Enter the Game of Fury (or, Writing about one of Cinema’s Oddest Genres)

Bruce Lee may have started my journey into martial arts cinema, but it was his cinematic “clones” that would seal my fascination with it forever.

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This blog will be an extension of an already epic undertaking of an up coming book which itself is an extension of my life long interest in the cinema known as Bruceploitation, or sometimes “The Clones Films”.  The working title for the book is The Bruceploitation Bible: The Film Clones of Bruce Lee, to reflect the monster of an undertaking it has become.  Though my initial intention was to undertake a simple and grazing glance at this sub-genre of Kung Fu cinema through my massive collection of posters and advertising material, I realized that my nearly 30 year exposure to the many films was not going to be easily contained into anything less than a detailed tome on the genre. There have been chapters of books, articles in magazines and many web sites reviewing the individual films or even discussing the actors places within the canon of martial arts cinema.  I was not interested in treading old literary paths, but rather paving a new one that reflected my own life-long curiosity with these much maligned films.

I had no desire to retread film plots for readers (I’m not a film reviewer) or to make fun of their many filmmaking faux pas (there are plenty of writers enjoying this kind of analysis). What I wanted to do was analyze the entire genre and its history for the first time in one book and what makes each film a “Bruceploitation” film. Why or how did Bruce Lee affect the film, the actors, the story lines and even the filmmaking approach (staging, framing and editing) within the genre?  In what way had martial arts greatest film legend influenced actors and storytellers through a decade of cinema? How were these filmmakers and actors expressing their renditions and interpretations of Lee and his legend through these mostly low budget productions?  There are the more obvious examples of Bruce lee Exploitation films (The Clones of Bruce Lee, The Dragon Dies Hard) but his presence and influence could be found in even less noticeable examples (The Tattoo Connection, The Little Godfather). How did each film represent Bruce Lee, his life and his art of Jeet Kune Do. As I began to thoroughly reanalyze my childhood infatuation in this way, the book continued to grow into a much more unusual animal than I had intended.

I was lucky enough to catch the wave of Bruceploitation during their stateside incarnations in various movie theaters throughout the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Long even before the first “clamshell” VHS became available for the film The Real Bruce Lee (my first video purchase at a whopping $55) I saw thirty or forty up on the big screen, even several in their original language in the Chinatown theaters (“The Dragon, The Hero”, “Enter the Fat Dragon”, etc.).

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But my introduction to Bruceploitation cinema came at the now defunct LUX Theater in Oakland, California after I had noticed in the Oakland Tribune a new film screening there  boldly proclaiming “Bruce Is Back”.

Following is an excerpt of the Forward from an uncorrected proof of my book about that experience:

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Moving towards the theater, I was excited to see that another Bruce Lee film was finally being released, a film he had done as a young man, the poster stating “at (the age of) 18”.  The movie was called “The Young Dragon”.  There was an imposing shot of “Bruce” in sunglasses, his muscles flexed in preparation of some unseen opponent.  And he was even pairing up with some of his co-stars from “Enter The Dragon”!  This looked very cool!

But wait a minute….  The poster makers had goofed.  Bruce Lee’s name was absent from the printed credits.  That was funny, I thought.  Maybe this poster would really be worth something someday.  I paid my $2.50 and entered the darkened theatre.

Here on this day in Oakland, I sat with a scattered group of apparently unemployed adults taking advantage of the cheap seats; air conditioning and one dollar popcorn.  The times in the papers were never accurate so once again I walked in on the final ten minutes of the previous film.  In this case it was another Kung Fu film called “The Leg Fighters”.   It looked pretty good but would not be showing again for another four hours after the two other features.  I’d be on the lookout for it again.

The screen at the Lux never seemed to go dark.  The projectionist was either always running one of the weekly trio of features (starting anew each Wednesday) or the eclectic group of coming-soon trailers in-between, commenced by Keith Mansfield now famous tune.  Finally the lights dimmed even more and the ragged screen began to light up with that special glow that only a feature film emanates. It was time to relax and let Bruce take over.  I sat back and began to stuff my face with the bag of bland rice cakes I had smuggled into the theatre.

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Within 5 minutes I knew something wasn’t right.  Okay, so they had misspelled Bruce Lee in the credits as “Bruce Le”, but this was something else completely.  The filmmaking itself seemed unskilled and hurried.  It wasn’t until about ten minutes into the movie that it became clear to me as “Bruce” finally stepped on screen that this was not going to be another “Enter the Dragon”.  Was it me or was that charismatic flair missing in his step?  That dynamic presence absent from his demeanor?  Straining my eyes, as if I could see behind his over sized aviator type sunglasses hanging on his face, I tried to determine if this was Bruce Lee at all or maybe some kind of…. double.  This had been done in the soon to be released “Game Of Death” of course, the use of posthumous doubles to make up for the scenes Lee was no longer around to film, but this was one of his earlier films.   Or could something else far more sinister be afoot?

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Moments later, there was no mistaking it when “Bruce” began his first on screen fight with a group of loudly clothed, high-heeled opponents in the middle of the street.

I had been duped!  

This was no Bruce Lee.  His launching into action was the true test of this possible charade and this moment became the film’s most evident transparency. This was some other actor making every move in his best attempt to impersonate Lee.  Tensing after every accurate punch then gazing off into the distance with a “howl” as his opponents dropped around him.  Several moments passed while I sat in the crusty theater with my heart in my feet.  For a week I had planned this day.  How I would skip my last class of school, rush to downtown Oakland and take pleasure in the end of the day in style.

But that moment soon passed and I started to laugh. Not at my situation, but at the comical attempt to mimic the un-mimic able.  From the comical facial expressions of his downed opponents to Bruce Le’s cocky bravado as almost every move from lifting a drink to his lips to talking to one of his closest friends was done with vengeance worthy skin-bursting intensity.

Later I would realize that laughter was my first true epiphany of the Bruce Lee Exploitation experience.  That moment I had actually begun to enjoy the movie in a completely different way.  I was no longer subjected to the movie going experience but oddly objective to it.  Instead of being drawn into the expectation of what Bruce Lee would do next, I was anticipating the next moment that Bruce Le would do something out of the ordinary.  His sincerity painfully translucent, going through the patterned moves and forced expressions, hoping to hide any lack of personal charisma.

Yet as the film came to its cartoon style, violent ending (two fingers expertly extracting the eyes of the film’s villain before the freeze framed finale), I found myself strangely involved.  This guy was certainly a specimen of health, his moves better than anything I had seen on television.  The fighting style and antics were in some way at least similar to Lee.  I had been happy to see several other supporting actors I recognized performing with the real Lee in several of his films, lending an amount of credibility to the production.  By the credit role, my testosterone was above normal and I certainly felt the urge to hit the gym and do some stretching and kicking.

This movie was actually…pretty cool.

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Over the years, with the real Bruce Lee gone, I now knew I could only share my fantasies of another future Lee adventure or impressive action scene via these films with a troupe of “under studies”.   Each new week, some form of film from the far east promised a possible glimpse of Lee or an unfullfilled story line he had begun before his passing.  The martial arts genre known later as Bruceploitation would become comfort food for this young budding filmmaker and martial artist.

What I will try and do on this blog site is continue to ramble and explore the areas my publisher have been pleading with me to reign in within the book.  The book itself has had to be trimmed to keep it in a cost effective form, rather than an unaffordable  War and Peace of Bruce.  I’ll use it to display the collection of memorabilia I have (nothing worse than just locking away one’s collection to the dark of the room) and to further examine the many aspects I have opened the door to in the book.  There is so much more to the movies than Li, Le and Dragon and I hope to share my views and experience with the many Bruces here.  So those who know the genre, this will be a place to explore those films you have grown to love.  And those unfamiliar with it, this will hopefully lead you into an appreciation of some “bad cinema” in a way that I have come to via working on this near decade long book and as a lifelong audience member.

As the poster of Bruce Lee Fights Back From The Grave states: “You can’t keep a good man down”.

 

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