veryone knows who Bruce Lee is. Kind of. They know the flying kick guy on the posters, the philosophical inspirational quotes guy, the nunchaku guy, the DJ on Tony Stark's T-shirt. Maybe they've even seen Enter the Dragon, or heard about Lee's concept of "using no way as way" being a precursor to today's mixed martial arts, but that’s as far as it goes for many.
It doesn’t have to be that way! I believe many people who are only familiar with the idea of Bruce Lee would enjoy finally sitting down and watching his movies. And it's an easy fix. Though the multitude of alternate titles, documentaries, lookalikes and posthumous-footage extrapolations could give the impression that it's an inaccessible "Where do I even start?" body of work like Sun Ra or Frank Zappa, set aside his work as a child actor and his TV appearances and there are really only 4.5 true Bruce Lee films. You watch more than that in a weekend when a new season of a streaming show drops. You can do this! Let me guide you.
The Big Boss, aka Fists of Fury (1971)
In his first starring role, Bruce plays a Chinese immigrant in Thailand who tries to stand up for the rights of his fellow workers at an ice factory. The boss is actually a drug trafficker and tries to corrupt him, but it doesn't take. There's a crazy scene in which Lee fights a bunch of Dobermans, and two where he kicks people through walls (once leaving a Looney Tunes-style body-shaped hole!), but my favorite badass maneuver is a small gesture when he's storming the boss's mansion. Outnumbered and surrounded in enemy territory, he shows his complete lack of concern by casually munching on a chip. (1971 was a great year for badass chewing: Dirty Harry also foiled a bank robbery while finishing his hot dog.)
Fist of Fury, aka The Chinese Connection (1972)
Bruce plays Chen Zhen, a fictional character avenging the death of real historical figure Huo Yuanjia. Taking place during Japanese control of Shanghai, the movie deals largely with tensions between the two nationalities, including a classic scene where Chen Zhen goes alone to a karate dojo and beats up every person there. Convinced that the karate school poisoned his master, he camps out at his teacher’s grave like a crazy person and, wearing a variety of disguises, goes after each of the conspirators. His representation as a superman standing up for his people is so important that there are two iconic scenes where he wrecks degrading anti-Chinese signs, and it ends on a freeze frame of a defiant flying kick in the face of martyrdom.
Chen Zhen was later played by Jet Li in the excellent remake Fist of Legend (1994) and by Donnie Yen in Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010).
The Way of the Dragon, aka Return of the Dragon (1972)
My personal favorite is the only film Lee completed as director. Lee plays country boy Tang Lung, whose uncle sends him to Rome to help a family friend deal with the mafia, which is trying to take over his restaurant. The staff don't take him seriously (largely because he has to use the toilet a lot!) but when they see how well he beats up gangsters, they agree to his plan to teach them Kung Fu.
Eventually, it comes to one of the greatest one-on-one fights in cinema history: Tang Lung squares off against American karate champion Colt, played by Lee's student Chuck Norris in his first credited movie appearance. He's a cocky hired thug with barely any dialogue, and during this duel in the Colosseum, he falls victim to a dismissive gesture for the ages when Tang Lung tears out a clump of his thick chest hair and blows it like dandelion seeds. It's an incredibly detailed chess match of a fight with Tang Lung using the set moves of traditional Kung Fu until he decides he needs a different approach, and begins to dismantle Colt one body part at a time. I love the non-verbal communication like the "don't try it" head shake he gives right before the conclusion.
Lee strove for excellence as a director: Unusual for Hong Kong filmmakers of the time, he insisted on seeing the dailies in color, and worked closely with composer Joseph Koo —even playing some percussion! — rather than using library music. Because he disliked the way westerners were dubbed in most Hong Kong movies, he did some of those voices himself. And his script for the climactic duel was reportedly 20 pages long, precisely describing each shot and move. As a result, Way of the Dragon is the purest, least-filtered expression of Bruce Lee on film.
Enter the Dragon (1973)
The movie that made Lee an international superstar is the most American of them: It's in English, he beats up entire armies like an unarmed Rambo, and he shares his screen time with John Saxon and Jim Kelly. But it's also Lee at his physical peak, clearly knowing the spotlight is on him, primed and ready to send it crying home to mama. Seemingly inspired by James Bond as much as martial arts movies, the film nevertheless cemented the timeless format of the underground fight tournament movie, and boasts a particularly colorful villain (with interchangeable weaponized prosthetic hands like an action figure) and a funky score by Lalo Schifrin.
Game of Death (1978)
This posthumous production is the one that I'm only counting as half a film. Though it contains one of the best and most iconic fights of Lee's career — the yellow-and-black jump-suited duel with Kareem Abdul Jabbar — it's also a tasteless exploitation of his death and a bastardization of the movie he was trying to make. Lee's story about a retired champion forced by gangsters to battle martial arts masters through five levels of a pagoda was abandoned in favor of one about a movie star who fakes his death after gangsters attempt to assassinate him on set. Footage of Lee's fans mourning his real death is crassly used as part of the fictional story.
For a truer Game of Death experience, I recommend the documentary Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey, released separately as well as in the extras of some editions of Enter the Dragon. It tells the story of Lee's unfinished passion project and uses his notes and storyboards to re-edit all the completed footage (what would have been the climax of the movie) as originally intended.
Extra credit: Marlowe (1969)
Those who hated seeing the fictional Bruce Lee taken down by Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time ... In Hollywood might not want to see the real Lee playing a character who loses a fight to James Garner. But (much like Norris in Way of the Dragon) Lee makes a big impression in a few scenes as a henchman in this hippie-era take on the works of Raymond Chandler.
It’s a small filmography to represent such a huge life. Born in San Francisco but raised in Kowloon, Lee came back to the United States as a teenager. He studied acting and philosophy in Seattle, fell in love, and started a family and a Kung Fu school. In the Bay Area, he continued his teaching and both promoted and challenged Chinese traditions. In Hollywood, he made a mark as an actor, trainer and guru. But racism blocked him from the leading man and creator roles he knew he could excel at, and he had to return to the Hong Kong film industry to get that opportunity. Hollywood listened, and Enter the Dragon made him a global superstar ... but only after his death.
Though Lee’s excellence inspired and created opportunities for many, it’s only recently that we’re starting to see more than a handful of mainstream American movies with Asian leads. So, in addition to all those other things I listed in the first paragraph, Bruce Lee is a quintessential story of America's promise and unending struggle for improvement.