Sunday, July 16, 2006

Bruce Lee Movies


I saw the martial arts movie, 5 FINGERS OF DEATH on a Saturday in 1973. On Sunday, I bought some out of town newspapers as I often did (to get different comic strips!) and was surprised to see a little photo of a man literally flying through the air. The man was identified as Bruce Lee from the upcoming movie, FISTS OF FURY. I remember thinking, "Bruce Lee? KATO?!!" Things happened quickly after that. The movie opened locally but it wasn’t at a theater I could reach by bus so I didn’t see it untl some time later. A second movie, THE CHINESE CONNECTION, opened very soon after, making me think Bruce had probably been making these things since last seen on LONGSTREET and maybe had dozens in the can being released now in an attempt to cash in on the success of 5 FINGERS OF DEATH! Then, while at a theater one afternoon, I saw a trailer for something starring Bruce called ENTER THE DRAGON that looked like nothing less than an Oriental James Bond movie! "Another one already!" I thought. All of this was within the space of a month or slightly more. The very next day, the newspapers carried word of his death.

I don’t think Bruce Lee was a nice man or a happy man. I would not have wanted to meet him in real life. Biographies paint him as conceited, arrogant, extremely touchy and perhaps even manic-depressive. On screen, however, his persona was that of a cocky do-gooder who tried to avoid fighting while knowing full well he could kick the ass of everyone in the room…all at once! After a successful Hong Kong film career as a charismatic child star, Bruce came to the US where, as Kato, he got himself noticed by effortlessly stealing the GREEN HORNET show from its bland star, Van Williams. The heck with all of the Hornet’s sonic gadgets and gas guns. You just knew that Kato was the real hero and didn’t really need the other guy at all!

After that show’s aborted run, however, roles for a Chinese man on US TV were few. He appeared in episodes of BLONDIE (whose star Will Hutchins tells me that at least once a year somebody tries to hit him up for a copy of but he doesn’t have one), IRONSIDE and HERE COME THE BRIDES before eventually getting a recurring role on LONGSTREET about a blind investigator. As a martial arts teacher on that show, he more or less played himself in a role actually written for him. Around the same time, he had a memorable if minor role in James Garner’s MARLOWE and did fight coordination behind the scenes on one of Dean Martin’s Matt Helm movies.

According to legend, Bruce also developed the idea for the KUNG-FU TV series and had expected to star in it. I find that very hard to believe. As a teacher, he had made some high-powered Hollywood friends including Steve McQueen and James Coburn but I still don’t think he would have had the clout to get such a series underway. Even if he did, quite frankly, I don’t think he, himself, would have been good casting for it! If I were the casting director, I think I would have passed on Bruce Lee for KUNG-FU as he just seemed to always be too damned cocky to make any variation on that role work. He reportedly hated the fact that the non-Oriental David Carradine was cast.

Anyway, that same legend says that it was in-between LONGSTREET and waiting for KUNG-FU to pan out that Bruce decided to make a return trip to Hong Kong where THE GREEN HORNET was very popular. He made the press and TV rounds and somehow linked up with one Raymond Chow, late of Hong Kong’s massive film factory Shaw Brothers (presided over by the marvelously named Run-Run Shaw). Chow had split from Shaw to create an upstart film company he called Golden Harvest and was looking for an exploitable name. Bruce saw some quick extra money and agreed to work with him. The result was a low budget martial arts crime movie with a modern setting entitled THE BIG BOSS. Unlike many Chinese productions, THE BIG BOSS did not feature a lot of outlandish, over-the-top fighting effects with wires and swords. Thus when Bruce Lee leaped through the air in that now iconic shot, it seemed all the more real. It’s a simple story of a simple guy who just happens to be the biggest badass in the room. A little blood and a couple of naked breasts got it an R rating in the US and its success was assured (no one would see a PG rated martial arts film as it was presumed to be ultra-wimpy!). Retitled FISTS OF FURY, it became a minor phenomenon at the box office.

Meanwhile, the producers quickly put Bruce’s follow-up film into immediate worldwide release. As it had been originally entitled FIST OF FURY and THE BIG BOSS had been retitled FISTS OF FURY (whose brilliant idea was that?) a new name had to be created. Someone (probably the same guy) called it THE CHINESE CONNECTION, apparently in an unnecessary attempt to cash in on William Friedkin’s then recent FRENCH CONNECTION. Not only was there (wait for it) NO connection, but timing being what it was, this film would have made a mint if you had called it HERE’S BRUCE LEE AGAIN.

During his lifetime, that’s all Bruce Lee got to see in this country and he didn’t get to see much of that before his controversial death (officially due to cerebral edema caused by an allergic reaction to a prescription analgesic given him by an actress with whom he may or may not have been having an affair). To say it was unexpected would be putting it mildly. Bruce literally seemed the healthiest, strongest guy in the world to see him up there on-screen. In the worldwide melee that followed his death, the rumors were flying fast and the legend began to grow.
A week later, back in Cincinnati, I attended a sneak preview of ENTER THE DRAGON with a packed audience at the Grand Theater. It was everything I expected, an all-out martial arts spy story with a DR. NO villain, an action packed musical score (by MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE’s Lalo Schiffrin) a sexy femme fatale (who doesn’t get enough screen time, dammit!), likable heroes, and best of all, Bruce lee unleashed, showcasing both his acting talents (without a dubbed voice for a change) and his absolutely breathtaking martial arts showmanship. The finale, a variation on Welles’ LADY FROM SHANGHAI with Bruce and the evil Han facing off in a hall of mirrors is just plain amazing and was probably absolute hell to stage and shoot properly! In the end, the individual scenes hold up much better (especially on repeated viewings) than the whole. With its flashbacks within flashbacks and so many rip-offs (read: homages) from other movies (Han is not a Dr. No-LIKE villain. Han IS Dr. No!), ENTER THE DRAGON is actually a real mish-mash. Director (and future Bruce Lee biographer) Robert Clouse keeps the action moving well but the star himself reportedly never liked the script. In fact, the screenwriter reportedly put in as many words as possible with "R" sounds just because he knew Bruce had pronunciation trouble with "R’s."

A new magazine from the publishers of BLACK BELT came out around the time the movie made its debut. Entitled FIGHTING STARS, it featured celebrity martial artists including Larry Hagman and William Shatner but its focus was on Bruce Lee right from the beginning. That initial issue had been put together prior to the actor’s death and thus is a perhaps more balanced look at where his career may have been heading. The mag would last for years and, like BLACK BELT itself, would find any excuse to feature Bruce Lee’s name on its covers just to sell copies.

One article I read around this time featured a brief interview with Bruce from a year or so earlier in which he talked about how his next film, ENTER THE DRAGON, was about a simple country boy going to a place where he doesn’t know the language. Hmmmm… That certainly didn’t describe the ENTER THE DRAGON I had seen three times by that point. Little by little it began to come out that there was one more Bruce Lee feature not yet released in the US. That film turned out to have been retitled WAY OF THE DRAGON so that the ENTER THE DRAGON title could go to the major Warner Brothers release replacing BLOOD AND STEEL and the (perhaps apocryphal) THE DEADLY THREE. What is it with these titles?!!

Anyway, it was perhaps inevitably entitled RETURN OF THE DRAGON by the time it got to the US, in spite of having not the slightest relationship to the other film besides its star. It was, as Bruce had said, a story of a Chinese man who goes to Italy. The fact that all of the dialogue was dubbed into English for the US release kind of made it seem silly when characters kept saying that they couldn’t understand other characters. None of that mattered, though. The big setpiece in this one was Bruce Lee battling American karate champion (and a future film and TV star in his own right) Chuck Norris in the Roman Colosseum (or rather a set variation thereof).

By the time RETURN OF THE DRAGON reached these shores, it had been preceded by a number of rip-off films purporting to have Bruce in them. Some were okay chop-socky flicks but one still felt ripped off that they didn’t live up to their billing. This where we began to see Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Dragon Lee and all of those guys who probably had no idea that they were being billed thus in America. Some films went even further. One, entitled THE REAL BRUCE LEE, actually did feature Bruce but it was in childhood footage from his early, non-martial arts Hong Kong film career. Another, BRUCE LEE AND I, featured brief home movie footage of Lee on-set with its star, now edited in as if part of the story and touted as "Starring Bruce Lee!" Sigh.

Another film that really did have Bruce was entitled KATO and was, obviously, several episodes of the GREEN HORNET TV series edited together. This in and of itself was not unusual. In fact, in the early sixties it was fairly common practice to release films, particularly overseas, that were compilations of TV episodes. This was done with ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. and others. Since THE GREEN HORNET had not really been successful in 1967, it was a little weird to be seeing it on the big screen nearly a decade later. In fact, I’ve heard there were two of these GREEN HORNET compilation films in the wake of Bruce’s death.

A number of books on Bruce had come out since his death, the best of this early lot being Alex Ben Block’s first out of the gate and Bruce’s widow Linda’s own book. The former featured an intriguing photo of Bruce from an unfinished film entitled GAME OF DEATH. What? Another one?!! US basketball giant (in more ways than one) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was in the photo battling tiny Bruce. It turned out the late star had been working on this film when the opportunity arose for the major Warner Brothers co-production and work on it was suspended and never completed. I was intrigued.

Apparently so were the exploitation film producers. The box office was soon full of such movies as GOODBYE BRUCE LEE-HIS LAST GAME OF DEATH which touted a "special guest appearance by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar." Was this it? Had somebody finished it? They were giving away free Bruce Lee posters with attendance. Having already been ripped off many times that year, I nonetheless took the chance and learned that if something seems to good to be true it usually is. The film featured some guy dressed in the cool jumpsuit Bruce had in the stills from the lost film (later worn also by Uma Thurman in the KILL BILL films!) but it was hardly Bruce. Kareem’s misleading appearance was a brief interview clip, not a battle.

Over the next few years there would be several more of these attempts to convince us gullible filmlovers that someone had finally finished off Bruce’s now legendary lost movie. Eventually, we quit falling for it which may explain why the real thing, arriving in 1978, was greeted with a resounding yawn.

Although directed by Robert Clouse, the man who did such a good job with ENTER THE DRAGON, GAME OF DEATH as released was one of the worst, most despicable hodge podges of a movie I’ve ever seen. In its own way, it’s as big a rip-off as the exploitation films that came before it. TV star Hugh O’Brian stars with Academy Award winner Gig Young (soon to murder his real-life wife and himself) and some guy pretending to be Bruce Lo, the world’s greatest martial arts star, while hiding behind masks, helmets, and even a horrible pasteover of the real Bruce Lee’s face at one point! In the film, the actor fakes his death, leading to an incredibly tasteless scene of the real Bruce’s real funeral from 1973 complete with Lee’s on view corpse!!! A very small amount of Bruce’s actual GAME OF DEATH footage appears toward the end and it is, as expected, stunning. When this mess finally aired on cable, that’s the only part I taped. I’m betting it was the same with most people.

Over the years, the martial arts film’s popularity has fallen out of the mainstream but never gone away. Many of the techniques and conceits of these films have been incorporated into the language of modern directors who spent Saturday afternoons at the Kung-Fu cinemas of the seventies. Bruce Lee’s legend has grown and he is looked at more as a cinema icon than a real man. He even got his own big budget film biography, 1993’s DRAGON starring Jason Scott (no relation) Lee. Many literary biographies have come and gone, also (including, bizarrely, one by Attractions guitarist, Bruce Thomas!), but the best and perhaps final word on Bruce Lee as man and myth was AMC’s 2002 production BRUCE LEE: A WARRIOR’S JOURNEY. This masterful documentary incorporated enough of the surviving footage of GAME OF DEATH that it was actually able to be edited into sequence according to Bruce’s original intentions, making it a mini-version of what might have been.

Although I never signed up for martial arts training as so many did, I left those theaters in 1973 kicking my way down the streets of the city thinking I was too damn cool. I’m sorry that Bruce Lee the man probably wasn’t happy or, as I said, particularly nice. In the end, though, as the saying goes, "When the legend becomes the truth, print the legend." Bruce Lee’s legend is what survives, discovered anew by subsequent generations. It thrives and grows, filled with heroism, hope and the very real feeling that you, too, can be the biggest badass in the room when you need to be! Perhaps unlike any other star, it isn’t so much the actor’s films that have become classics but Bruce Lee himself.

Here’s a link to our earlier look at the ENTER THE DRAGON comic booklet http://booksteveslibrary.blogspot.com/2005/11/enter-dragon-comics.htmland here’s one to BLACK BELT’s online look at trivia on Bruce’s movies:http://www.blackbeltmag.com/document_display.cfm?section_id=50&document_id=276

No comments: