Bruce Lee: how American film critics rated his films in his time

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Forty-five years after his death at 32, Bruce Lee is a legend, credited with ushering in an era of martial arts films in the United States and elevating the Asian hero into Western pop culture. His last completed film, “Enter the dragonpremiered in the United States at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles in August 1973, just weeks after Lee’s death.

The TV series “Kung Fu” and the movie “five fingers of death“helped ‘open the door’ to American acceptance of Chinese martial arts, but Lee made it mainstream, writes Matthew Polly in his new biography, “Bruce Lee: A Life.”

“It was Lee’s performance in Enter the dragon who blew it off its hinges – launching a whole new genre of film in the West,” Polly writes.

A remake of “Enter the Dragon” could be coming soon. Variety reported that “Deadpool 2” director David Leitch was in talks to helm the film.

No actors are attached to the project yet, but they’re unlikely to face the kind of hurdles Lee faced in his time. Chinese actors were “mostly relegated to gentle domestic roles like Hop Sing in Bargainwrites Polly, adding that “before Bruce, there was only Fu Manchu, the villain of the Yellow Peril, and Charlie Chan, the model minority.”

Even Lee’s Hollywood friends who were looking for roles for him didn’t think he had a shot at stardom in the United States, Polly told The Washington Post.

As Lee appeared on television and in American theaters in the 1970s, film critics from Louisville to New York and Boston struggled to make sense of this new “Eastern” star and the genre of kung film. -fu in full swing.

Most critics dismissed his Hong Kong films, complaining that they offered little plot and poor production values. (The Associated Press obituary said Lee’s films were successful in New York “despite almost unanimously disapproving reviews”.) A newspaper described martial arts films as the “new yellow peril”. But most singled out Lee for his praise, with some critics comparing him to Fred Astaire and Douglas Fairbanks.

Here are excerpts from the reviews, with some annotations providing context.

The New York Times, September 19, 1971

John J. O’Connor writes about the TV series:

“Li, played well by Bruce Lee, turns out to be kind of a disciplined super boy, providing a Robin for Longstreet’s Batman and receiving heavy greetings like ‘May it all go well for you.’

[At the time of this review, Lee was 30 years old.]

On the character played by Lee: “The Chinaman (who emerges impressively enough to warrant his own series) brings a deft touch of the exotic with advice on how to ‘learn the art of dying’. ”

[According to Polly’s biography, Lee in an interview a year later “proudly repeated the quote, almost word-for-word, from memory.”]

(also known as “The Big Boss”)

The New York Times, May 13, 1973

“I know karate has been in vogue for quite some time.

“. . . According to Variety, there hasn’t been such a profitable movie mode since the debut of the Italian western about 10 years ago. . . . Kung fu movies started as a local phenomenon in Hong Kong a few years ago, started gaining audiences in Latin America two years ago, and last year achieved remarkable financial success in Europe. , especially in Italy and Germany.

“The two I have just seen, ‘Fists of Fury’ and ‘Deep Thrust’, make the worst Italian westerns look like the most solemn and noble achievements of early Soviet cinema.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 10, 1973

William B. Collins writes:

“The first of the Kung Fu movies was fun. It was exotic and absurd but it was the once-enough kind of thing.

“. . . Kung Fus aren’t fun anymore. They have become a trend and the film industry is anxiously wondering if they are here to stay or if they are just a flash in the moo goo gai pan. This new Yellow Peril has had a phenomenal impact.

“. . . This brings us to Bruce Lee, whose stellar vehicle, “Fists of Fury,” helped the movie industry see the gold in Kung Fu. Bruce Lee is the Adam West of Kung Fu. . . . Lee made an indelible impression four years ago by walking into a movie called ‘Marlowe’ and destroying James Garner’s office with his bare hands.”

Tampa Bay Times, June 12, 1973

J. Oliver Prescott writes:

“Bruce Lee is the fastest foot in the East. He’s in the movie “Fists of Fury” currently playing at the Tyrone Theater, anyway.

“The characters are certainly simple: they’re simply Chinese peasants whose small disagreements turn overnight into Oriental rumbles equivalent to the sharks and jets in ‘West Side Story’.”

“Now back in Hong Kong, he’s become the hottest international movie star since Clint Eastwood. Unlike Eastwood’s anti-hero, Bruce Lee is giving the American public what they now apparently want: a hero.

“. . . Lee is Rex Allen, Lash Larue, Tom Mix, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry all rolled into one.

[According to Polly’s book, Lee told his good friend, the screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, that he would one day be “a bigger star than [Steve] McQueen and [James Coburn], to which Silliphant replied, “You are a Chinese in a white man’s world. There’s no way.”]

(Also known as “Fist of Fury”)

The New York Times, November 8, 1972

“‘Fist of Fury’ landed with a bang and quite a bit of moaning yesterday at the Pagoda Theater in Chinatown to illustrate that some Orientals aren’t particularly inscrutable.”

Lee is a “decidedly eye-catching figure as he takes on all comers, alone or in moaning groups, in stylized karate-like combat with quick, ballistic movements, sinister looks, deadly fists and legs and, well, sure, all the necessary sinister cries.

The Boston Globe, June 7, 1973

William A. Henry III writes:

“While watching ‘The Chinese Connection’ yesterday at the Gary Theater, a petty fight broke out between two patrons. ‘They watch the movies and they all think they’re Bruce Lee,’ said a girl sitting near me.

[Polly: Lee “not only had to fight the idea that a Chinese character could be played by an Asian actor, but he also had to create the whole concept of a heroic Chinese figure.”]

Pittsburgh Press, July 16, 1973

“‘The Chinese Connection’ at the Fulton is an oriental action drama that elicits raucous laughter.”

“. . . Bruce Lee, who is either a master jester or the world’s worst actor. . . ”

The Courier-Journal, July 20, 1973

“The story is a banal melodrama about a young man avenging the death of his karate teacher. The plot is adolescent but the dialogues are childish.

“’The Chinese Connection’ is probably the best karate movie made to date. It’s of course ridiculous, but no more ridiculous than James Bond or Shaft. And I sneakily suspect that karate movies, like Watergate, are here to stay.

The Atlanta Constitution, August 12, 1973

“What’s particularly sad about Lee’s death is that ‘The Chinese Connection’ signaled that he could single-handedly pull kung fu movies out of their rut with the same confidence he had. beat hordes of bad guys in those sukiyaki westerns.”

The New York Times, August 18, 1973

“Though they minted at the US box office, these Chinese bone breakers – adventures tied to karate, hapkido, kung fu and judo – were essentially shoddy productions. Now , Hollywood entered the scene, sending a unit to Hong Kong and the surrounding area. The result is ‘Enter the Dragon’, opening yesterday in four theaters. Now get ready.

“. . . the three tough agents who invade the place are white (John Saxon), black (Jim Kelly) and yellow (Bruce Lee).

[Lee appears only after 216 words in the 302-word review].

“At the adventure level, the performance is quite good. That of Mr. Lee, not only the super master image killer, but also an excellent actor, is downright fascinating. Mr. Lee, who also staged the fights, passed away very recently. Here it could not be more alive.

[According to Polly’s book, Elvis Presley watched “Enter the Dragon” dozens of times, and VHS tapes of the movie were smuggled into Eastern Europe in the 1980s.]

The Boston Globe, August 23, 1973

Patrick McGilligan writes:

“Lee is the Fred Astaire of martial arts, a not entirely ironic analogy, and he moves so gracefully, yet so militantly, that he is the best example of locomotive movement to be seen on screen. For years.

“’Enter the Dragon’, currently at the Savoy, is a silly little movie, produced by Warner Bros., who should know that.

“. . . Consider Bruce Lee instead, who could have been a real star if he had lived beyond his 32s, met a talented director or two, and skipped over the hackneyed stories.

[Polly: “One of the great tragedies of Bruce’s early demise is he never had the chance to break down other barriers by expanding the type of roles Asian males could play in Hollywood films. He would have been a compelling romantic leading man.”]

The Washington Post, August 25, 1973

“It remains to be seen if another personality can achieve what Lee might have been on the verge of achieving: a revival of the sports film tradition of Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn and Burt Lancaster in a slightly new context – martial arts or Kung Fu Melodrama – with himself as the first genuine sports star since Lancaster.

“. . . his Cagney-esque arrogance and humor and precocious Steve McQueen nonchalance.

“. . . John Saxon and Jim Kelly. These guys are pretty superfluous, and bringing them in keeps Lee off screen for long periods of time.

[Polly: “Fred Weintraub, who produced ‘Enter the Dragon,’ was one of Bruce’s biggest patrons and supporters, but even he didn’t believe an Asian actor could carry a Hollywood movie all by himself — casting Jim Kelly and John Saxon as co-heroes of the movie.”]

(also known as “Way of the Dragon”)

Chicago Sun-Times, August 8, 1974

“On Friday at 8 a.m., an hour before opening time, crowds lined up outside the Oriental Theater in Chicago. By mid-afternoon, more than 4,000 people had paid to enter. Louis Marks, who books the theatre, said it felt like an all-time record.

“. . . Bruce Lee had been called from Hong Kong by Chinese friends who were trying to start a chop suey joint in Rome. But the Mafia was trying to impose itself. Lee’s mission, should he choose to take it: Protect the restaurant from the mob.

“That stuff is beautifully silly, and Lee, to give him credit, never tried to rise above it.”

Detroit Free Press, September 19, 1980

“A year after his death in 1973, actor Bruce Lee’s last film, ‘Return of the Dragon,’ was an unexpected summer movie hit, breaking attendance records across the country. It still draws crowds standing in towns where the late actor’s name remains magical.

“. . . “Return of the Dragon” is more than an exercise in raw violence; it is an amazing demonstration of how the most fundamental and elemental acts of life can be honored through ritual and grace.

The New York Times, November 28, 1974

“’The Green Hornet’, which opened yesterday at New Amsterdam and other cinemas, is three episodes of the mid-’60s television series pieced together and preceded by footage from the late Bruce Lee’s screen test.

“He looks very young, very clean and very American (in an Eastern sense), and he does his kung fu stuff with grace.”

[Polly said that Lee didn’t want to play a houseboy role and pushed the producer to treat his character as an “active partner” with the Green Hornet and not a “mute follower.”]

The Washington Post Magda Jean Louis contributed to this report.

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