Bruce Lee’s iconic kung fu films, ranked
In 1970, former Shaw Brothers producer Raymond Chow started a new film company in Hong Kong called Golden Harvest that seemed almost certain to struggle competing with the powerhouse that was Shaw Brothers Studios, also based in Hong Kong. Then, Raymond Chow had an idea.
He recognized the huge popularity of Bruce Lee (known in Chinese as Li Xiaolong), who was a former child actor there and was now showing off his martial arts skills in America. At the time, The Green Hornet series was airing in Hong Kong but it was titled The Kato Show after Bruce Lee’s character, sidekick to the Green Hornet. Bruce himself decided to take a trip back to Hong Kong and Raymond Chow took full advantage, offering him a movie deal with his new company. For the next three years, they would dominate the Hong Kong film industry and change the landscape of martial arts films forever.
Now, we hope you enjoy our ranking of Bruce Lee’s Iconic Kung Fu Films.
5. The Big Boss (1971)
Quite truthfully, this is the only Bruce Lee movie we don’t fully love but that’s not to say it should be ignored, especially considering its incredible impact on kung fu films.
When it was released in 1971, it broke box office records in Hong Kong. For the first time, the lead of a kung fu film was truly a star. Bruce Lee’s charisma led the story. The fight scenes were groundbreaking. Watch any martial arts film released before this one and you’ll notice that not only are the fight scenes somewhat lacking but that, even in cases where those scenes are good, the choreography is unrealistic. Bruce felt that realism was imperative in fight scenes and it would allow any necessary surreal aspects to be more appreciated.
Bruce Lee’s character in The Big Boss is sent on an extended visit to family friends in Thailand. While there, he works with them at an ice factory before he unintentionally exposes that it doubles as a drug smuggling factory, unbeknownst to his friends.
The title role of this film, the big boss himself, is played by Han Ying Chieh, an outstanding fight choreographer and supporting actor. Chieh is in almost every major martial arts film of the 1960’s and early 70’s, ultimately appearing in nearly 100 movies, and he was in charge of the fight direction and choreography in at lest 50 of those films. He is the perfect choice to guide Bruce Lee’s first starring Kung Fu role.
Chieh and Lee give us pretty solid creativity in the film’s final fight scene. Their showdown is unique for the era for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that it ends with Lee’s character stabbing the big boss to death. Such violence was not commonplace yet in martial arts film, and the movie pushed the envelope in that direction. In fact, it went a little too far for censors who deleted a clip where Bruce’s character quickly grabs a saw and uses it to kill one of his attackers. A photo from the set that shows the scene often fueled hope that one day we would see the uncut version of it but, alas, the footage is considered lost.
The cut-you-with-a-saw lost clip happens just prior to Bruce Lee’s fight scene with Tony Liu, who plays the son of the big boss. Also known as Anthony Lau Wing, the flamboyant Liu became a hugely popular actor by decade’s end, playing the title role in the beloved Emperor Chien Lung films. He also starred in numerous wuxia films, including Sword of Vengeance opposite Ti Lung who might be the only martial arts star with on-screen charisma that could rival Bruce Lee’s.
Overall, the film is a major achievement in fight choreography and shot Bruce Lee to superstardom in East Asia.
4. A Warrior’s Journey (2000)
The only Bruce Lee martial arts film that didn’t make this list is Game of Death. It was unfinished due to his untimely passing but was released four years later. They hired someone who looked liked him to finish the movie, changed the script, and tastelessly used actual footage from Bruce Lee’s funeral to portray the death of his character in the film. They knew, however, that the last fight scenes, which starred the real Bruce Lee, would be iconic. They are. His yellow motorcycle suit has become one of his most recognizable looks.
However, a documentary released decades later, called A Warrior’s Journey, spent its last half-hour showing the uncut version of what would have been Bruce Lee’s masterpiece.
The idea is that the protagonist, played by Bruce, has to reach the top of a five-story pagoda by defeating the martial artist on each floor, every one of whom a master of a fighting style unique to the others. Bruce filmed the scenes for the last three floors before getting the call from Hollywood to do the film now known as Enter the Dragon. Thus, the movie was never finished. The first floor — which likely would have been the third floor if the film was completed — features what we believe to be the first nunchaku battle in kung fu film history as Dan Inosanto and his real-life friend Bruce Lee show off their flamboyant nunchaku skills. Inosanto is an all-world martial artist, master of many styles and now teaches Bruce Lee’s art form of Jeet Kune Do. Arguably this is one the best fight scenes of all time for many reasons, not the least of which is that such a nunchaku vs. nunchaku scene still goes unmatched. Bruce’s character wins the fight, takes on Ji Han Jae — an actual master of Hapkido — on the next floor and then proceeds as exhausted victor to the top floor where he faces his real-life student: NBA star Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
Jabbar’s character practices a formless unknown style and stands 7’2” compared to Bruce’s 5’8” height. These scenes in Game of Death are solid but are a completely different experience in A Warrior’s Journey, partially due to Bruce’s sidekicks who were cut from the original. They present perhaps the most entertaining half-hour of footage filmed for a kung fu movie.
3. Way of the Dragon (1972)
Bruce Lee vs Chuck Norris. That’s really what the movie is known for. Their final showdown in the Rome Colosseum can easily be argued as the greatest single fight scene in kung fu film history.
But this movie is so much more.
It features another outstanding back alley brawl fight scene midway between Bruce’s character and several bad guys. Ultimately, Bruce uses a staff and then nunchaks to beat the daylights out of his enemies. The scene shifts to the baddies each deciding to step forward and take on Bruce one-on-one as he uses his nunchaks in several different ways to knock each one of them out.
This movie also features Bruce Lee not just as the star and fight choreographer but also as director. He also wrote the script. The story is not too challenging and even somewhat lacking but it lends itself to allow Bruce to add many different action scenes —including other shorter fight scenes — throwing darts at would-be assassins, and practicing martial arts by unintentionally knocking people 10 feet in the air.
Other than the odd airport scene that starts the film, this is an enjoyable movie experience that only Bruce Lee can manage to create.
2. Enter the Dragon (1973)
This is the single most important kung fu film ever made. It was a collaboration between Hong Kong and Hollywood as Golden Harvest and Warner Brothers combined their efforts. It was thus Hollywood’s first attempt at making a kung fu film and, thanks mostly to Golden Harvest and Bruce Lee, it became a major worldwide success. The global recognition that Bruce Lee sought would finally be achieved, but he never got to witness it as he tragically passed one month before the film’s release.
There are three legendary fight scenes in the film, including the Bruce Lee vs Bob Wall tournament fight scene where Bruce actually got injured; Bruce’s extraordinary fight against guards underground; and the final fight scene between Bruce Lee and Shih Kien, though it’s more legendary for the use of mirrors than the actual fight.
Enter the Dragon also starred Jim Kelly and John Saxon. They hold their own and bring a welcomed element to the film, effectively co-starring with Bruce.
1. Fist of Fury (1972)
Although many will say Enter the Dragon is Bruce’s best film, there are those who argue for Fist of Fury. Both are considered among the best kung fu films ever made.
This was Bruce’s second kung fu film and was highly anticipated since his record-breaking first one. Well, this one smashed those records thanks to Bruce’s fight choreography and an absurd amount of entertaining scenes, fighting or otherwise, that make the film easy to enjoy.
It takes place in early 1900s Shanghai and opens with Bruce’s character returning home for his teacher’s funeral. Clearly devastated, he can’t accept the loss of his teacher, especially after learning that he was poisoned by a rival Japanese school. The movie plays on national pride and takes advantage of the questionable relations between China and Japan at the time by creating a story that allows the filmmakers to get away with having Bruce’s character kill several people at the corrupt Japanese martial arts school.
You can accurately describe this film as follows: “A guy goes on a killing spree in the name of justice, hanging the bodies of his dead victims in the busy streets of Shanghai.” When you watch the film this isn’t necessarily your takeaway because director and writer Lo Wei does an excellent job of making you root for Bruce, but it makes you realize how badly the movie could’ve turned out if they failed to accomplish that.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a film in which the main character goes on such a methodic rampage in this fashion, where he kills anyone involved yet has enough composure to do things like disguise himself in order to infiltrate the enemies’ lair just to get info. For obvious reasons, he becomes a wanted man but he’s been hiding out in the woods, trying to survive until he can complete his revenge.
In regards to kung fu movie history, there are countless iconic scenes in this film. Certainly, the best fight scene is early on when Bruce initially visits the Japanese school to return their insulting gift and give a fighting lesson to everyone – and also the first time nunchaks are seen in a kung fu film. The final fight scene is quality but not nearly among the most memorable parts of the movie. The end is him turning himself in with a promise that his friends will be protected, only for authorities to greet him by shooting him.
Other scenes may be even more iconic, including the “Why did you kill my teacher?” scene, or the telephone man scene, the rickshaw scene, the opening scene of Bruce trying to dig out his teacher during the funeral, or even the park scene where the sign reads “No Chinese or dogs allowed,” and Bruce’s character destroys the sign after killing a man who mocks him while referring to it – that man is actually played by Yuen Wah, Bruce Lee’s stunt double.
Obviously, Fist of Fury is an experience all its own, has changed the way kung fu films are presented, and is a movie that is still without equal.
Without a doubt, it’s more than deserving to top this list but all Bruce Lee films deserve to be recognized for their approach to movie-making and their overall intense impact on action cinema.