When did you first become aware of ‘Bruceploitation’, and what was your initial reaction?
I was aware of them during the “Kung Fu Movie Boom” in the early 70’s. The advertising for kung fu movies was much different than it is today. Like most Grindhouse movie trailers, visually it was very sensationalist and the hyperbole was very circus sideshow like. They made you think that this was a Bruce Lee movie that was not to be missed. As a kid the posters, trailers, lobby cards, and newspaper ads really piqued your curiosity and captured your imagination. It was bigger than life.
Also remember that when the kung fu movie boom was in full swing, it something Western audiences in general were not used to seeing. It was very exotic and different because they were used to the barroom brawls you would see in Westerns.
Where you ever fooled into thinking you were watching the real Bruce Lee?
Yes, only a couple of times. First was “The Dragon Dies Hard” in 1974. I could be wrong, but think it was the first Bruceploitation feature released in theaters (at least in the Washington D.C. area). It was playing at Loew’s Palace, a Grindhouse theater that was only 3-4 blocks from the White House. You knew right away the guy playing Bruce did not have the screen presence, charisma, and skill set the real Bruce had. Watching the movie felt odd because they used clips from other movies that really did not make any sense at all. But I was hoping MAYBE the real Bruce would show up in a scene to make my efforts to save up my money all week and take the bus downtown to see the movie would be worth my time. I was pretty pissed off after seeing that movie as well as many of the other patrons who complained to the manager. The theater had to place a handwritten sign in front of the box office stating something like “Bruce Lee does not appear in this movie. Please know this before you pay for your ticket. There will be no refunds!” Since I went to the first screening of the movie, the theater manager did offer to refund our money or give us a free pass to see another movie. Back in the day, those Grindhouse theaters would change movies every week, unless they made a ton of money. This movie stayed in the same theater for 2-3 weeks. Soon after that came a ton of other Bruceploitation movies appeared.
The second was “Goodbye Bruce Lee: His Last Game of Death.” I was still a young naïve kid, hoping I was going to see the unfinished footage from “Game of Death,” but I was really disappointed, again. It really bothered me at the time because I worked around the house all week to earn money to go to the theater and see something that the trailers and newspaper ads were trying to sell me. Although, I thought the “King of Kung Fu” song in the movie was kinda catchy at the time.
I vaguely remember at the time, I was reading an article in a martial arts magazine where Bruce’s widow, Linda, decided to sue movie distributors for using her late husband’s name to promote a movie that he is not truly appearing in. Maybe that’s when movie distributors try started using Bruce Le, Lo, Li, etc.??
Also remember that when the Kung Fu movie boom was in full swing and it was something Western audiences in general were not used to seeing at the time. Word spreads much slower those days because the internet, IMDB, rotten tomatoes, and youtube did not exist yet. By the time you read a review in a martial arts magazine, chances are the movie had already left town. You only heard of these films from ads in newspapers and TV commercials. Remember major mainstream newspapers turned their noses up to kung fu movies and typically did not review kung fu movies, because they felt they treated it as a small notch above porn. It was very hard to make a strong educated guess like you can easily do today.
As I got a little older, I know a lot of my friends were fooled into thinking a Bruceploitation film was a real Bruce Lee movie, because they were showing many of them on TV or rented them on VHS. They just didn’t know Bruce’s film history, what to look for in a movie that “supposedly stars” the real Bruce Lee, or simply because they thought all Asians looked alike. But for me, I was a Kung Fu movie fanatic. I studied the performances, the camera angles, the editing, and the choreography. It’s all helped me in my line of work today as an Action Director and Stunt Coordinator. Little did I know back then that going to see kung fu movies every week was actually my “film school.”
Who do you think managed to capture the true essence of Bruce Lee on screen?
I feel it was Jason Scott Lee in “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.” I felt he took the role and prepared for the part in a way none of the impersonators from Asia did. Instead, he prepared like any traditionally well-trained actor would have. I felt his performance was not over the top and he tried to find the true core of the character. Was Jason close to Bruce’s prowess? Nowhere close, but he was as emotionally genuine with portraying the character as best he could. And that’s why I think it worked, despite fictionalizing a good part of the story.
Also Sammo Hung does an incredible and funny job of impersonating Bruce. His imitating of Bruce in “Enter the Fat Dragon” and “Skinny Tiger-Fatty Dragon” are spot on and hilarious.
In your opinion, did the Bruce Lee clones help continue the memory of Bruce Lee?
Yes and no. To me, the clones are somewhat like how I see Elvis impersonators or tribute bands. They are stuck imitating and copying the original artist and coming up short simply because they don’t have the skill set and charisma that Elvis and Bruce had. For me, I can’t help but compare the real Bruce to the impersonators. They usually end up falling short and (for me), I get very disappointed in the process. I feel it’s a testament that there’s a market Bruce helped create and that audiences were so hungry to see a movie that he might (or might not) be in.
For me, my major issue with all the Asian made Bruce Lee impersonator films is that they copied him on just a basic external level, that it became somewhat of a shallow comic-bookish like mimicry. The choreography and the physical skills were no comparison to the real Bruce.
Who is your favourite Clone?
Do you think the perception of Bruceploitation has softened in the decades since the films began to emerge?
I think it has. I’m not sure why to be honest. Maybe because it’s so easily available now free online, cheap .99 cent DVDs, later night cable TV, etc. where you don’t have to have as much invested interest in it (like I did when I grew up), so you are much more forgiving about things. It’s now become easily disposable entertainment. I also know that a lot of younger folks today don’t understand or even know why this sub-genre came about.
However, my perception of Brucesploitation has definitely changed. My hobby is to collect Kung Fu movie posters from that era and I have a few Bruceploitation posters, sell sheets, lobby cards, magazines etc. What I love about those posters is how creative, sensationalist, and exploitative they are in trying to get you to go into the theaters. When you look back at it now, it was done very tongue in cheek to attract your attention. I think it’s sad that you don’t have that type of movie salesmanship anymore.
There’s no creativity in the marketing of a movie these days. Now they slap the face of the actor on the poster with Photoshop with the name of the movie and post it everywhere until you are peer pressured into seeing the movie simply because it made x amount of money and everyone else in the world has seen it…except you! So you think it’s gotta be a good movie with all that behind it!!
What are some of your top favourites of the genre?
Here they are in no particular order…
“Ming Patriots” (aka “Revenge of the Patriots”) – because it was fun seeing Ho Chung Tao doing something different and in a period piece.
“Bruce Lee, The Man, The Myth” – great fight choreography for the genre. I remember I was about to go to see another movie at a Chinese theater while growing up in Maryland. People were walking out of the theaters raving about it and it was sold out too! I thought to myself, “What? A Bruce Li movie?” I asked the owner about it and they told me to go see it and if I didn’t like it they would refund my money. They were not wrong.
“Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger” – great fight at the end by the rocky against the final villain was pretty cool. I felt sorry for one of the villain’s henchmen who died in the movie (not in real life) then got washed away (off camera) by a strong wave. Whether it was planned or not, I know it must’ve hurt. Hopefully he was okay and he got extra pay for doing that death scene? But knowing the budgets on these films, he probably didn’t.
“Chinese Stuntman” – it was odd at first to see Dan Inosanto fighting Bruce Li, but I think the fights were really good for the time. Besides, Ho Chung Tao was not pretending to be Bruce Lee in this movie. Fights were pretty intense and vicious. I think Ho directed this one.
“The Clones of Bruce Lee” – for the sheer outrageousness in the story and justifying the use of 3 Bruce Lee impersonators.
“Enter the Fat Dragon” – as I said before, I feel Sammo is a great Bruce Lee impersonator.
What are the worst examples you have seen of Bruceploitaton?
What really bothers me are the ones like “Fist of Fear, Touch of Death,” where they take real Bruce footage (from the TV show “Longstreet” and from his childhood movies) and re-dub it to make a story around it. Very douchebag-like on the filmmakers behalf if you ask me. That includes movies like “Bruce Lee and I” aka “Fist of the Unicorn” where they show a few seconds of him behind the scenes visiting the set and claim he’s in it on the posters.
Have you ever met anyone involved with the Bruce Lee clone movies?
Sure. Yuen Woo Ping, Johnny Yune (They Call Me Bruce), Sifu Doug Wong (trained Jason Scott Lee for Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story), Peter “Sugarfoot” Cunningham, and Carl Scott.
And I have had several brushes with possibly working on Bruce exploitation films…
I was living and working in LA as a Stand Up Comedian and worked a club with Johnny Yune. He was going to make a third installment of the “They Call Me Bruce” series and asked if I wanted to be his stunt double. That would’ve been a lot of fun. But unfortunately, that never happened.
When I first moved to LA in the mid 80’s one of the first movies I auditioned for was a Bruce Lee impersonator movie (can’t remember which one it was) that was to be shot here in the US. It was kind of a weird experience to be honest. It was a huge cattle call and attracted a lot of martial artists and many who did not know anything about fighting for the camera. The casting director told us all to warm up in the back parking lot and will be calling us in individually. So after he leaves, everyone starts free-sparring with each other! There are about 50 people there and they were all going hard and hitting each other. At that audition, I first met a good friend, Dan Speaker (a sword master who would later go on to choreograph swordplay films like ‘Hook”, “Army of Darkness”, and ‘Master & Commander”) and we looked at each other and said, “Look at these goons! Don’t they get that all the fights are choreographed?” Dan and I ended up working on several projects together and are still great friends to this day. I wish I knew what the name of the movie was or if they even made it!
These films were marketed to the west as works of Bruce Lee to various degrees, do you think the opinions of Bruce Lee fans would have been different if they had marketed the films in a way that didn’t completely exploit Bruce Lee?
That’s a tough question. As far as I know, the distributors in the West used these films to exploit the fact that Caucasian audiences could not tell an Asian brother apart from another. It might have been different and also might not have caught the attention of Bruce Lee fans if they didn’t go the “rip off route” and those movies might’ve died off pretty quickly. I think at the beginning it filled an unquenchable need by the audience.
To me, it seems obvious that the earlier films were definitely used to exploit Bruce’s death. I think after a while, the audience got wise to it and the filmmakers started making Bruceploitation into a “what would happen if?…
We saw what happened to the Ching Wu school after Chen’s death?
Bruce went to New Guinea? A mad scientist cloned 3 Bruce’s?
We animated Bruce fighting Chinese monsters and Gods?
Bruce had a student who looks kinda like him and went off to find out who killed his Master?
A kid recently moves to Seattle and Bruce’s ghost teaches him how to fight?
Huge thanks to John Kreng for doing the interview and to Melissa Tracy for the photographs
TEXT: © Lee Holmes/The Clones of Bruce Lee 2017.
PHOTOGRAPHS: © Melissa Tracy.