You could argue that Bruce Lee was the greatest action star for the same reason that you could argue that Biggie Smalls was the greatest rapper: Neither one had time to fall off. Both Lee and Biggie died tragically young, in ways that seem deeply avoidable in retrospect. Both had signature tics—Lee’s thumb across the nose and cat noises, Biggie’s verse-opening grunts and bay-beh bayyyyy-beh ad-lib—that nobody else has ever managed to imitate without sounding like a fucking herb. Both wore silk clothes that looked cool. And both left behind depressingly tiny bodies of work—four movies for Lee, two albums for Biggie—that nonetheless influenced their respective art forms tremendously.
By the time Lee made it to Hong Kong movie stardom, he was only 31, but he’d already done a whole lot of living. He’d lived on both sides of the Pacific. He’d studied martial arts and become a world-renowned fighter—someone who, according to legend, could’ve been one of the greatest pure fighters on the planet. He’d developed jeet kune do, his own hybrid martial art, and he’d trained James Coburn and Lee Marvin and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He’d found American TV stardom, playing Kato on The Green Hornet and making short appearances in a few American movies. He was already a hero in Hong Kong by the time he started making movies there, and he immediately changed the course of martial-arts movie history as soon as he showed up.
Kung fu movies were still new when Lee started making them. Jimmy Wang Yu had made The Chinese Boxer, probably the first modern kung fu movie, only a year before Lee made The Big Boss (or, to Americans, Fists Of Fury), and Lee’s movie was a huge leap beyond what Wang Yu was doing. For one thing, Lee was a credible martial artist in ways that Wang Yu just wasn’t. He had precision and power in his movements, and he was also a handsome, charismatic motherfucker with an icy-cold death stare and levels of screen presence that haven’t been seen before or since. And The Big Boss took place in a modern setting, immediately setting it apart from the ancestral China where most other martial arts movies took place. Lee also did just fine in that ancestral Chinese setting, as he showed in the 1972 follow-up Fist Of Fury (The Chinese Connection to Americans—it gets confusing), a deeply influential movie in its own way.
But Lee’s real masterpiece was probably The Way Of The Dragon, the only movie where he ever had full creative control. Lee wasn’t just the star of The Way Of The Dragon; he was the full-on auteur. He wrote it, directed it, produced it, and played percussion on the soundtrack. It was his baby. And it’s a movie that nobody else could’ve possibly made.
In Lee’s short filmography, he only got one chance to be an absolute goof, and that was in the first half-hour of The Way Of The Dragon. The movie’s first post-opening-credits shot is a badass close-up on Lee’s face, but then the camera pulls back, and we see that he’s standing around a European airport, looking lost and out of place. A white lady stares at him intently, only looking away when someone shows up to pick her up, and he just wriggles with discomfort. He goes into a restaurant, tries to order a meal, and immediately gets sick. When he meets his contact, a young woman who owns a restaurant and who’s been getting threats from the mob, she thinks he’s an idiot.
And he is an idiot. He’s a country bumpkin who doesn’t even know much about Hong Kong, let alone Rome, where the entire movie takes place. He looks around at the ancient ruins and thinks that they’re a waste, that someone could make some serious money by tearing them down and putting up new buildings instead. And he spends the movie’s entire first half-hour looking for places to shit. When mobsters make their first menacing appearance, he’s too busy shitting to know about it. He comes out of the bathroom, bumps into one of them, and apologizes.
But he’s an idiot who eventually reveals himself to be a genius fighter. The movie holds back on showing Lee fighting; it makes a game out of it. Lee knew that the only reason anyone was going to see this movie was to watch him fuck people up, so he held back on it the same way Spielberg held off on showing the shark in Jaws. There’s a scene where the kitchen workers, all of whom are studying karate, ask Lee to show them some kung fu. He’s about to start, and then customers show up. But when Lee does finally get to destroy four mob henchmen in the alley outside the restaurant, it’s a moment of glorious release. He takes all four of them out without breaking a sweat, and he looks bored while he’s doing it. It’s easy to imagine 1972 audiences breaking into rounds of spontaneous applause.
The bulk of the movie is pretty rudimentary action-movie fare. The gangsters—a laughable cartoon version of the mafia with one Chinese henchman who serves as a running homophobic joke—continue to pressure the restaurant’s owner to sell. They generally don’t use guns because they don’t want to draw attention to themselves, but they’re happy to break out knives in broad-daylight street fights. Lee fights back and beats up everyone they send after him. Lee never seems like he’s in any danger until the movie is just about over, and he takes out all his enemies without any real trouble. The acting is stiff and awkward, and there’s nothing really at stake beyond the fate of this one restaurant. (Given that the movie ends with several kitchen workers dead, it seems like the world would’ve been better off if the owner had just agreed to sell the damn restaurant in the first place.)
But it’s a joy to watch anyway just because we get to see Lee fight. We get to see him hurl hidden darts and throw high kicks and make cat noises and flex and dance and make threatening gestures at local mafia dons. The fights were great, but the story also went a long way toward establishig Lee’s icon status. After all, in most classic action movies, the heroes work as idealized versions of their intended audiences. If Dirty Harry was conservative America’s ideal cop, a take-no-shit figure who wouldn’t hesitate to take on the forces of youthful chaos, then Lee was the rough equivalent for his Hong Kong audience. He was a provincial naif who could travel the world and impose his will, making his mark by refusing to take shit from any corrupt local authorities.
But beyond Lee’s presence, the movie is a landmark and a classic because of one sequence. Lee has beaten and humiliated everyone in the local mob, so the don hires a few fighters from abroad. The best of them is Colt, and he’s played by the young, hairy-as-hell, lantern-jawed American karate champion Chuck Norris. This was the screen debut for Norris, and you couldn’t ask for a better entrance than the moment when he steps off an airplane, resplendent in huge sideburns and butterfly-collar shirt, staring hard into the distance. Norris would, of course, enjoy a long career in B-movies and TV and right-wing punditry and internet memedom. But he’d never have a more iconic moment than his climactic fight with Lee.
That Lee/Norris fight is a masterpiece, a piece of action cinema that still holds up just like the Bullitt car chase or the Dirty Harry bank robbery. It’s entirely wordless—the two guys meeting in an abandoned coliseum, taking a moment to stretch, and then laying into each other. They both immediately, instinctively understand and respect each other. They give each other chances to get up. They silently taunt each other. Norris starts out by beating the shit out of Lee. But Lee recovers, adapts, finds a rhythm, and wears Norris down. By the end, Norris knows he’s beaten, but he can’t accept it. He keeps fighting even when his body has broken down, and he effectively forces Lee to kill him. Lee hates what he has to do, but he does it anyway. The two of them convey all this in body language and facial expression, and they do it while throwing kicks that look legitimately painful. It’s just awesome.
As a filmmaker, Lee knew how to put a movie together. He filmed that Norris fight in long takes, framing it so that you could see their entire bodies. He used dramatic lighting, making both of them look larger-than-life. And he trusted his audience, knowing that they could follow along without narration, music, or dialogue explaining how we should feel. That’s something that most action-movie directors still haven’t figured out. Every Bruce Lee movie was important, but this one earns its spot in the column simply by being the most complete work he ever made. Decades later, it still sucks that he didn’t get to make more like that.
Other noteworthy 1972 action movies: Fist Of Fury/The Chinese Connection is obviously a prime contender for the runner-up spot. But instead, I’m going to give it to Lone Wolf And Cub: Sword Of Vengeance, the first movie in director Kenji Misumi’s violent-as-fuck six-movie series. Those movies, which followed the adventures of a vengeance-minded ronin and his infant son, took the samurai movie, a well-established Japanese movie tradition, and turned them into cheap, gory, nasty, exploitative B-movie gold. I love those movies so much.
Beyond that, 1972 was also the year Sam Peckinpah teamed up with Steve McQueen for The Getaway, a rip-shit crime romance with some great gunfights and car chases and some truly mean characters. Charles Bronson cemented his action-star credentials with the hitman drama The Mechanic. Across 110th Street, Trouble Man, and Hammer all made their contributions to the thriving blaxploitation subgenre. And The Hot Rock, from Bullitt director Peter Yates, was more an antic comedy than an action movie, but it had some truly fun chases and escapes.
Next time: More Bruce Lee, as the the star goes global with Enter The Dragon, achieving American fame but not surviving long enough to enjoy it.