‘Enter the Clones of Bruce’ Review: When Everybody Really Was Kung Fu Fighting

A singularly wacky moment in film history is poked in “Enter the Clones of Bruce.” It surveys the years immediately following Bruce Lee’s untimely 1973 death, when the sudden international thirst for martial arts movies that he’d awoken could seemingly only be slaked by the man himself — or by a host of imitators who popped up under lookalike pseudonyms. 

David Gregory’s documentary won’t convince most viewers that the resulting flood of opportunistic cheapies are worth more extensive investigation. But they’re certainly cheesy fun in excerpt, and interviews with surviving participants provide an entertaining window into an anything-goes heyday for Hong Kong cinema. Premiering in Tribeca’s midnight section, this high-kicking flashback should appeal to the same fans who previously enjoyed such prior psychotronic excavations as “Not Quite Hollywood,” “Electric Boogaloo” or this director’s own prior investigations of cult figures Al Adamson and Richard Stanley. 

When Lee died of a cerebral edema at age 32, he was just realizing his own ambitions at last as a global action star, with one partly Hollywood-bankrolled feature about to be released and another in production. Despite his relatively high profile from the short-lived “Green Lantern” TV series, the San Francisco-born performer had initially been forced back to Hong Kong (where he’d been a child actor) to be considered bankable enough for a leading film role — and even then, in a low-budget effort from second-rung company Golden Harvest. No one could have guessed the enormous popularity he’d generate for martial arts films with 1971’s “The Big Boss” and its follow-ups. The posthumously released, relatively lavish “Enter the Dragon” secured his stature as a megastar … albeit too late.

It was a catastrophe, not just for Lee’s family and colleagues, but for an entire industry: Almost overnight he had singlehandedly generated global excitement toward an entertainment idiom hitherto ignored outside Southeast Asia. Yet foreign audiences did not just want any “kung fu” movies, like the ones that had long been produced for regional consumption. They wanted Bruce Lee — his unique movement style and personal magnetism had defined the entire genre for them. 

With international legal protections of image and name as yet weak (to the chagrin of Lee’s widow), enterprising producers realized their best bet to meet market demand lay in manufacturing films that appeared to star Bruce Lee, or were otherwise somehow adjacent to his legacy. Thus, in short order, screens were rife with supposed sequels to his actual vehicles, movies with other actors portraying him in highly fictionalized alleged biopics, and more. Even ones who’d once appeared with Lee were now in high demand, including his erstwhile screen combatants Bolo Yeung and Jim Kelly. 

Then there were the performers who found themselves rechristened Bruce Li, Dragon Lee aka Bruce Lei, Bruce Le, Bruce Lo and so on. Many were talented athletes and actors in their own right, recruited from as far afield as South Korea, Burma and Japan, all somewhat abashed by the copycat celebrity they became stuck with. Those with no hope of being confused with the late luminary were promoted as “the Female Bruce Lee” (Taiwanese Angela Mao), “the Black Dragon” (African-American Ron Van Clief), “the Fat Dragon” (a young Sammo Hung), etc. 

These and other veterans now recall, fondly for the most part, frantic shoots in which no cost-cutting measure or safety risk was spared, to their frequent exhaustion and injury. Movies were re-edited, retitled, remade, rehashed, reissued ad infinitum. One can only guess at the charms of such hastily-assembled grindhouse relics as “Bruce Lee Against Supermen,” “Bruce Lee Fights Back From the Grave,” or other goofy conceptual gambits. 

Representing an apex (or nadir) among such hijinks is one of the few titles dwelt on a bit here, 1977’s “The Dragon Lives Again.” It has one Bruce Liang “as” Bruce Lee fighting costume-party approximations of Clint Eastwood, Laurel & Hardy, Emmanuelle, Popeye, Dracula, James Bond, The Godfather and more … in Hell, yet. Still, what some consider the worst rip-off of them all was the “authorized” one: 1978’s “Game of Death,” which stretched the 15 minutes or so that could be salvaged from Lee’s uncompleted final feature into a cut-and-paste entity padded with use of body doubles and footage from his funeral. 

Experts in such things interviewed here estimate that films classifiable as “Bruceploitation” numbered anywhere from 80 to 200 before the vogue finally expired around the dawn of the 1980s — partly killed off by the emergence of a viable new fighting superstar in Jackie Chan, whose comedic tilt represented a complete break from Bruce Lee’s lethally cool persona. 

A fair number of those movies are excerpted here, the wide range of their production values and surviving print quality adding to this documentary’s dumpster-diving appeal. It’s also a pleasure to hear from the various “clones” (alongside former collaborators and latter-day commentators), whose modest fame is well in the past now. While still somewhat embarrassed by careers forged in imitation of a legend, their reminiscences are warm, generous and good-humored — even if that hectic period left them with longterm health issues and little financial reward. 

Gregory has made a whopping number of prior documentaries about cult films and filmmakers, many short “special features” on DVD and Blu-ray releases. So it’s not entirely surprising that “Clones” feels somewhat whipped together, without a strong sense of overall structure or big-picture insight. As a result, it doesn’t have the repeat-watch appeal that something with greater critical or cultural-commentary depth might have achieved. But it is considerable fun nonetheless. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *