It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes a person comes along that changes the course of popular culture forever. This has been seen in the cases of Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, etc. For martial arts entertainment, the first name that likely comes to the front of everyone’s mind is Bruce Lee. Not only was he wildly famous in his short career, but he’s remained a powerful cultural figure ever since. Truly, without Bruce Lee, there might not be a western understanding of martial arts and martial arts movies — at least not as we know it today.
Sadly, Lee’s life was cut abruptly short — the result of a brain edema, a fatal combination of swelling and fluid buildup in the skull. However, he had already broken out into Hollywood as one of the most exciting and novel entertainers of the day — a legacy that’s just as powerful to this day. While his catalog of films is quite short, each one represents an important moment in the history of Hollywood and the emergence of the kung-fu genre as a whole. To pay tribute to the man and his roles, we’ve put together the following ranked list of the best Bruce Lee films of all time, as well as a brief history of his life and a look at his overall impact on film and popular culture as a whole.
The American Dream
Lee's Rise To Fame
Born Lee Jun-fan in San Francisco’s Chinatown back in 1940, the performer that would become known as Bruce Lee was the child of a Cantonese opera singer by the name of Lee Hoi-chuen (his father) and Grace Ho (his mother). While Lee was born here in the United States, he was actually raised primarily in Hong Kong, where his parents were from, alongside the rest of his family in the Kowloon area. As a child, Lee was exposed to and taught martial arts after a series of increasingly-dangerous street fights — at which point he was introduced to his now-famous mentor, grandmaster Ip Man (there are several films about this real-life martial arts legend starring Donnie Yen). Unfortunately, training turned out to be another hurdle for Lee, as he was ostracized by his fellow students after they discovered that, while his father was Chinese, his mother was of Eurasian descent. Ip man, however, chose to continue training the talented Lee privately.
At the age of 18, Lee moved back to the United States and attended university in Seattle, Washington — where he chose to study drama, rather than philosophy (as is commonly believed). It was at this point that Lee began to teach martial arts — a form of mental and physical discipline that defined much of his life, philosophies, and his legacy. Shortly thereafter, Lee ended up dropping out of college and moving to Oakland, California to open a second martial arts studio and teach full-time. After several impressive public showings of his skills — including some high-profile fights — Lee was invited to try out for a television role by producer William Dozier.
Eventually, Lee was cast as Kato, a sidekick-chauffer, in The Green Hornet — which marked the first time American audiences were introduced to the grace of genuine Chinese martial arts, as opposed to the typical American fist-fight-heavy action that was popular on television up to that point. Sadly, despite the popularity of his show and character, Lee still struggled to get roles, as Hollywood was wary of casting a person of Chinese descent as a heroic lead. That was quashed following the success of Lee’s first leading role in The Big Boss — and it was further shattered after his follow-up, Fist of Fury, broke the box office records of the prior film. To call Lee’s rise meteoric is perhaps not doing his wild ascent justice — but news of his sudden death in 1973 was perhaps even more earth-shattering.
Larger Than Life
An Icon's Undying Legacy
As you may or may not know, Bruce Lee passed away suddenly in 1973 with the autopsy revealing that he had a deadly allergic reaction to an ingredient commonly used in painkillers — though the exact reason is still the source of some debate. The tragedy sent shockwaves through the entertainment industry and around the world; one of the most electric martial arts stars ever to appear on film had died right at the height of his career. In fact, two of his films had yet to see an official release: Enter the Dragon, which was released in August of the same year, and Game of Death, which saw a posthumous release in 1978. In spite of the brevity of Lee’s onscreen career, however, his legacy and influence are still both palpable to this day.
There are some extremely clear examples of this in the entertainment industry — including things like the jumpsuit worn by Uma Thurman in the first Kill Bill film from 2003, the fighting style of Spike Spiegel in famed anime Cowboy Bebop, and there’s even a subgenre of film called Bruceploitation — which hinged on filmmakers from around the world tracking down and hiring Bruce Lee lookalikes to star in imitation martial arts flicks. However, Lee’s cultural significance goes much further and deeper than that.
Bruce Lee and his works have inspired pieces of art, video games, apparel, music, and even the worlds of philosophy and self-help — and these are just a fraction of the greater picture. He’s become such a massive cultural figure, in fact, that he’s one of the most easily-recognized people in human history. His larger-than-life persona has transcended his too-short life tenfold and he still stands as a huge inspiration to this day — and likely will for generations to come.
DISCLAIMER: While we’re aware that Bruce Lee got his start in Chinese cinema at an early age and he has appeared in more than just these five movies, we’ve chosen to focus on the films that catapulted the late actor to worldwide stardom. This is not intended to downplay the significance of Lee’s early career, but rather to highlight his meteoric ascension to the top of the box office and better illustrate the tragedy of his death.
5. Game of Death (1978)
There is one very specific reason that Game of Death begins our list as the fifth of Bruce Lee’s five best films: it was never finished. Were it not for the filming of Enter the Dragon and, subsequently, the late actor’s passing, there’s a possibility that this movie — one Lee himself wrote, directed, and produced — could have been phenomenal. Sadly, though Lee intended to resume filming this movie, it remains unfinished. What’s more, the 100+ minutes of the movie that had actually been filmed was misplaced in studio archives — only to be discovered and later released in 1978, five years after Lee’s death. Interestingly, the movie was “finished” by Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse, who used two stand-ins for Lee. Although this approach was perhaps not the most successful, the options were otherwise quite limited. It’s also worth pointing out that this movie featured an appearance by Lee’s friend and student Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (yes, the basketball star), and had Lee dressed in his signature yellow jumpsuit — which he designed himself.
4. The Big Boss (1971)
Although this film was not the first piece of western media Bruce Lee had starred in, The Big Boss does mark the first time he was cast in a leading role — defying much of the Hollywood elite that didn’t believe a person of Chinese descent would be a relatable enough hero for western audiences. Thankfully, the numbers told a different story: The Big Boss was a massive commercial and critical hit, shattering several box office records around the world. All told, the film grossed roughly $50 million — which, when adjusted for inflation, amounts to around $300 million. For reference, the movie only cost $100,000 to make — making its success all the more powerful, especially when considering the fact that, technically, it was a foreign film. After the worldwide release of this movie, it was clear that Bruce Lee was destined for stardom.
3. Fist of Fury (1972)
While The Big Boss marked the highest-grossing total of any Hong Kong film at the time, its reign was remarkably short. This is because, only a year later, Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury was released and, subsequently, overtook the previous film’s total to the tune of $100 million overall (roughly $600 million when adjusted for inflation) — double that of its predecessor. Also known as The Chinese Connection, this film marked Lee’s second endeavor alongside writer-director Lo Wei and producer Raymond Chow. This movie also introduced several martial arts movie tropes that are still common to this day — including things like a hero defending his home and honor against foreign invaders and a student seeking out vengeance for his fallen mentor. As an added bonus, this movie featured a surprise appearance by another up-and-coming martial arts star: Jackie Chan.
2. The Way of the Dragon (1972)
While most people know Bruce Lee as an actor, he also had aspirations as a writer, director, and producer. In fact, his second-best film, The Way of the Dragon, marked his directorial debut and he’s credited as co-producer. Sadly, this was his only directorial work that was ever finished. The film also marked the beginning of another would-be martial arts star’s career, as Chuck Norris was cast as Colt, Lee’s nemesis and primary foil. While it couldn’t recreate the box office-shattering pace of Lee’s previous two films, it did still end up grossing an estimated $130 million worldwide ($700 million when adjusted for inflation) and supplanted Fist of Fury as the most successful Hong Kong film of all time… right up until Bruce Lee’s next flick.
1. Enter the Dragon (1973)
Undeniably Bruce Lee’s most culturally-significant and -impactful film of all time, Enter the Dragon also marks his most successful appearance onscreen — grossing a massive total of $350 million worldwide (equivalent to approximately $1 billion today) on a budget of just $850,000. This movie is so iconic and beloved, in fact, that it is widely regarded as perhaps the greatest martial arts film of all time and one of the best action movies ever filmed. It has even been preserved in the United States’ Library of Congress for posterity. Many of the elements of this movie have since become cultural mainstays — there’s even reason to believe that Mortal Kombat, the massively successful video game franchise, was directly inspired by and even borrowed the themes of the film. To suggest that this is a must-see movie for all lovers of cinema, martial arts, pop culture, and more is perhaps not a dire enough claim. Put simply, Enter the Dragon is a masterpiece that will continue to inspire and influence generations of people around the world.
Be Water (2020)
Less than a year ago, ESPN focused its legendary 30 for 30 docu-series on the life and legacy of Bruce Lee. While this documentary is technically not one of the late actor’s films, it still beautifully weaves the tapestry of his life — including the trials and tribulations of his upbringing, his failures and successes, his personal philosophies, his friendships and influence, and so much more — into an unmissable film for anyone even mildly interested in Bruce Lee. Truly, this marks one of the best episodes of the series ever made and we’d be remiss in our duties if we didn’t at least mention it here.