- Bruceploitation was a subgenre of films that emerged after Bruce Lee’s death in 1973 and featured imitators resembling him.
- Critics had mixed opinions on Bruceploitation, with some viewing it as a shameless cash grab and others seeing it as a way to honor Bruce Lee’s legacy.
- The Bruceploitation films had over-the-top storylines and often featured absurd elements, but they were highly entertaining for fans of the martial arts genre.
The death of Bruce Lee in 1973 caught the world by surprise. Thanks to his brilliant work in Enter the Dragon, the actor had not only become a global superstar, but had also caused attention to shift to the martial arts genre. Fans were bracing themselves for more magic from the man, and when he died, questions emerged regarding who would succeed him. Well, filmmakers from Hong Kong, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea figured that finding another actor of the same eminence wouldn’t be easy, so they opted for imitators rather than successors. These imitators — who resembled the star and had similarly sounding names such as Bruce Le, Bruce Lai, and Bruce Lau — would come to be known as “Lee-alikes.”
The Bruceploitation subgenre was thus born, and within no time, it had taken off. Some critics described it as a shameless way to cash in on the star’s popularity, while others felt it was an honorable way to keep his legacy alive. For most fans, there was no moral dilemma. They enjoyed seeing new versions of their favorite martial arts star. Many of the films were over-the-top and featured absurd storylines, where Bruce even fought supernatural elements or superheroes, but they were highly entertaining. For over a decade, the subgenre remained robust, and only withered and died after the emergence of Jackie Chan as the next Hong Kong star. Here is the best of what the Bruceploitation subgenre had to offer.
10 The Clones of Bruce Lee (1980)
In the fictional and ridiculous world of The Clones of Bruce Lee, scientists from the Special British Intelligence (SBI) come up with an effective way to fill the void left after Bruce Lee’s death: cloning him. Enter Bruce 1, Bruce 2, and Bruce 3, portrayed by famous Bruceploitation actors Dragon Lee, Bruce Le, and Bruce Lai, respectively. Criminals who were happy about no longer having to receive kicks to the groin from the late Bruce Lee now get something new to worry about.
Brutal Fights and a Unhinged, Bond-Like Villain
One Bruce Lee is already deadly enough, meaning a formidable baddie would be needed to take on three of them. That’s where Dr. Nai comes in. It’s obvious where the inspiration came from, as his name sounds a lot like one of the evilest James Bond villains, Dr. No. The industrialist has a formula that can turn people into bronze, so he declares, “I will create an army of bronze men! That will surprise the whole world. Haha!”
Many more child-like quotes are sprinkled all over the film, but it’s fun to hear all of them. Besides that, the fight scenes are perfect, too, and they get even better when one disgruntled scientist laments about remuneration and decides to program the three clones to fight each other. Stream on Tubi TV
9 Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger (1976)
Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger is yet another Bruceploitation film that merges fiction with reality. Bruce Lee dies, not during his sleep as was the case in real life, but because of a drug-related conspiracy orchestrated by a Hong Kong mob boss, who is conveniently named Baron. His student, Tiger (Bruce Li), vows to avenge his death, so he begins hunting Baron and everyone who has ever been seen with him.
Endless References to Lee’s Life and Work
The film honors the martial arts icon by including endless references to his life and work. Actual footage of Bruce Lee’s funeral is included, with Tiger shown mourning while vowing to “get whoever did this.” Some of the costumes also mirror those of Enter the Dragon, and the ‘60s Batman TV show, where Lee played Kato. A scene where Tiger is mobbed by fans who mistake him for Bruce Lee is also an acknowledgment of the Hong Kong actor’s fame.
But this isn’t just a Bruce Lee tribute piece. Tiger keeps shining in unique ways. His investigative work, for example, is very commendable, and in one scene, he sneaks into a hospital and pretends to be Bruce Lee. He tells a security guard that he faked his death and the man falls for it. Overall, there is no dull moment in Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger, so everyone, including casual fans, is likely to enjoy. Stream on Starz or FreeVee
8 Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave (1976)
Lightning strikes Bruce Lee’s grave, and he springs out of it, resurrected and ready for fresh rounds of fisticuffs. It seems like the perfect set-up, except Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave has little to do with Lee himself. Most of the plot revolves around a man named Wong Han (Bruce K. L. Lea) as he investigates his friend’s death. Anyone bold enough could have easily sued the producers for false advertising.
Still Watchable, Thanks to a Great Romance Subplot
The movie’s initial premise would have easily made it one of the greatest action horror movies, so it’s a shame that it’s abandoned after the first few minutes. Still, there is a wonderful romance subplot involving Wong and an American girl named Susan. Wong and Susan mostly work as a duo, which is refreshing considering that most films of the era relegated women to the sidelines.
Apart from that, fans are likely to be baffled by Wong’s absurd mannerisms. He keeps carrying his friend’s remains in a large box that has his picture on it. What’s the point? Only he knows. And when the time comes for the events to be concluded, a major shocking twist emerges. Stream on Prime Video
7 Return of the Tiger (1978)
Return of the Tiger introduces audiences to the gang member Chang Hung (Bruce Li), who, thankfully, doesn’t know Bruce Lee. Hung is out to get the leader of a rival gang known as Paul the Westerner. Chang has proper incentives, too, as Paul is threatening a singer whom he is eyeing and also happens to have killed his father. Most importantly, Chang doesn’t like drugs and Paul is deep inside that kind of business.
An Unforgettable Opening Scene
The movie’s opening scene, in which a woman beats up 20 students of a martial arts school, is one of the most breathtaking ones to ever appear in martial arts films. Through a combination of Aikido and Ninjutsu, she brutalizes them all before leaping into the air and grabbing all the knives they throw at her. It’s all superhero-like, but it comes off as believable, considering the genre.
This sets the tone for the rest of the movie where many more amazing fight sequences take place. The final fight between Chang and Paul the Westerner is the David-versus-Goliath kind, and it stays super tense because Paul is the kind of villain who doesn’t even wince when he is hit on the head with a massive wooden bench. Stream on Prime Video
6 The Dragon Lives Again (1977)
The Dragon Lives Again is a little more creative as it presents a story where Bruce Lee (Bruce Leung Siu-lung) finds himself in the Underworld’s royal court after dying. There, he meets characters from some of the iconic movies of the ‘70s, and a few from the ‘60s, too. However, he soon discovers that there is some sort of discord. The likes of James Bond, The Godfather, Count Dracula, and The Man with No Name are bullying the likes of Popeye and One-Armed Swordsman. Furthermore, they are about to orchestrate a coup.
A Pop Culture Fiesta
Like Space Jam or Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the movie is a pop-culture fiesta meant to celebrate some of the big names of the era. Some of the things — like how James Bond ended up in the Underworld, yet the character had never died until that point — don’t make sense, but fans will appreciate the effort to clarify a few other issues. For example, once Bruce wakes up in the Underworld, he is informed that people’s appearances change a little once they transition to the new plane of existence. This explains why he looks a little different from the real Bruce Lee. Stream on Nightflight Plus
5 Enter the Game of Death (1978)
Bruce Lee died while filming Game of Death, and even though the film was still released, it felt incomplete and all over the place. Thankfully, director Lee Tso-nam took the same concept and made a better movie: Enter the Game of Death. In it, Chinese martial arts expert, Mr. Ang (Bruce Le), is tasked with infiltrating the Tower of Death and retrieving a classified document that the Japanese are eager to get their hands on.
Vicious Video Game Opponents
Mr. Ang’s opponents feel like video game characters. Each of them is located on a different floor of the tower and has a different skill set. This makes the action sequences very exciting. The most exciting one features a man who uses cobras as weapons. He confronts Ang with a pair of snakes on his arms while several other serpents slither on the floor. The scene was filmed with real snakes, so Bruce Le deserves credit for risking his safety to that extent. Stream on Roku
4 Challenge of the Tiger (1980)
Challenge of the Tiger has a team of sadistic scientists who are irked by the fact that the Earth is overpopulated and people aren’t keen on birth control. They thus develop a super sterility that will make human reproduction impossible. As expected, it falls into the wrong hands, prompting two CIA agents to go on a mission to track it. One of them is the charming womanizer, Richard Cannon (Richard Harrison), and the other is a martial arts expert, Huang, (Bruce Le).
The Buddy Formula Works Well
Enter the Dragon proved that espionage blends well with martial arts, and Challenge of the Tiger confirms this. The film’s reliance on the buddy formula also boosts its quality greatly. The two protagonists complement each other perfectly, with Richard doing most of the intelligence gathering and Huang beating up anyone who gets in the way of the intelligence gathering. A film like this wouldn’t be complete without a couple of too-crazy-for-the-80s scenes, so audiences get to see Richard playing tennis with topless models and Huang in a Kung Fu duel against a bull. Stream on MUBI
3 The Chinese Stuntman (1981)
Change Wei (Li) enjoys tremendous career growth in The Chinese Stuntman. He starts as an insurance salesman, and upon realizing he can absorb blows better than most people, he becomes a stuntman. And after rubbing shoulders with some film industry titans, he ends up becoming one of the biggest movie stars. Wei soon realizes that there are dirty elements in the industry, with some gangsters even pulling the strings, so he vows to end it all.
Corruption and Greed as Major Themes
Bruce Li also serves as director and screenwriter, so there are plenty of over-the-top elements, but this is arguably his best film, given how well it touches on the themes of greed and corruption. The rot in the film industry is exposed in such a realistic way that there were rumors of Li getting blacklisted after the movie’s release. He only appeared in one more movie after this, a development that highlights the industry’s decay even further. Themes aside, Li employs unique cinematic techniques to tell the story. There is a film within a film, and rotating camera angles that capture the action superbly. Stream on Tubi TV
2 Fist of Fear, Touch of Death (1980)
In Fist of Fear, Touch of Death, a martial arts tournament is held at Madison Square Garden to determine who Bruce Lee’s successor will be. The contest involves a two-round kickboxing match, and to the surprise of the organizers, it ends up being more brutal than everyone expected. The movie also offers a fictional explanation of Lee’s death, claiming that he was a victim of “The Touch of Death,” in which anyone who gets hit only dies after three weeks.
A Bruce Lee Semi-Biopic
Fist of Fear, Touch of Death is essential for anyone who wants to know about Bruce Lee’s early years. The film’s middle section follows a young Lee as he discovers his love for martial arts in China. It is introduced as a piece of footage meant to inspire the fighters before the tournament starts. When the fighting final starts, it’s all mayhem. Fans witness brutal knockouts, and the appearance of real-life MMA figures such as Ron Van Clief, and Louis Neglia make the film even more captivating. Stream on Dark Matter TV
1 Enter Three Dragons (1978)
True to the title, there are three protagonists in Enter Three Dragons. One is Sammy (Samuel Walls), a gangster who has been ordered by his boss to get some diamonds, but now he has lost them to other gangsters. Because he is in big trouble, his friends, the brothers Dragon Hong (Chang Yi-tao) and Min Young (Nick Cheung), decide to help him out. Along the way, Dragon and Min’s sister get kidnapped, presenting another challenge.
The Shady Burns Keep Coming
The protagonists aren’t just good fighters, they happen to be very good with insults, too. When Dragon meets a villain played by Bolo Yeung (who is still called Bolo in the movie), he delivers a brutal line that you’ll have to see for yourself. Minutes later, Dragon drops another burn on a henchman: “You are struggling to hit me. You should watch more action movies.” This and many more “ouch” moments make Enter Three Dragons a must-see flick. Stream on YouTube