Lots of people are stars, but only a very few stars are icons. It results from some unknowable alchemy of personality, talent and how these catalyze the zeitgeist. Movie studios of Hollywood’s Golden Age dedicated vast amounts of money, resources and even legal clout into trying to find some sort of formula for turning their stars into icons and then jealously hoarding them. If you could write that formula down, Bruce Lee surely had every ingredient: incredible natural charisma, physical and mental prowess, the justifiable swagger of a leading man.
And there was something else, too. In one fight scene in 1971’s The Big Boss, the first martial arts film in which Lee played the hero, he punches a guy so hard that he goes through a warehouse wall, leaving a silhouette behind. It’s a perfect metaphor for what Lee’s screen presence did to the minds of his audience: Generations have sat down to watch his films and emerged with a Bruce Lee-shaped impact crater punched into their brains.
But for all those incredible strengths, he was also Asian, something Hollywood considered to be a shortcoming then, and, if awards, nominations and casting decisions are any indication, still does.
Recent rereleases of Lee’s films by the Criterion Collection, the ESPN documentary about his life, Be Water, and the enthusiastic reception of the show Warrior, which his daughter Shannon Lee produces and which claims inspiration from a treatment by Lee, are all proof of one thing: We still miss Bruce. Looking back on his first pure martial arts picture in the starring role and the three movies he made afterward, it’s easy to see why.
Lee’s journey to superstardom is as fascinating as his films, and too long to go into here. Besides his physical prodigy, one of the most distinctive things about him, and something that seems to inform his every starring role, is a sense of isolation, or a lack of belonging. Born in San Francisco in 1940 before immediately moving with his parents to Hong Kong, Lee was a transpacific man: caught between the United States and China from one direction and China and the United Kingdom from another. His leading man roles were all the sort of lone hero you’d expect Clint Eastwood to play: a guy who rolls into a dirty situation with quiet stoicism right up until the shooting starts.
The Big Boss was the culmination of a literal life in show business for Lee. He starred in Hong Kong movies starting when he was six, often as a hard-luck case. And his stint as Kato in The Green Hornet gave him some recognition with American audiences, but didn’t translate to lasting success east of the Pacific, a decision that led the young family man to return to Hong Kong. Even during filming of The Big Boss, the filmmakers weren’t sure whether Lee or his co-star, James Tien, was going to be the top-billed hero.
They picked Lee, and gave the world an all-time superstar. The Big Boss isn’t particularly special as a movie beyond Lee’s incredible athleticism and screen presence, but that alone makes it worth the watch. Kung fu films leading up to Lee’s were just not the same (though they were at times incredible). Lee isn’t playing a monk with mystical Shaolin knowledge, and he’s not fighting deadly assassins. He’s a regular guy, working a shitty fucking job, trying to be peaceful when the bullies and criminals of the world prey constantly upon him and his friends. Lee doesn’t even bust out his moves until more than 45 minutes into the less-than-two-hour movie, but when he does, the whole film stops for it.
Lee’s character, Cheng, wears a jade necklace, a keepsake that reminds him of the promise he kept never to fight any longer. As the ice factory where he and other exploited workers is shaken down by the thugs employed by his corrupt, drug-smuggling boss, Cheng’s necklace is ripped from his chest. It’s on-the-nose, but it’s perfect. With the benefit of 50 years of hindsight, we see what’s coming next. But imagine audiences in 1971 in a crowded Hong Kong theater who had no idea.
If Lee were merely good at kicking guys in the face and punching them in the dick at what looks like the speed of thought, it would be a delightful spectacle. But the moment after he lays out the knife-wielding thug in the above clip, pauses for a beat, and then coolly locks eyes with the others is really what made him a star.
The Big Boss instantly turned Lee into Hong Kong film royalty. His wife, Linda, wrote that they could not even leave the theater after its premiere due to being mobbed by an adoring crowd. It quickly got the highest box office take in Hong Kong theater history to that point, earning four times that of the previous record holder. Suddenly Lee was in demand, and he used it to put out three more feature films that unapologetically cast him in the leading role and indulged his every desire to promote the deeper philosophies he saw as inextricable from kung fu.
What will strike the viewer of 2021 now with the unexpected force of his signature shimmer punch is the explicit themes of oppression running through Lee’s work. Fist of Fury (released under the title The Chinese Connection in the States) is set during the Japanese occupation of China, and is entirely about Lee taking revenge for the victimization of his martial arts school. The most memorable set piece, in which he beats the absolute stuffing out of an entire dojo of Japanese karatekas, ends with him feeding a banner with the words “Sick Man of Asia” to the sensei.
Given his own turn in the director’s chair, he created The Way of the Dragon, the movie most notable for ending with a duel to the death with Chuck Norris in the actual coliseum in Rome. The fights in the movie are amazing—there are hits where you can see Lee’s strikes going through his enemies and realize that his real-life superpower was somehow not hurting his co-stars—but the most interesting thing about it is still the protracted opening scene where his character is arriving in Rome and waiting around at the airport as a severe old white lady just stares daggers at him for no reason.
Lee also clearly understood that Asians didn’t have the monopoly on systemic oppression, and it’s no surprise there’s a persistent love of his work among African Americans (besides the obvious reason that his movies are fun for the whole family). Lee taught Black students and struck up a well-publicized friendship with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Enter the Dragon, besides being the ultimate showcase for Lee’s combat style, also featured the inimitable Jim Kelly in the role of Williams—a Black man with one of cinema’s mightiest Afros who is introduced beating up a pair of racist cops and wrecking their cruiser.
Imagining the Hollywood we’d have gotten if Bruce Lee hadn’t died tragically in 1973 just as he became recognized in the United States is to feel the same kind of sting people feel when they think of Chadwick Boseman this past year. It’s not just the loss of their sparkling talent but also of their societal presence. Lee was the sort of star who could command box office and the sort of person who was keenly aware of how important his visibility was. If he was willing to share the screen with a Black man who stomps racist cops in 1973, you rightly wonder how he would have used his clout in the decades that followed.
To watch his body of work in 2021 is to get the sense we’ve been robbed of half a century of a brilliant artist. He died tragically and randomly just as his star was rising—literally days from the release of Enter the Dragon, which kicked off a whole obsession in America and essentially would have been his triumphant return to his homeland. He was in tight with Steve McQueen and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Imagine, given the success of Enter the Dragon and the explosion of martial arts action movies, what he might have accomplished.
We could have had Star Wars starring Bruce Lee as Han Solo. A Bruce Lee in his 40s could have emerged from the martial arts craze of the ’80s as an action movie director. Imagine a 60-year-old Bruce Lee—a man who loved to lecture on how best to wreck somebody—training Keanu Reeves in how to stomp agents in The Matrix. Imagine him as Li Mu Bai in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or come to think of it, fighting back-to-back with Michelle Yeoh in … anything.
It seems like we’ve collectively realized just how much we’ve missed out on, as projects like Warrior and the Batman cartoon film Batman: Soul of the Dragon (starring Mark Dacascos as a pretty clear Lee stand-in) continue to drop. It’s awesome, but it doesn’t dull the sting.
Kenneth Lowe is missing out on all that heavenly glory. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.