story with a kung fu twist. Ice factory workers band together to take down their drug-dealing bosses.

This is Bruce’s bloodiest flick, and there are some surprising horror elements throughout. A lot of knife work too. There’s also the classic fight between Bruce and a pack of German Shepherds. While not one of the better films on the Bruce Lee movies list, it was a great showcase of his skills and delivers some awesome fight sequences.

Fist of Fury (1972)

Fist of Fury is the first true Bruce Lee movie on the Bruce Lee movies list. The one that made him a star. The film has a simple Kung Fu revenge plot but also delivers many of the classic moments that are always highlighted in Bruce Lee super cuts.

The Dojo Fight is up there as one of Bruce’s best fight sequences. He’s also able to do more character work in Fist and there is even a romance subplot. The film also has some striking colors (great use of Eastmancolor) and is well directed by Wei Lo.

Way of the Dragon (1972)

The first and only film on the Bruce Lee movies list that Bruce Lee also directed, unless one takes into account parts of Game of Death. It takes place in Rome, as Lee must help defend his families’ restaurant from a group of gangsters. There’s quite a bit of goofy humor in this one and audiences get to see another side of Bruce.

The action takes a backseat at times as this is more character focused and does unfortunately drag more than other films on the Bruce Lee movies list. There are still some great action moments though. Of course, Lee’s legendary fight with Chuck Norris in the coliseum is one for the books and elevates the movie. Chuck and Bruce were good friends in real life too, but to see these two action titans duke it out early on in their careers is more than worth the price of admission.

Enter the Dragon (1973)

Often touted as one of the great kung fu films, and for good reason. This was the film that led to Bruce’s posthumous international success. It’s his greatest work and the best film on the Bruce Lee movies list. Enter the Dragon follows Lee as he enters a martial arts tournament to take down a Bond like villain. The film also stars the late John Saxon and Jim Kelly. Bolo Yeung, whom many know as Chong Li from another classic martial arts tournament movie, the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Bloodsport (1988), plays one of the villain’s henchman and a similar role in the tournament.

The final showdown in the mirror room is a classic sequence from the Bruce Lee movie list. The fight scenes as a whole are grand, but Lee gets to play outside of the arena too. There’s some snooping around and spy sequences. The film also has a funky score that fits well with the time period. This was the last film Bruce Lee completed, his magnum opus, and it’s heartbreaking to imagine what he could have accomplished after this.

Game of Death (1978)

Lee had filmed and directed parts of Game of Death prior to his death. Robert Clouse, the director of Enter the Dragon, was hired to finish the film with stand-ins. It was (and still is) a controversial decision and is noticeable throughout the movie. The film even features distasteful footage from Bruce Lee’s actual funeral, five years after his death. It is debatable whether or not Game of Death should be included on the Bruce Lee movies list, but in a way this film feels like a culmination of Bruce’s short career.

It stars Bruce as Billy Lo, a movie star who fakes his death in order to hunt down the people behind his assassination attempts. There are some nods to his previous films, utilizing archive footage. The movie is a blatant cash grab and feels slapped together. However, there are still some classic Lee moments and some cool action. The motorcycle fight is often referenced, as well as Bruce’s fight with Kareem Abdul-Jabar. While not the most entertaining or engaging of the films on the Bruce Lee movies list, it has its fun moments.

Criterion Collection Box Set

The Criterion Collection recently released a box set of Bruce’s work, Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits, which comes highly recommended. Great transfers of all the films on the Bruce Lee movies list and slew of extras content. This includes an additional Bruceploitation movie, Game of Death II (1981), which utilizes actual home movies from Bruce’s childhood. The box set is a great way to dive in or revisit Bruce’s work. Movie buffs will always imagine what Bruce could’ve gone on to do had he been given more time on this earth, but we’re lucky to have the great kung fu flicks he left behind and in this epic package.

Dirk Diggs
Dirk Diggs
Film obsessive from Kentucky. "Pain is temporary, film is forever!"

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