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

*Scroll past the paragraphs if you want to skip the jabbering and get to the sequences.

Is Bruce Lee the most overrated martial arts star of all-time? Have I got you interested? Let me not drag out my view and give you a straight answer: No, he's not. However, I do think his legend has grow much larger than the actual martial-arts sequences he left behind. After getting his big break on television programs like The Green Hornet, 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 generally 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 action fans imagine is true: Bruce Lee advanced film fighting from the clunky punches of James Bond to the furious fighting choreography we see today. 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, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Jet Li, would easily eclipse and outdo his 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's stuff is still good and for many westerners, it was probably the first good martial arts sequences they ever saw. To get a better understanding of his legacy I watched all 20 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. I took the time to link each fight to a youtube video to help you follow along. Feel free to watch them and let me know your thoughts.

Top 20 Action Sequences
20. “Bruce Lee vs. the Italian Mafia feat. the Skylight Kick” -Way of the Dragon (Link)
19. “Opening: Bruce Lee vs. Sammo Hung at the Shaolin Temple” -Enter the Dragon (Link)
18. “Bruce Lee Introduces Italian Thugs to Chinese Boxing” -Way of the Dragon (Link)
17. “Bruce Lee Breaks Up a Melee Attacking Striking Workers” -The Big Boss (Link)
16. “Bruce Lee vs. O’Hara” -Enter the Dragon (Link)
15. “Bruce Lee vs. Japanese Dojo Part 2: Students & Yoshida” -Fist of Fury (Link)
14. “Bruce Lee and the Prisoners Take on All Han’s Men” -Enter the Dragon (Link)
13. “Bruce Lee vs. Hapkido Master Ji Han-Jae” -Game of Death (Link)
12. “Finale Fight: Lee vs. Han in a Glass Maze” -Enter the Dragon (Link)
11. “Underground Drug Lab Fight” -Enter the Dragon (Link)
10. “Taking Out an Alleyway of Bad Guys with Two Nunchaku” -Way of the Dragon (Link)
9. “Finale Fight: Bruce Lee vs. Big Boss Man in the Field” -The Big Boss (Link)
8. “Bruce Lee vs. Hiroshi Suzuki: Nunchaku vs Sword” -Fist of Fury (Link)
7. “Bruce Lee vs. Bob Wall and Friend” -Way of the Dragon (Link)
6. “Ice House Fight” -The Big Boss (Link)

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. Like much of Van Damme and Seagal's work, these sequences are typically less about any kind of back and forth active struggle and more about just dominating over lesser opponents. Most of these qualities are demonstrated in the fight scenes above, most notably by sequence number 20. 

I would make two arguments in Lee's defense here: First, I find these scenes mediocre, but there is at least an attempt at a clear philosophy behind filming the scenes this way. Lee wished for his sequences to reflect a more realistic approach to how fights work while still conceding to some film cliche's for entertainment purposes. Thus, instead of long, stylish, and drawn out choreography, the fights are quick and simple. While I think this philosophy is a valid and may be closer to real martial arts, it doesn’t exactly make for great martial arts to watch or re-watch over and over. Finding the right balance is key here and my personal opinion is that much of Bruce Lee’s stuff falls too far on the short/quick/simple side. Perhaps if Lee was helped by today’s camera work to better emphasize his quick and powerful nature then I’d have a better opinion, but he didn’t. The second argument I would make is this: despite the mediocrity and simplicity of some of these scenes, Lee's charisma still carries them to be watchable and workable sequences. It's undeniable.

5. “Bruce Lee vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar” -Game of Death (Link)
4. “The Bamboo & Nunchaku Duel” -Game of Death (Link)
3. “Bruce Lee vs. Petrov in a Japanese Garden” -Fist of Fury (Link)
2. “Bruce Lee vs. an Entire Japanese Dojo & it’s Frumpy Master” -Fist of Fury (Link)
1. “Finale Fight: Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris in the Coliseum” -Way of the Dragon (Link)

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. To commit to his short and simple philosophy while also getting lengthier fights, Bruce would often fight large groups of people. 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 (#11). 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 (#2).

If you are looking for a sequence that epitomizes the best qualities of Lee, look no further than his masterpiece fight with Chuck Norris from Way of the Dragon (#1). 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 (Van Damme 'esque upon review), intense facial expressions 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. The only iconic quality missing from the sequence is the use of nunchaku.

As great as Lee's fight with Norris is, and it's better than anything Van Damme or Seagal or Statham ever put together, in the genre of "martial arts sequences" it doesn't quite compare to the masterpieces. It's not Lee's fault that in our contemporary context he is ultimately more a charismatic and skilled pioneer than he is at making timeless masterpiece sequences. It is our fault if we make him out to be what he isn't. I do think it's possible had he lived longer that we would talk about him differently today, but that's a timeline we can only imagine.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to share your thoughts.

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