Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Bruce Lee Edition - The Part-Time Critic

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Bruce Lee Edition

*Last updated: 6/19/2022.
Still Under Construction

Is Bruce Lee the most overrated martial arts star of all-time? My basic view is that his legend has grown much larger than the actual martial-arts sequences he left behind. After getting his big break on television programs like The Green Hornet in the 1960's, Lee became best known for his five feature length films coming out in the early 1970's; a partial film called Game of Death was released around 1978 and remastered in 2000. These films, coupled with his fighting philosophies and his pop culture impact have created a legacy and influence that few other individuals can claim.

Despite his immense legacy and credentials as a martial arts practitioner and teacher, I find his filmed action sequences to be mostly mediocre. Bruce Lee’s primary principles in fight choreography seem to be quickness, impact, and simplicity. In most of his fights, the actual choreography is short and is punctuated by a series of quick kicks to take his opponent out. While it is flashy and when filmed right can be brutal and fun to watch, it’s over very quick for the viewer. This was a purposeful departure from the more acrobatic and intense back and forth choreography that was traditional in Chinese kung fu and wuxia films as well as Chinese opera. 

A lot of this list will boil down to my personal preference in filmed fighting, but I do want to address one myth that I think many popular level fans think: Bruce Lee was the bridge from the clunky punches of James Bond to the furious fighting choreography we see today. This is just plain wrong. If the only movies you watched at the time were western action films, then this might be true (for you) and Lee's Hong Kong films might have been a revelation. However, complicated and interesting fight choreography was already happening in Hong Kong films for decades. For example, check out this clip from the 1971 film The New One-Armed Swordsmen directed by kung fu film legend Chang Cheh; it came out the same year as Lee's first film The Big Boss. The films that followed shortly after Bruce Lee, especially the efforts of Lau Kar Lueng, Yeun Woo-Ping, and Jackie Chan would easily eclipse and outdo Lee's sequences. This isn't his fault, but when doing retrospectives, it is an important part of the context. I've no doubt if Lee had lived longer he would have made better sequences and worked with better directors. Lee advanced martial arts cinema, became a huge star, and put his own personal stamp of charisma and philosophy on the genre. That's important to note. He did not, however, revolutionize the quality of fighting from cave man punch kicking to the complicated choreography we see today.

Lee's best stuff is still very good and for many westerners, it was probably the first really good martial arts sequences they ever saw. To get a better understanding of his legacy I watched every action sequences in the six films that cover his filmography and ranked them below. I'll provide commentary on Lee at his worst and Lee at his best. I hope to highlight why I think his legacy has developed and the sequences that support it while also identifying his weaknesses.

Bruce Lee Action Sequences Rated and Ranked

Mediocre sequences that have some flaw or issue I find somewhat insulting or offensive.

21. “Bruce Lee vs. the Italian Mafia feat. the Light Kick” -Way of the Dragon (1972) Link
- Commentary: When Bruce Lee is at his worst...his action sequences are very similar to what Van Damme and Seagal would use as their bread and butter - the humiliating defeat of incompetent bad guys. For Lee, these sequences would be fairly short and consist of lame looking bad guys offering up limp punches or kicks (if anything at all) only to be knocked unconscious by a quick kick. Rinse and repeat this with un-engaging camera composition and editing and you have yourself a mediocre fight sequence. If we are being honest, basic television productions produce technically better fight scenes in their sleep than many of the sequences listed above. This sequence is a good example - but Lee primarily watches his students losing to thugs and then he gets involved by swiftly kicking them into submission. It's...just not that good. The scene ends when Lee kicks out a hanging light and convinces a bad guy to scram.

Mediocre sequences that lack anything that makes them stand out. Decent, but forgettable.

18. “Bruce Lee Introduces Italian Thugs to Chinese Boxing” -Way of the Dragon (1972) Link
- Commentary: Some Italian thugs are harassing a Chinese restaurant in Rome. They are invited into the alleyway for a fight. The newcomer from Hong Kong, Bruce Lee, gets a chance to show the thugs some of his moves. At first he jokes around kinda mocking a foreigners view of Chinese martial arts, but then he clicks in and takes the thugs out with one or two strikes each. Not my kind of cinematic fighting, but it's serviceable stuff.

17. “Bruce Lee Breaks Up a Melee Attacking Striking Workers” -The Big Boss (1971) Link
- Commentary: 

16. “Kitchen Fight: Bruce Lee vs. Two” -Fist of Fury (1972)
- Commentary: A short and simple fight with a nice bit of choreography from Lee here to counter an attack from the first fighter. Lee finishes off the first fighter with an intense punch that literally kills the man. Decent pop here. 

15. “Opening: Bruce Lee vs. Sammo Hung at the Shaolin Temple” -Enter the Dragon (1973) Link
- Commentary: 

14. “Bruce Lee vs. O’Hara” -Enter the Dragon (1973) Link
- Commentary: 

13. “Bruce Lee and the Prisoners Take on All Han’s Men” -Enter the Dragon (1973) Link
- Commentary: 

Largely mediocre sequences that have some redeeming or standout feature. This, to me, is where the average decent action sequence ranks.

12. “Bruce Lee vs. Hapkido Master Ji Han-Jae” -Game of Death (1978) Link
- Commentary: 

11. “Finale Fight: Lee vs. Han in a Glass Maze” -Enter the Dragon (1973) Link
- Commentary: 

10. “Underground Drug Lab Fight” -Enter the Dragon (1973) Link
- Commentary: 

9. “Taking Out an Alleyway of Bad Guys with Two Nunchaku” -Way of the Dragon (1972) Link
- Commentary: After defeating a first round of Italian thugs who want to take over a restaurant, they send even more for a second round of intimidation. As they try and take Bruce Lee out into an alley he gets the drop on them using a pole, but ends up duel wielding nunchaku against the majority of the bad guys who come out into the alleyway to defeat him. There's nothing overly stylish here and that's the appeal - this is Lee just simply striking guys one by one and taking them down with his swift nunchaku. It's simple but effective. I like the little humorous coda on the end where the main villain tries to use the nunchakus and ends up knocking himself out.

8. “Finale Fight: Bruce Lee vs. Big Boss Man in the Field” -The Big Boss (1971)Link
- Commentary: 

Good sequences that have some issue holding it back from being solid.

7. “Bruce Lee vs. Bob Wall and Friend” -Way of the Dragon (1972) Link
- Commentary: After the normal group of thugs fail to beat Bruce Lee, an Italian mobster is forced to bring in some of the best muscle from elsewhere - Enter Bob Wall and his friend. They lure Lee out with a couple of friends for a fight in an abandoned lot (the setting is pretty ugly - though it does keep with Hong Kong fight tradition). When Lee's friends fail to beat the newcomers, he steps in. Since these guys okay as sub bosses they don't go down with 1-2 strikes, but instead it takes 4-5 (lol!). Lee barely breaks a sweat here. The fighting with Wall at least feels more legit and intentional, but none of the sub bosses here are given a chance to look good against anyone except for chicken fodder. Some of the better action beats of the film (outside the main showdown) can be found here.

6. “Ice House Fight” -The Big Boss (1971) Link
- Commentary: 

5. “Bruce Lee vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar” -Game of Death (1978) Link
- Commentary:

Good action sequences with much to commend about them. They are a solid entry into their genre.

BONUS: "Diner: Bruce Lee vs. American Martial Artist" -Ip Man 4: The Finale (2019)
- Commentary: Danny Kwok-Kwan Chan plays Bruce Lee in the Ip Man franchise. Bruce Lee was a famous student of Ip Man when he was in Hong Kong, and in this film Lee welcomes Ip Man to San Francisco. While eating at a diner at night, a group of American martial arts students challenge Lee to a fight. They had out to an alleyway nearby and Lee quite easily takes out three of the students. The fight picks up when a much tougher opponent shows up and they begin a one on one contest. The setup is cheesy, but Chan does a great job here of approximating what Bruce Lee's style would have looked like in a contemporary fight film. It's a good back and forth where Lee contends with his opponents size with quick strikes. The final phase of the fight with the opponent breaking out num-chuks. Lee is quick to counter, remove the weapon, and use it against him. It all looks great and becomes a kind of fun imaginative world of what if - what if Bruce had lasted and been able to make more modern films? 

4. “The Bamboo & Nunchaku Duel” -Game of Death (1978) Link
- Commentary: 

Very good action sequences with something holding them back from greatness. These sequences are typically best in their film and represent something above and beyond expectations.

3. “Dojo Icon: Bruce Lee vs. Students & their Master Yoshida” -Fist of Fury (1972) Link
- Commentary: I just cannot deny how iconic, influential, and infectiously fun this sequence is. It has been directly copied by the greats Jet Li and Donnie Yen (twice!!) and still the original retains much of its power and enjoyment some fifty years later. The sequence features Bruce Lee's Chen Zhen arriving at a Japanese dojo and challenging anyone their to a fight. This is in response to a provocation from the Japanese earlier in the film. After Lee quickly handles two lower level henchmen, the entire group of students surround him and we get that iconic overhead shot above. The choreography is quite simple compared to other great cinematic fights, but Lee puts a lot of energy and passion into a couple sequences where he lands several kicks, tackles, and punches. This is iconic and its good, but despite its greatness, I can't get it past a B+ grade when the students are literally just running right into Lee - there's just not a lot of believability in the attack pattern here or in Lee's move set. I really like the second phase which features Lee use nunchaku to take out even more students included an extended beat where he attacks their feet, leaving many of them humorously on the ground and tending their wounds. Finally, the frumpy master Yoshida gets involved, tries a few Judo like takedowns, but ends up being bested by the quicker striking Lee. This is a great sequence that is an easy standout for Lee, a huge influence on fight cinema, but not something that rivals the best sequences we see today.

These are great action sequences with some minor issue(s) holding them back. They are typically best in their film and potentially best of the year.

2. “Dojo Redux Finale: Lee vs. Yoshida, Petrov, & Suzuki” -Fist of Fury (1972)
- Commentary: It might not be as iconic as the dojo sequence from earlier in this film but this finale is technically better and something that I find my overall enjoyment in (clearly Quentin Tarantino did as well, because this one influences his first Kill Bill finale more than the dojo one). The finale is an excellent template setter for the multi-phase martial arts finale where the hero must go through a few different levels of fights with variety and increasing difficulty/stakes. Lee returns to the Japanese dojo to avenge his master and takes out a few students drawing our the lower level frumpy master Yoshida. This time Yoshida grabs a sword and we get a clunky little fight between them that ends with an interesting but cheesy beat where Lee kicks the sword up out of Yoshida's hands and then hits Yoshida forcing him to bend down and the sword stabs Yoshida in the back. It's the worst part of the finale and I've never understood why they put this frumpy looking guy in the film honestly. Lee moves to an outside garden where he takes out some students again, drawing out the next boss - Robert Baker playing the character Petrov. This is a really good fight that gets brought down a bit by the unwise inclusion of some cinematic silliness, which at the time probably seemed like a right decision. The best parts of the fight is when the camera moves back and we a medium wide two shot and a quick strike/counter sequence between the two fighters. These moments feel like a real fight and it's no surprise that Jackie Chan would later pay homage (of course trying to better it too) in his Wheels on Meals fight sequence with Benny Urquidez. The sequence ends with Lee taking on the main villain Suzuki (with interesting decision since Yoshida used one too) with his nunchaku. They have a nice back and forth with a couple enjoyable beats. The two major fight sequences in this film are the kind of sequences that make you begin to think Bruce Lee really could live up to the impossible to fulfill shoes popular culture has given him.

Great action sequences that can compete for best of the year and best of all-time.

1. “Coliseum Fight Finale: Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris” -Way of the Dragon (1972) Link
- Commentary: When Bruce Lee is at his best his charisma remains a feature of his sequences, but it is surrounded by an athletic and intelligent showcase of his skill and the skills of his opponent. Bruce would often fight large groups of people - like the dojo sequence from Fist of Fury. When these sequences were filmed too closely, edited too tightly, and choreographed too simply, you get moments that feel better than they actually are on inspection - like his underground drug group fight scene in Enter the Dragon. When the camera work is done right, we get the iconic gem of a sequence found when Lee takes out an entire dojo in Fist of Fury. If you are looking for a sequence that epitomizes the best qualities of Lee in film and in reality, look no further than this masterpiece fight with Chuck Norris from Way of the Dragon. Unlike many other fights that lean too heavily on his style and charisma, this one actually delivers on the action substance as well. 
All the best features are present: Lee's iconic silhouette, showing off his lean physique , intense facial expressions (Van Damme would steal this it seems) with a focus that looks like he is quickly breaking down his opponent in his mind mixed with a zeal for winning, and most importantly a rhythm of quiet preparation and expectation followed by a quick attack or sometimes a succession of thrusts, parries, and counters. The fight with Norris stands out because it showcases Lee's intelligence, charisma, and skill while allowing Norris to stand as a competent opponent who acts, reacts, and is ultimately bested - this is pretty rare for Lee's films. The only iconic quality missing from the sequence is the use of nunchaku. I love how this fight takes its time, gives the opponents a chance to stretch and prepare, have an initial flush of action, react and adapt, and eventually overcome. This is top notch stuff that deserves to be remembered as one of the great fights of all-time.

No comments:

Post a Comment