I hadn't seen a Bruce Lee movie when, in eighth grade, I bought a blood-red T-shirt emblazoned with an illustration of the martial artist's face. I was only aware of him through osmosis, but even then I just knew he was cool.
Until last week, I was still a Lee neophyte, having only seen one of his films — 1973's Enter the Dragon. To fix that, I bought the recent Criterion Collection set Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits, containing crisp restorations of his five major action films.
Lee was born into showbiz, appearing in melodramas and family-friendly features as a child actor. After studying at the University of Washington in the late '50s, he worked in Hollywood as a fight choreographer and played the masked sidekick Kato on TV's The Green Hornet.
His action movie career took off in the early '70s and made him a global superstar, but it was his unexpected death at 32 that cemented his mythic status. Grindhouse studios even began pumping out films starring lookalike actors with deliberately misleading names like Bruce Li, an ignominious subgenre that came to be known as "Brucesploitation."
Because he's such an icon, I perhaps unfairly assumed that Lee played a variation on the same smirking persona in every film. But that isn't the case. In The Big Boss (1971), Lee's first martial arts film, he's a self-proclaimed pacifist, and it isn't until the 80-minute mark that he finally kicks ass. By comparison, he's a tightly coiled ball of rage in 1972's Fist of Fury, barely able to hold his composure as he avenges his master's murder.
The movies themselves mix it up, too: Way of the Dragon (1972), which Lee wrote and directed, introduces broad fish-out-of-water comedy, while his magnum opus Enter the Dragon, released a month after Lee died, is a slick, cool neo-noir. (The fifth film in the box set, 1978's cobbled-together Game of Death, is best remembered as a crude curio, and for Bruce's iconic yellow jumpsuit.)
It's fascinating to watch Lee and his collaborators, themselves inspired by classic wuxia narratives and the films of Shaw Brothers Studios, solidify the framework of the modern action movie: establish a simple conflict, manufacture a fight scene every 25 minutes, deliver an explosive finale. It's a formula duplicated by so many of Lee's acolytes, including Jackie Chan, Steven Seagal and Lee's Way of the Dragon co-star Chuck Norris.
Having binged the Criterion set, I'm most blown away by Lee's effortless agility and magnetic presence, and the humility that underscored his remarkable confidence. I better understand the legend because now I understand the man. ♦