Bruce Lee was one of the most influential martial artists ever, with his fighting skills captured on film in numerous movies and television roles. He became a massive celebrity in both Asia and America, starring in blockbuster roles that redefined martial arts and cinema culture. So we went through all of Bruce Lee’ s roles to find his top 10 movies to find the best examples of Lee’s famous talent, including some surprising films that you might not have associated with this fighting legend.
10. Evil Henchman Lee
While Bruce Lee did not have a starring role in the 1969 film noir called Marlowe, his appearance as Winslow Wong was his first role in an American film, allowing him to break into a whole new audience. Marlowe centers around a private investigator who is hired to track down a woman’s missing brother, and like every good film noir consists of a series of murders, secret rendezvous, and mobsters. Partway through the movie, the head mobster employs Bruce Lee’s character, Wong, to teach the meddling private investigator a lesson. Of course, Lee’s character is a Kung Fu master and he enters the investigator’s office with a bang, kicking a hole through the wall and then karate chopping apart a coat rack. As if that wasn’t enough drama, after the investigator refuses a bribe, Lee flies into an impressive martial arts rage. He chops through a set of bookshelves with his bare hands before winding up and delivering an over the head kick to an ornamental light on the ceiling, which explodes in glass shards. Lee then crashes through the glass door, kicks a table across the room, and then coolly puts on a pair of sunglasses before strutting out of the office. Unfortunately for Lee’s character, he meets an untimely end after a rooftop showdown with the investigator. A misplaced dropkick sends Lee plummeting off of the roof, but Lee had succeeded on making his mark as a talented fighter in Hollywood.
9. Child Star
Lee didn’t start off as a Hollywood martial arts actor. In fact, he started his career as a child actor in Hong Kong. There he played more sensitive roles, like in the film Gu Xing Xue Lei, otherwise known as An Orphan’s Tragedy. In this film Lee did not play a martial arts superstar – instead, he played the role of a young boy who aids an escaped prisoner. In a further twist, Lee’s character turns out to be the prisoner’s secret son! The prisoner sets out to earn money with which to send his son to college, without telling Lee’s character the truth about their relationship. There’s no easy happy ever after for these characters however, as an old criminal enemy of Lee’s father appears from his past. While Lee’s character is trying to have a successful career in medicine, he is unaware that he is about to be framed by criminals. You can’t say Bruce Lee didn’t know how to pick a good drama! Appearing in these movies as a young actor helped prepare Lee for the celebrity status that he would one day obtain, and let him hone his acting chops before moving on to his fighting skills.
8. The Big Boss
One of the films that established Lee as a majorly talented star was the film The Big Boss, an Asian martial arts film that was packed with action and extreme fights. While it was initially supposed to star a different actor, Lee ended up snagging the lead role to become a box office hit. Lee plays the role of Cheng, a man who goes to Thailand to be with his adoptive family and to begin work in an ice factory. He has sworn not to engage in any violence or fights, but after tensions are raised through drug deals and clandestine murders, Lee’s character Cheng loses his reserve and gets into a fight with some no good thugs, beating them in no time. With his pledge of non-violence broken, Cheng gets into two other giant fights as learns about criminal activities and the deaths of his family members. The first fight takes place in the ice factory, where Cheng faces off against a pack of men and battles his way out by throwing ice picks, kicking opponents through walls, and taking out multiple men at once. In the grand finale Cheng breaks into the antagonist’s manor to seek revenge for his family, armed with two knives which he incorporates into his fight choreography. After kicking one man into a swimming pool Cheng has his ultimate showdown with the main bad guy, and emerges victorious. Lee comes out as the big boss not only in the film, but in the movie theatres as well as the film was a smash hit.
7. Darling Girl
In a surprising change from the action roles that Bruce Lee was best known for, in 1957 he appeared in a rom-com called Darling Girl. Fans already know that Lee is capable of some pretty fancy footwork from all of his martial arts choreography, but for this film he wasn’t using his fast feet for fighting – this time he was dancing up a storm. It was a smaller role, but Lee played a classy rich teenager attempting to woo the leading lady in a nightclub. Possibly one of the only time that Lee can be seen wearing a clean-cut sweater vest combo in a film instead of bloody battle clothes, Lee wowed audiences with his cha-cha dancing skills. Unfortunately in this movie Lee does not win the leading lady’s heart, and instead is forced to run away when her love interest approaches him. Luckily Lee has a little more confidence in his other movies!
6. Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris
It seems like there is nothing that can make a Bruce Lee action movie any better – until you pair Bruce Lee with the legendary Chuck Norris. That’s exactly what happened for Lee’s own action comedy called The Way of the Dragon which he himself directed, wrote, produced, and starred in in 1972. While Lee cast himself in the role of the hero, Chuck Norris played an evil American sensei named Colt whom Lee’s character has to take down. Lee plays Tang, a martial artist who has arrived to save a struggling restaurant from gangsters. Tang trains the restaurant staff in the ways of martial arts to defend the restaurant, but the staff end up as hostages when the gangsters return. After a brief meeting with the mob boss, Tang overthrows the thugs and frees the restaurant staff. Celebrations are cut short when Tang is warned that if he doesn’t leave, the mob will have him assassinated. Of course, it wouldn’t be an action movie if the hero gave up and left, so Tang is then the subject of assassination attempts, more gang fights, and a final battle at the Roman Colosseum to add some drama. This fight is between Chuck Norris and Lee’s characters, and after a violent fight Norris’ character refuses Tang’s offer of mercy. Showcasing himself as the true action icon, Lee’s character destroys Norris and the mob boss is arrested. Impressively, Lee’s film was earned the most money in Hong Kong in 1972, securing his legacy as one of Asia’s best stars.
5. Game of Death
Bruce Lee was an amazing performer, but unfortunately his career was cut short in 1973 after having a severe allergic reaction to a medication at the age of 32. Lee was in the prime of his career, and was actually in the middle of filming a new movie when he passed away. It was another pet project which Lee directed, wrote, produced, and starred in called Game of Death. Lee cast himself in the starring role of Hai Tien, a martial arts master who is forced to participate in a gang heist after his siblings are kidnapped. Lee’s character is challenged to battle through a five-story pagoda with enemies on every level and to retrieve a mysterious object hidden at the top. This was the original plot, but when Lee died during shooting this forced the production to rework the storyline completely. Lee’s character is still a martial arts star, but a gang tries to assassinate him on one of his movie sets after he fails to obey them. Lee’s character is shot and survives with plastic surgery, but decides to fake his own death and disguise himself to get revenge on the gang. Doubles were used to film scenes after Lee passed away, and that footage was mixed with what had already been shot to cobble together a movie. Lee’s real corpse is used for the scene in which his character fakes his own death, which caused a bit of backlash from viewers. However, Lee’s last film showcased his personal style of fighting and and had a major influence on future action films to come.
4. The Orphan
Lee starred in not one, but two movies about orphans, as his last film as a teenager in Hong Kong was called simply The Orphan. Lee had a co-starring role as Sam, an orphan who has turned to stealing things while living in an orphanage. The orphanage headmaster convinces Sam to change his ways, and after returning the items he stole Sam unrolls in school. Sam then gets involved with the leader of a Triad gang, and is commanded to kidnap a man’s son. The headmaster of the orphanage enters into the situation, and it is soon revealed that Sam is actually the headmaster’s long lost son. This was another film where Lee played less of the classic hero and more of the underdog, but it also saw him stepping up as a mover and a shaker in the action genre. Although he did not play the main character in the film, his portrayal of Sam made an impression on viewers and saw him starting to branch out into more adult and more violent roles.
3. Fist of Fury
In Lee’s aptly named Fist of Fury film from 1972, Lee is on the hunt for revenge again, this time for the death of his martial arts mentor. When his dead mentor is insulted by members of a Japanese dojo, Lee’s character must defend his memory and the reputation of the Chinese people. Lee travels to the Japanese dojo and, you guessed it, destroys all the martial arts students and even their sensei in hand to hand combat that also incorporates some serious nunchuck skills on Lee’s side. In retaliation Lee’s martial arts school is targeted, and Lee’s character must devise a plan to sneak away and escape the Japanese fighters. The plot thickens when Lee’s character discovers that his old mentor didn’t die of natural causes, but was of course poisoned by the cook! The cook quickly gets taken care of by Lee in an easy fight, and the stakes are raised even more when Lee also kills the adviser for the Japanese dojo. A crazy series of bloodbaths and endless fighting ensues, with both schools getting attacked in a major lose-lose situation. The film ends on a cliffhanger, with Lee’s character lunging at a crowd of armed Japanese soldiers. Guns go off, but we don’t see whether Lee’s character lives or dies…. but knowing Bruce Lee, there’s no way he’d lose any fight!
2. The Green Hornet
Although not quite a movie, Lee starred in the action television series The Green Hornet as Kato, a martial arts master who fights crime. He played the sidekick to the Green Hornet, but Lee was the real star with the show actually being renamed The Kato Show when it aired in Hong Kong. Lee got to show off his martial arts moves and incorporate various props into his fight scenes, like darts and breakaway furniture. The show was intended as a straight episodic series, not a comedic show like the early Batman series. However, that didn’t stop the two shows from crossing over from time to time. Lee made a couple of appearances on Batman playing Kato beside the Green Hornet, proving that he could own the silver screen just as well as he could the big screen.
1. Enter the Dragon
Enter the Dragon was Lee’s most critically acclaimed film, with a score on Rotten Tomatoes of a near perfect 95%. Made in 1973, this film still stands as one of the most celebrated kung fu films ever created, with stunning fight scenes and choreography performed by Lee. Lee stars yet again as a martial arts master who has a nasty experience with the local mob after they murder his sister. Lee must get to the head boss to get revenge, but he is based on a secure island guarded by martial arts experts. Conveniently, they are hosting a martial arts competition, and Lee’s character decides to enter in effort to gain access to the head honcho. The movie is a series of fights between Lee and various martial arts masters as he battles to get to the gangster and avenge his dead sister. It’s a dream for kung fu fans, and has even been selected for the United States National Film Registry due to how significant it was for cinema and cinema culture. It was the last film that Lee completed before his passing, and was released in Hong Kong a mere six days after his death to packed theatres. It cemented his reputation and proved that Lee would always be a martial arts legend.