Like James Dean, Bruce Lee died after demonstrating his star power, charisma and box office mojo in barely a handful of films – creating a vacuum into which many others rushed, in the hope of plugging that gap. If Dean hadn’t passed, Paul Newman might not have got his shot in the 1950s. Lee, however, wasn’t just a leading man but representative of a whole Asian film industry which had – thanks to his immediate worldwide success – only just gained the sort of inroad into an international market the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone westerns gained for Italy … and now found promising avenues which had only just opened up closing off.
So, Bruce Lee was gone but there was room on screen for Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Lo, Bruce Liang, Dragon Lee and Bruce Thai … and a surge in ‘Brucesploitation’ movies which began with biographical quickies, bizarre repurposing of clips from unfinished or forgotten Lee work and pretty tasteless ‘tributes’ (footage of Lee’s corpse in his open-coffin funeral often showed up) and escalated to much more fantastical nonsense like The Clones of Bruce Lee – in which a mad scientist clones a bunch of Bruces – and Dragon Lives Again – in wich Bruce fights Dracula, Popeye and a gang of mummies in the afterlife. David Gregory’s breezy documentary on this weird phenomenon scores a fistful of coup interviews with all the major surviving Bruces (who have different tales to tell about how they came to be clones) and an array of grindhouse kung fu names including Angela Mao (who had a run as a martial arts heroine) and Ron Van Clief (star of Black Dragon Avenges the Death of Bruce Lee).
It digs a little into the mythos of Lee, and how important he was for various audiences around the world (particularly in France, it seems) and evokes an era of hand-to-mouth filmmaking which must also have been gruelling and dangerous (one Bruce admits filming for two weeks without sleep – and doing fight scenes all the time). A showbiz axiom has it that a turn should always leave the audience wanting more – this is a fine film about the people who show up after the curtain and actually try to deliver more. Commentators admit that at the time many audiences thought they’d been conned – in Germany, distributors were shameless about using Lee’s name on films he wasn’t in – but now these erzatz Bruce Lees have a weird charm all of their own (and a couple are obviously decent martial artists, even if they weren’t getting the benefit of the best choreographers or directors). Of course, brucesploitation came to and end when Jackie Chan came along and did for Bruce Lee what Burt Reynolds or Terence Hill did for Clint Eastwood – offering a lighthearted, genial alternative to dead straight action antics.