Films of Fury: MoMA series 'Eternal Bruce Lee' showcases new 4K restorations

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Fans around the world consider Bruce Lee the greatest martial artist to ever appear in movies. Running from January 27 through February 4, the Museum of Modern Art series "Eternal Bruce Lee" includes all five of the feature films that helped make him a legend.

Born in San Francisco in 1940 and raised in Hong Kong, Lee trained in martial arts partly to keep out of trouble on the streets. Sent to the United States when he was 18, Lee studied drama and philosophy at the University of Washington. He also formed a martial-arts school where he taught a style of fighting he called "Jeet Kune Do."

Two of his students, actor James Coburn and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, helped him find work in TV shows and feature films. Lee returned to Hong Kong to develop his own projects, signing with producer Raymond Chow at Golden Harvest.

His first film, The Big Boss (Jan. 28, Feb. 3) was a worldwide hit, and the follow-up, Fist of Fury (Jan. 27, 29), broadened his audience even further. Lee was given carte blanche for The Way of the Dragon (Jan. 28, Feb. 4), writing, directing and choreographing a story set in Rome. He had begun work on Game of Death (Jan. 28, Feb. 2) when he stopped shooting to star in the first Hollywood – Hong Kong co-production, Enter the Dragon. His biggest box-office success, Enter the Dragon is having a week-long run.

The Asian movie distributor Fortune Star commissioned L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna to created 4K restorations of four of the titles in the series. (Warner Bros. oversaw restoration of Enter the Dragon.) The lab worked from the original camera negatives for The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, and interpositives for The Way of the Dragon and Game of Death. "Eternal Bruce Lee" marks the North American premieres of the restorations.

As La Frances Hui, an associate curator at MoMA who organized the series, points out, "A lot of fans got to know Bruce Lee on VHS or TV. His films were often dubbed, recut and released under different titles. Bringing these back to the screen in such good restorations is a chance to reexamine his career, realize just how much he accomplished."

Except for Game of Death, the features in the series follow similar formulas, often using the same performers in different roles. Lee doles out his fights slowly, usually waiting for a half-hour or so to show some low-risk exercises and training scenes. The violence escalates in subsequent bouts, leading to prolonged, bloody encounters that defeat villains but can leave other casualties as well. As the films progress and Lee matures as a performer, you can sense the actor adjusting his action to the camera, using tighter compositions and more cohesive editing.

The Big Boss and Fist of Fury were both directed by Lo Wei, a former leading man who worked at the rival Shaw Brothers studio before switching to Golden Harvest. Obviously low-budget outings, the films are marked by fluid, involving camerawork and strong supporting casts who could take the pressure off Lee.

To a surprising extent, the two films resemble Warner Bros. programmers of the 1930s, where exploited miners or truck drivers have to band together to defeat corrupt bosses. In The Big Boss, Lee moves to Thailand to work in an ice factory. Stuck in company housing, his fellow workers are murdered if they complain about their low wages. And that's before Lee learns that gangsters are using the factory as a cover for a drug ring.

Set in a 1930s Shanghai occupied by the Japanese, Fist of Fury saddles Lee's character with so many humiliations—the murder of his teacher, pervasive discrimination, ugly taunts from oppressors—that he erupts into violence, beating his opponents to death and then hanging their corpses from street lamps. It was so popular a role that Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Donnie Yen played versions of it.

By the time Lee took over directing chores for The Way of the Dragon, he had a worldwide following. It wasn't just Lee's training regimen or physical skills that drew fans, it was his screen persona, one that spoke directly to a new generation grappling with racial politics.

Like other pop icons, Lee found a way to synthesize old and new styles, addressing traditions in terms young fans could appreciate. Hui points out that more than any of his peers, Lee was multicultural. Both a consumer of American pop and an artist within that system, he mastered the tools necessary to bring Chinese cinema into a world market.

"Usually martial-arts masters in film were honorable, moralistic, measured, they were all about discipline," Hui says. "Bruce Lee plays characters who at times are reckless, extremely violent, he's someone who loses himself in action. Hong Kong viewers could see him as part of a continuum, but even for them his appearances caused a sensation."

Just as important as his action, Lee decided to play outsiders, underdogs, illiterate country bumpkins. In his roles Lee befriends the poor, the young, prostitutes, mixed-race outcasts, and in Enter the Dragon, even foreigners.

The Way of the Dragon marked a turning point for Lee. He started to explore comedy, especially in a long opening sequence played without dialogue. His screenplay looked into the consequences of violence, acknowledging that fighting didn't always solve problems. And he began to humanize his villains, adding layers of complexity to what had been simplistic plots.

Game of Death promised further growth on Lee's part, but he had only finished about fifteen minutes of usable material before he started Enter the Dragon. That film would earn over $100 million in its worldwide run. Sadly, Lee died of a cerebral edema three weeks before its release. Game of Death was finished years later with help of stunt doubles and stand-ins.

Lee's fighting style, what actor Yuen Wah called "the way of the intercepting fist," had an incalculable impact on both his peers and a succeeding generation of martial artists.

The actor's extraordinary physique, his high kicks, blindingly fast punches, feline screeching and icy glare all contributed to his menacing screen persona. The fact that he took on Caucasian and black opponents made him even more popular with Asian viewers. Conceiving and controlling his own movie projects, Lee helped bring about a renaissance in Hong Kong cinema.

Hordes of imitators followed after his untimely death, success eluding most of them. Performers like Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah, all of whom actually worked with Lee, adapted his style and philosophy for their own work. (Chan in particular made a career from inverting Lee's characters, largely exchanging comedy for drama.) Jet Li paid homage to Lee by remaking Fist of Fury. Even comedian Stephen Chow took the time to honor Lee. In King of Comedy Chow's character tries to restage Lee's movies for a tiny community theatre. Shaolin Soccer features a Bruce Lee-lookalike as goalie.

Lee's influence stretches far wider and deeper than the kung fu genre. Asian martial arts have infiltrated Hollywood action movies to a degree unimaginable a generation ago. Kicking was considered cowardly in old westerns. Now it's an essential part of an arsenal of moves—leaps, flips, stick fighting, knee and elbow strikes—in blockbuster franchises like The Fast and the Furious and Star Wars.

What Bruce Lee might have accomplished can be debated endlessly.  The five features in this series prove that despite his imitators, Lee was inimitable.