Perhaps the purest distillation of Bruce Lee’s cinematic presence is when he snapped Chuck Norris’s neck at the end of a battle in the Roman Colosseum. It’s the climactic showdown in The Way of the Dragon—the only movie Lee directed and the last film released in his lifetime. It’s also one of the few times in Lee’s career when his character faced a worthy opponent. In the scene, Lee approaches Norris, who plays a karate master, with a series of formal kicks before getting knocked to the ground. Back on his feet, Lee’s character starts mixing up his fighting style, bests Norris, and gives him the chance to surrender. When Norris refuses, a regretful Lee kills him, later placing the dead man’s clothes and black belt atop his body as a sign of respect.
The Way of the Dragon, which was written as well as directed by Lee, is an odd film, one that’s far more light-hearted and outwardly funny than the rest of his oeuvre. But that fluid, surprising fight with Norris—an international karate champion and real-life friend of Lee’s who went on to become an onscreen hero in his own right—isn’t just a thrilling movie moment. It’s also an expression of Lee’s philosophy as an artist and the creative control he wielded in his projects. Though his enduring pop-culture image is that of a stoic, indestructible warrior, his films portray him as a much more nuanced hero.
Lee only ever starred in five movies, yet those works still capture his multidimensionality, says Curtis Tsui, the Criterion Collection producer who assembled a new box set featuring remastered editions of Lee’s greatest hits. The Way of the Dragon is a particularly revealing film. “If you look at the way that final fight scene is staged, Lee goes in with a rigid form, and Chuck Norris basically wipes the floor with him,” Tsui told me. Then Lee shifts gears; he becomes less predictable, embracing his famous approach of “being water.” “That’s when he wins,” Tsui explained. “He rips out Norris’s chest hair. He sees a little kitten playing around and gets the idea to limber up. That [scene] expresses not just Bruce Lee the badass, Bruce Lee the action hero, but also Bruce Lee the philosopher, the teacher. It was a very important thing to him.”
Though he achieved real authorship over his work only at the end of his career, Lee lived his whole life in the spotlight. His work as a performer began when he was a baby; his father was a Cantonese opera star, and Lee appeared alongside him many times, appearing in about 20 Hong Kong films before he turned 18. He broke through with U.S. audiences as the sidekick Kato on the short-lived TV show The Green Hornet, which was canceled in 1967. So Lee worked to create the kind of action he wanted to see, creating a more improvisational fighting form he dubbed Jeet Kune Do.
“It was not until he had taken a break from acting, started teaching martial arts, and figured out who he was that he could channel that philosophy into his movie roles,” Tsui said. After founding his school, Lee traveled back to Hong Kong, was greeted as a hero, and signed a deal to appear in two martial-arts films, The Big Boss (released in 1971) and Fist of Fury (1972). They were such colossal successes that Lee was given full creative control for The Way of the Dragon. But even in those early films, Lee is a mesmerizing onscreen force, both thrillingly charismatic and an action figure unlike the martial-arts stars of the past.
“[The film’s producers] wanted him to follow the action choreography they had in place, which was much more traditional and trampoline-driven. But he was still able to bring in his more gritty, realistic style,” Tsui said. “We see [that influence] now in the Marvel movies or the Mission: Impossible series, where people use martial-art styles that aren’t grounded in something specific. They aren’t busting out monkey-fist, or crane-style, or tai chi. There’s jabs and elbows, all the kinds of UFC-type moves, and a lot of that can be traced back to what Bruce Lee was doing in his films.”
Lee’s Jeet Kune Do style was built for street fighting rather than gym sparring, anticipating that one’s enemy might behave unpredictably. So it mixes in different elements, including use of the nunchaku, a weapon Lee twirls elegantly in a number of his films. “It has zero to do with Chinese martial arts; it’s an Okinawan weapon,” Tsui said. “But he used it because there’s nobody better who can use it as beautifully as he does. He just had this inherent knowledge for what would look great on a wide screen.” That cinematic eye is on display in The Way of the Dragon—Lee’s directorial style includes a lot of dramatic zooms, but he also lets fights play out in wide shots, with as few cuts as possible, emphasizing athletic grace as much as physical force.
The Criterion set includes The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon, and the bizarre and bowdlerized work Game of Death, which was assembled using rough footage from a film Lee never got to complete, because of his death in 1973. The collection also features a beautiful restoration of Enter the Dragon (1973), the apex of Lee’s career as a star and the final movie he completed, which was produced by Warner Bros. after the phenomenal box-office grosses of his Hong Kong work. It’s certainly his best-known film, made with high production value and presented as a James Bond–esque caper. To Tsui, it’s also a crucial record of Lee’s speaking voice. Since it was standard practice in Hong Kong cinema for all films to be dubbed by other actors, Enter the Dragon is Lee’s only starring role in which he actually speaks on-screen.
But Lee is such an electrifying presence, it barely matters. “There’s a magnetism to him. It’s what we talk about when we talk about movie-star power. Just that way that your eyeballs stay glued to that particular person,” Tsui said. In Game of Death, stunt doubles play Lee for most of the movie, because there was so little usable footage featuring the actor; but every time he’s not on-screen, it’s painfully obvious. Even so, Lee’s death spawned an entire genre known as “Brucesploitation,” where other actors would mimic his style, the kind of warped homage other Hollywood superstars could never have dreamed of.
The most crucial lesson Tsui learned in assembling the collection for Criterion was that Lee’s image was far more malleable than many audiences might remember. The popular image of him is as an indestructible force, using only his fists to take on legions of bad guys. “He’s not just the badass,” Tsui said of Lee. “He’s a Jerry Lewis fan who’s very funny, he’s a cha-cha-dancer champion with an amazing sense of rhythm, and he’s a philosopher, someone with a very clear point of view. And it all comes through when you revisit these movies.”