In the 1970s, action films coming out of Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studios captured moviegoers’ imaginations in the United States. As the colorful, action-packed films — many sharing creative DNA with American superhero comics — created new martial arts lovers in the grindhouses of Times Square and other locales, Bruce Lee — an actor with roots in Hong Kong and the United States — crossed language barriers and gave the world its first bonafide kung fu star.
“To put it simply, Lee was an unusually charismatic performer with an unmatched talent,” said La Frances Hui by email, the associate curator in the Museum of Modern Art’s film department. She organized the museum’s upcoming film series Eternal Bruce Lee, which features all five films Lee made in his prime. “He was not the first kung fu star to perform ‘real fighting’ without the aid of stunt doubles and special effects, and yet the Chinese audience knew right away that he was a rare gem.”
The trademark style that won Lee so many fans can be seen throughout his films. His rapid-fire jabs keep audiences riveted. It is truly a treat to watch his skill with the nuncahaku, a traditional martial arts weapon which he wields at the same lightning-fast pace. His face — often accentuated in close-up — twists and deforms into looks of intense fury and all-consuming rage when he deals an opponent the coup de grace. And Lee’s trademark battle cry “Wata!” is the staccato punctuation to each punch and kick.
For the MoMA series, the films’ high-definition 4K digital restorations by L’Immagine Ritrovata will introduce contemporary audiences to the purest portrayal of Lee’s style by using the closest possible reproduction of the crisp, colorful, large images audiences saw in cinemas in the 1970s.
“Many people got to know Lee from watching him on small TV or computer screens,” Hui said. “This larger-than-life figure, however, should really be projected on a big screen and enjoyed in a communal setting. The restorations will allow the audience to experience the films as they were screened four decades ago.”
The below reviews may help you prioritize your own Bruce Lee experience.
The Big Boss (1971)
The earliest film in the series is director Lo Wei’s story of Chinese immigrant laborers at a Thai ice factory fighting their heroin-smuggling bosses. As Lee’s first major film, it is a bit of a surprise that he does very little fighting. His character, Cheng Chao-an, is a pacifist due to a promise he made to his mother over a jade pendant; he is more William Munny than the Man with No Name. When Lee’s character does decide to fight in the movie’s second half, he makes up for lost time. After the pendant is broken during an attack, the camera zooms tight on Cheng’s face, and he lets out a deep bellow that would get shriller in later films. He disarms and defeats several attackers in a series of dutch angle shots, emphasizing the physicality that Lee is unleashing upon these poor, misguided assailants.
Lee’s undeniable charisma is already apparent from his first appearances in the film. By granting the same amount of focus to facial expressions as his ability to beat someone senseless, the directors who showcased Lee used his highly expressive face to build his stardom.
Fist of Fury (1972)
Lee’s second major film is the “must see” of the series. The colors alone in this new digital transfer of Fists of Fury are engrossing. The film focuses on the efforts of the Chinese Jingwu School of kung fu to defend against the attacks of a Japanese dojo; the Jingwu uniform is portrayed in an array of blue hues. In one scene where a dozen students gather, no two are wearing the same type of blue. Lee cuts through this sea of cobalt and cerulean, dressed in white. The constant pairing of blue and white is reminiscent of Chinese porcelain, a fitting comparison since Chinese nationalism is key to the film’s conflict.
The codification of Lee’s style also occurs here. His shrieking battle cry makes its first appearance. The film is also among Lee’s first to use special effects shortcuts to express his superior fighting prowess. He flings dolls around to show the ease with which his character can dispatch opponents, and in one scene, he throws a rickshaw — passenger and all — with little effort. He unhinges himself from the burdens of the human body so much that director Lo Wei actually shows Lee displaying the ability to move his arms in an unusual strobe effect; this comes shortly before the film’s ending homage to the final scene of George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
The Way of the Dragon (1972)
The first movie Lee directed shows a lack of restraint — which is only a good thing when it comes to the fights. The time between brawls (the first fight occurs 32 minutes into the film and ends with one punch) is filled with humor that falls flat, including literal toilet humor as a running gag (like Lee asking where he can kind find a bathroom in the middle of conversations). Coupling this failed comedy with heavy exposition over stock tourism footage of Rome makes for a dull first third of the film.
However, the final battle between Lee and Chuck Norris in the Colosseum compensates for its dry lead-up. Norris — with his stockier build — provides an interesting contrast against Lee’s sinewy, taut frame. The attention to detail in the lead-up to their battle is noteworthy. As the two prepare to trade blows, they show a formal courtesy toward each other. They do stretches several paces away from each other, backs turned, as they ready their bodies for conflict. These are professionals, and they are set to entertain us with the type of work that only martial arts professionals can do.
Enter the Dragon (1973)
Enter the Dragon — the first Hollywood kung fu film — commodifies Lee’s persona for Americans who best knew him from 26 episodes as Kato in the 1960s superhero television show. It becomes apparent that Lee is being repackaged as a product for Western consumption from the opening credits, where the film’s catchy jingle contains his shrieks and yells.
A fight competition premise allows Enter the Dragon to dispense with plot and get right to the battles. A $850,000 budget — considerably larger than most other kung fu films of the time — allows for serious spectacle, including an antagonist with a Bond villain lair full of guillotines, mechanical doors, and needlessly ornate communications centers. The increased possibilities of the bigger bankroll are best felt during the house of mirrors sequence that ends the film. After Lee gingerly pushes through a half-mirror, half-wall revolving door, psychedelic visions of reflected imagery expand and contract as characters move through the maze. Earlier in the film, a contestant notes during a lavish feast, “I have a funny feeling we’re being fattened up for the kill.” In their own way, Lee and co-director Robert Clouse fatten up the audience with decadent visuals throughout.
Game of Death (1978)
Lee’s final film is for completists only. Director Robert Clouse pads 11 minutes that Lee shot before his death with approximately 80 minutes of the most sustained desecration of a beloved entertainer’s work imaginable. Two stand-ins are covered in disguises — including glasses, a beard, and a cardboard cutout of Lee’s face — to complete the story of an action film actor who fakes his own death to seek revenge. In perhaps the most offensive gambit, the film features footage of Lee’s actual funeral as his character’s staged funeral.
But Hui is quick to note Game of Death’s saving grace: “The film, as imperfect as it might be, includes some of the most iconic images of Lee, clad in his trademark yellow jumpsuit maneuvering the deadly nunchaku and fighting a giant several heads taller. Our memory of Lee cannot be complete without those images he shot for this film.”
Sporting a yellow jumpsuit resurrected by Kill Bill’s Beatrix Kiddo decades later, Lee battles basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Lee’s personality shines as he escapes defeat by dispatching Abdul-Jabbar in his cocky, expressive style. Here the audience is reminded of the crucial “emotional content” of Lee’s fighting that he touted in Enter the Dragon.
Eternal Bruce Lee runs at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown West, Manhattan) January 27–February 4.