Updated: Feb 1, 2020
When Bruce Lee crashed the martial arts movie party he didn’t just bring a couple of new moves, a new look. He brought an axe. And with it he tore through the staid, colourless, set-piece martial arts movie staple.
With his coming, everything changed.
Lee was a tightly wound coil waiting to spring. A gun-hammer, already half-cocked and poised to fire. It showed - in his swagger, his smirk, his stare, even his smile. He made even the tiniest gestures seem like a battle cry - stripping what’s left of his shirt off, licking a drop of blood off his fingers, wagging his finger, flicking his nose, pursing his lips, crunching his fingers into a fist. That’s even before his actual battle cry ‘’you’re dead, and here’s the public service announcement!”
The camera loved Lee. Among handsome Asian men, he stood out as especially handsome. Among charismatic stars, he stood out as especially charismatic. So the lens lingered on him, trying to reveal what wasn’t even trying to hide. Yes he’d lower his gaze, he’d play coy and prudish, he’d brim with cheek and mischief but at no point was he hiding from the camera. Somehow his smoldering screen presence demanded attention and it was rarely, if ever, denied.
Go ahead, try watching a Lee movie and test yourself. While he’s on screen for six seconds, are you looking at anyone else on screen for more than a second?
Lee could act. It set him above the cardboard male leads who came before him. At least they seemed like cardboard after he arrived. And for a good while they seemed like cardboard again after he left. Lee held attention even when he wasn’t fighting. But when he was in a fight, the scene started taut and it stayed taut.
Lee could dance. He’d learnt it even before he began acting and he used it to deadly effect. He brought a cat-like elegance to his moves on stage - his walking, his falling, his rising, even his dying.
Fist of Fury (1972) has a scene where some 20 fighters surround him as the camera looks down. He swivels on the balls of his feet, they move with him. They make what seems like a single sudden move toward him, all at once. He makes one sudden retaliatory move - without striking a blow - just once and they all step back, as one. His eyes staring at a spot somewhere just above the ground, taking them all in without looking at even one.
Go ahead, try watching a Lee movie and test yourself. While he’s on screen for five seconds, are you looking at anyone else for more than a second?
Lee yelled like a premature Michael Jackson. He screamed with every micro-move. And it amplified every fight he was in. It made his opponents sound and feel impotent no matter how intimidating, how oversized they looked.
Those who watched Lee burst onto screens for the very first time, don’t need to be told about the destructive impact he had on profile of martial arts stars before him or about the inescapable influence he had on those who followed him. They know.
The likes of Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Donny Yen and Tony Jaa benefited from vastly improved movie techniques, wire-work, camera work and more refined fight choreography. Yet for all that, no star strode the martial arts movie landscape as Lee did.
Near the waterfront in Tsim Sha Tsui in Hong Kong stands an 8-foot high bronze statue of Lee. They might as well have built it 80 feet high. You see, as far as martial arts movies are concerned, Lee was is and will remain just, well, bigger.