[Author’s note: This review is intended to kick off a two-week series showcasing the highs and lows of Bruceploitation, the wild and often tasteless deluge of films that came out after the unexpected death of Bruce Lee. These films featured Bruce lookalikes in films that ranged from half-assed remakes & inaccurate bio-pics to the just plain bizarre. When a screen legend dies at the top of his game the natural tendency is to rush in and fill that void. Enter the Dragon was about to hit theaters worldwide, Bruce Lee Mania was still in full swing, and nobody was willing to accept that the Little Dragon would no longer be around to make films. The Hong Kong movie industry, who was no stranger to milking proven box office success until it was withered and dry, hired dozens of Bruce lee imitators to star in films with amusingly deceptive sounding titles like New Game of Death and Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger.
The resulting films are often quickly dismissed by kung-fu film aficionados as cheap, crass, and shameless… and well, they are. But let’s accept that and give these films a second shot. It’s time to taste our blood, thumb our noses and take a closer look at the wacky world of Bruce Lee exploitation cinema.]
Bruce Lee’s Deadly Kung Fu [詠春截拳](1976)
AKA The Story of the Dragon; Bruce Lee’s Secret; Bruce Li’s Jeet Kune Do; A Dragon Story; He’s a Legend, He’s a Hero; Master of Jeet Kun Do; Bruce Lee: A Dragon Story
Starring Bruce Li, Jimmy Lee Fong, Carter Wong, Hwang Jang Lee, Roy Horan, Paul Wei Ping-Ao
Directed By Chan Wa & William Cheung Kei
When it comes to Bruce Lee imitators, Bruce Li set the standard. He was among the very first out the gate after the Death of Bruce Lee, and with good reason. He pretty much nailed all of Lee’s mannerisms and put them on display just enough as not to overdo it. While most Lee imitator’s mimicry bordered on tactless parody, Bruce Li was actually very believable, masterful even, in his portrayals of Lee.
Li, whose real name was Ho Chung-Tao, was busy working as a stuntman in his native Taiwan, trying to break into the film industry with no success. It was only after the death of Bruce Lee, that producers in Hong Kong took notice of his resemblance and virtually launched him to superstardom overnight. Ironically, Li’s claim to fame would haunt him for most of his career. In later interviews he expressed some pretty heavy resentment towards a film industry that pigeonholed him into living in the shadow of Lee, never really allowing him to distance himself from the role. (Which is a very valid argument, Bruce Li was a pretty accomplished martial artist in his own right.) He ended up retiring from acting altogether after the death of his wife in the early ’80s.
Bruce Lee’s Deadly Kung Fu is a pretty decent springboard into Bruceploitation cinema, if only because it carries most of the traits typical to the genre before it went absolutely apeshit towards the end of the ’70s (but we’ll get to that next week). You get your obligatory nunchaku scenes, your classic Bruce Lee training sequences that feature a lot of shots of Bruce jogging and lifting dumbbells, and plenty of grossly exaggerated facets of Bruce Lee’s real life. My favorite in this particular movie is when Bruce gets his ass handed to him by the baddest kung fu master in town, a guy so badass that he walks around with long curly locks, a pencil thin moustache, bare-knuckle gloves, and a Dracula cape. A distraught Bruce ventures to a secluded creek and has a meaningful flashback of his master, which compels him to create Jeet Kune Do.
The plot is basically lifted from The Chinese Connection, only this time set in modern-day San Francisco and with some pretty goofy looking Caucasians as the protagonists instead of the Japanese. Hell, even Paul Wei (better known as Interpreter Wu in The Chinese Connection) makes an appearance. Don’t be too shocked… often times the producers would hire actors who actually appeared in Lee’s movies in an attempt to legitimize their film. Most of the time they would play roles virtually identical to those that they played in the earlier films, as is the case here, with Paul Wei once again playing the traitorous Chinese who aligns himself with the racist Chinese-hating foreigners.
Li plays “Bob” Lee, a transparent carbon copy of Bruce Lee. In fact, the dubbers frequently forget this fact, accidently letting the name “Bruce” slip through on several occasions. He pals around San Francisco with his friend (Jimmy Lee Fong) and the two meet up with Carter Wong (best remembered as the thunder god with the big straw hat in Big Trouble in Little China). They fall into the ire of some syndicated, karate-fighting crime mob who hate Chinese people. Bruce — I mean Bob — quickly dispatches them with some Wing Chun techniques, so they run back to headquarters to tell their karate teacher, played by some Asian dude in blackface and a pretty nappy-ass afro wig. Bruce beats them again, and when the mob boss comes back from New York, he is furious. You can tell this guy doesn’t take shit because he curses a lot and has a scar on his cheek. He orders his army of karate fighting gringos to go all out and “beat the shit out of those Chinese guys.”
Despite being a decent example of the genre, the film itself gets pretty boring and repetitive from here on out. Bruce kicks the shit out of these guys and opens up a kung-fu school to teach foreigners, which only infuriates them more so he kicks the shit out of them again. Blah, blah, blah. Rinse. Repeat. The real winner here is Paul Wei, who steals the show with his fantastically flamboyant wardrobe that only gets more and more ridiculous as the film progresses. I thought the sequined gay-golfer uniform would be hard to top until he strutted out in the zebra striped jockey outfit.
If you’re interested in tracking this film down, a bit of a warning though. This movie is like most Bruceploitation flicks, which are notorious for being renamed and repackaged so many times, that often, nobody remembers what the original title was in the first place. You can find this film under at least half a dozen other names including Bruce Lee’s Secret, The Story of the Dragon, Bruce Lee: A Dragon Story, Bruce Li’s Jeet Kune Do, etc.[Editor’s note: After scouring the internet for some poster images to use for this film, I happened upon a Bruce Lee Clone website that not only had the images I sought but also an extensive database of info on these forgotten films. It’s called The Clones of Bruce Lee and I heartily recommend you check it out if you enjoyed Uncle Jasper’s review.]