Bruce Lee, the legendary iconic screen actor, who almost exclusively ushered in the Martial Arts movement and was an early template for a kind of an action star which is still utilized in film productions to this day, died 40 years ago today.
Like so many instantly recognizable popularly cultural iconic figures of the 20th Century, the short yet rich filled life of Bruce Lee lives on in memory and urban legend in a way as well. Arguably no other entertainment figure in its broad and voluminous history has had a kind of a global impact that Bruce Lee did and continues to do. In the early 1970s, just as the Asian film market was starting to get a hold on American culture with like minded Martial Arts productions, Lee was extremely instrumental in bringing it to the mainstream table, and to the passionate of the genre an enhancement, of the entire Martial Arts movement and craft.
Lee had the luxury of not having to stand in front of a green screen, or play pretend with tennis balls as is the standard and norm of creating many action and special effects sequences in today’s Hollywood films, but actually, physically, breathed life into the karate and action films that he totally dominated and his presence made his always sturdy and concreted solid supporting casts better. In what other genre could there ever have possibly been a consideration that NBA hall-of-famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar could go up against someone in an action/karate film and not have it become instant parody, surrealism or bloated with comedy underbellies? But in the posthumous Lee production Game of Death (comprised of outtakes mainly) with Lee as Abdul-Jabbar’s opponent, it was anything but. (Lee also starred in films with Chuck Norris and the late Jim Kelly among others). Lee’s personality on screen, was likeable, inquisitive, funny, quirky, even had traces of an unexpected Buster Keaton quality to it, and above all, a mammoth strength and astute and swiftness to Martial Arts, manifesting it with razor sharp precision, steely and surfooted, it was almost flawless in it’s execution.
And then there was the subject of Lee’s fearlessness. A famous cinematic iconic image is the sight of Lee taking on scores and scores of adversaries, sometimes albeit assemblyline style. He would mow these opponents down with a variety of moves, and vocal yelps and utterances which also became an instantly recognizable trademark. Mostly shirtless, donned in black pants, an almost bowl cut surrounding his handsome visage and definite features, Lee in full combat stance in this mode and look, adorned many posters and walls of teenagers during the 1970s, but he was more than to be treated as a bubblegum star; Lee also directed, wrote, choreographed, and had a hand in most of the productions. By the time he was a superstar of this caliber, he had been in the business for roughly a decade, he was American born (in Chinatown, San Francisco, his parents moved him to Hong Kong when he was three months old) and had done some work on American productions as an actor, mainly television; his role as Kato in the 1960s version of The Green Hornet probably stands as his most known work pre-Martial Arts monarch.
For a short but glorious time, Lee was indeed the King of his genre. Films like Fist of Fury, Fist of Unicorn, The Way of the Dragon and of course the film Lee is most remembered for, and was his final film, the smash Enter the Dragon, showcase all that Lee was about. That film just recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, and remains one of the paramount popcorn karate/action films of all time. Lee, at his height of his success, died shortly after the release of Enter the Dragon, on July 20, 1973 at the age of 32, of what the coroner ruled as “death by misadventure,” by way of an allergic reaction to a muscle relaxant and caused cerebral edema, a swelling of the brain. The suddenness of his death instant thrust Lee into iconic and even mythic status and rumors began to surface that Lee had somehow been murdered by people who had put a curse on him, allegedly because they were angered that Lee, in a way by bringing Martial Arts and some of its secrets to the masses, in essence bastardized it and its purity.
But regardless of the cause or motive (if there even was one) of Lee’s death, his image remains frozen in time, stillborn in the best possible way. It enables Bruce Lee to still look as sharp and fresh as ever, forever. He could still have easily held his own if not more if he was around today and during the testosterone laden bloated bad boy action heroes of the 1980s and maybe even teach this current generation a thing or three, a generation of moviegoers mainly weaned on artificial styles of cinema in the way alpha male characters were and are created. Bruce Lee was a schematic in a way; while there certainly had been virile and above-average virile men in Hollywood’s heydays of the mid 20th century, there never was a bonafide superstar to passionately have a health regimented craft which was a day to day excursion for him which remained in concert with the Atlas he portrayed on screen.
Lee wasn’t like a Hugh Jackman or actors like him who for the most part just put a chiseled frame together to be gawked at only on the silver screen, what one saw of how Lee was physically on camera, was the same kind of physicality off camera, a tenet of his education and servitude to the Martial Arts traditions and set in stone bullet points. There have been countless individuals who followed him and was of his generation, Jackie Chan stands out as having the same kind of meteoric successful orbit of a career that Lee did, but even Chan would probably agree, Bruce Lee was one of the kind. He was like the Hendrix, Lennon, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Bach and so many other notable dignitaries of his craft and his art. He was a true original, and was able to influence a lot of what makes the action star tick and how the tick gets sustained and makes the audience satisfied.
Remember the wunderkind that was Bruce Lee today and always. Martial Arts star, Hollywood comet, action hero, influential fight scene choreographer, Lee’s hat rack is large and expansive, much like the legend of the man himself.