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How Bruce Lee inspired the bizarre Bruceploitation subgenre

@Russellisation

Forget martial arts, the influence of the actor and cultural figure Bruce Lee may better any sportsperson who’s ever lived, with the stature of the icon standing beside the might of Muhammad Ali and Pelé. Starring in over 30 projects throughout the course of his film career that span from 1946 to 1973, Lee appeared in such films as Way of the Dragon alongside Chuck Norris and The Game of Death with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

An icon of Asian cinema as well as an influential cultural figure, the significance of Lee defies culture and creeds, with his philosophical approach to life adding to her pertinent mythos. Speaking about the iconic martial artist, his sparring partner and co-star Chuck Norris once stated in an interview with Black Belt, “The truth is Lee was a formidable opponent with a chiselled physique and technique. I totally enjoyed sparring and just spending time with him”.

Continuing, the actor added, “He was as charismatic and friendly in the ring and at home as he was on film. His confidence and wit were dazzling, and sometimes even debilitating to others…Lee was lightning fast, very agile and incredibly strong for his size”. 

Tragically, the 1973 film Enter The Dragon would be the actor’s final film, suddenly passing away after suffering an allergic reaction to headache medication. During the early 1970s, however, Lee’s popularity could not be understated, becoming an international superstar as the most famous Hong Kong actor became bigger than his own personality could handle, therefore when he passed away, the baton was passed down through the bizarre sub-genre of Bruceploitation.

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Emerging shortly after the death of Bruce Lee, this exploitation subgenre involved filmmakers from Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea casting look-alike actors donned ‘Lee-alikes’ to star in copycat martial arts films that looked to capitalise on the late star’s continued popularity. 

Advertising fictional screen names that sounded hilariously similar to Bruce Lee’s, such films hired the likes of Bruce Li, Bruce Lai, Brute Lee, Lee Bruce and Dragon Lee among many others to star in their Bruceploitation films. The names of the movies themselves were quite ‘on the nose’ too, with Re-Enter the Dragon, Enter Another Dragon and Enter the Game of Death rehashing classics of the late actor, released both for profit and homage. 

Celebrating the life of Bruce Lee whilst trying to develop an enduring legacy, the efforts of the Bruceploitation subgenre were not entirely cynical, with many such films imbued with charming respect for the influential actor. Such is well illustrated in such films as The Clones of Bruce Lee and The Dragon Lives Again where a Bruce Lee lookalike fights such bizarre characters as James Bond, Dracula and Popeye.

It wasn’t until the rise of fellow Hong Kong martial artist, Jackie Chan, that the Bruceploitation subgenre slowed down, with such films as Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master establishing the actor as the new star of martial arts cinema. 

Unwittingly sparking a subgenre long after his death, the Bruceploitation subgenre is one that celebrates the career of one of the most iconic figures of the 1960s, paying tribute to Lee by continuing his legacy through high-flying kicks and ludicrous martial arts tales.