Like James Dean, martial artist Bruce Lee casts a long shadow over popular culture despite making precious few films before his death at a young age. Much of his legend stems from Lee's only completed Hollywood movie, Enter the Dragon (1973), which casts the actor as a kung-fu secret agent. The picture hit theaters shortly after Lee died, creating a mythological quality that still endures. Yet Lee, who first gained notice among American audiences by playing a sidekick on the short-lived U.S. superhero show The Green Hornet (1966-1967), actually notched three starring roles in Hong Kong before making Enter the Dragon. Released many times under many titles, these pictures often blend into the overall flow of Lee's filmography, which is further muddied by posthumous releases of partially completed projects as well as various films starring imitators, such as the infamous Bruce Li. While many pictures billed as Bruce Lee movies should be ignored, these three represent the early stages of what should have been a long and glorious screen career.
The Big Boss, sometimes distributed as Fists of Fury, is generic to the point of tedium until it gains momentum about halfway through. Set in a quasi-rural section of Hong Kong, the picture concerns workers at an ice factory who rebel against their oppressive employers, eventually uncovering a scheme to smuggle heroin out of the factory in ice blocks. Lee plays Cheng, a martial-arts master who has promised never to fight again. Staying with relatives who work in the factory, Cheng watches problems mount without taking action. This doesn't make a whole lot of sense, seeing as how two of Cheng's friends disappear, and seeing as how it's plain that the factory's owner (Ying-Chieh Han) is a vile monster. Once Lee cuts loose, things get fun—he busts out his nunchucks, mows down opponents with his signature cocksure intensity, and, at one point, whomps a villain so hard the man's body propels through a wall, leaving a man-shaped hole in his wake. The Big Boss also benefits from a slick widescreen look, though the inevitable bad dubbing of the film's American-release version makes every character sound as chipper as resident of Mayberry.
Fist of Fury—also known as The Chinese Connection and not to be confused with The Big Boss' alternate title, Fists of Fury—improves on its predecessor by getting to the ass-kicking stuff faster, though character scenes remain a weakness. Lee plays Chen, former student of a revered teacher at a Hong Kong martial-arts school. Upon returning home for the teacher's funeral, Lee discovers that the teacher was likely murdered by conspirators associated with a competing school. The proprietors of the other school are Japanese, so national prejudice is a major element of the plot. Throughout Fist of Fury, Lee slips more and more comfortably into his ideal persona as a larger-than-life badass, righting wrongs and smiting the intolerant. In one scene, he high-kicks a sign reading "No Dogs or Chinese Allowed" into a zillion pieces, and in another scene, he fights his way through an entire school's worth of enemy fighters without suffering an injury. The iconic moment from Fist of Fury is a gorgeous shot in which Lee stands stock still except for his hands, which the camera tracks in slow motion so his hands leave ghost images behind.
Excepting the aborted Game of Death, which wasn't completed until after Lee died, the actor’s final film prior to Enter the Dragon was The Way of the Dragon, which was re-released, after Lee's blockbuster, with the new title Return of the Dragon. By any name, The Way of the Dragon is mediocre at best. Nonetheless, it's noteworthy as the only movie that Lee wrote and directed, and it contains perhaps the single best fight scene in all of Lee's filmography—an epic smackdown with American martial artist Chuck Norris, set inside the Roman Colosseum. Watching these two titans with very different styles is mesmerizing, because Lee is as fast and graceful as Norris is relentless and thunderous. Getting to that climactic scene requires trudging through lots of nonsense. Lee plays Tang, a Hong Kong martial artist sent to Rome in order to help the lovely Chen (Nora Miao), who owns a Chinese restaurant in the Italian city. Mobsters want to put the restaurant out of business, so Tang trains the wait staff to fight while also battling many adversaries on his own. Early scenes are bogged down in idiotic slapstick, such as a running gag about Tang's overactive excretory functions, and the acting by supporting players is wretched. Nonetheless, the Lee-Norris fight has plenty of wow factor.
The takeaway from all three pictures is that Lee was ready for bigger things. Invariably, he's the best element of each movie, not just because of his remarkable athleticism but also because of his innate star power. None of his Hong Kong movies is a classic, but Lee himself was.
The Big Boss: FUNKY
Fist of Fury: FUNKY
The Way of the Dragon: FUNKY