50 Years Later, Bruce Lee is Still The Greatest Action Star of All-Time

Enter the Dragon / WB

There are very few actors who continue to capture our collective imagination fifty years after their last role the way Bruce Lee has. Only Audrey Hepburn even comes close to maintaining the kind of posthumous popularity that Lee enjoys. In light of the upcoming 30 for 30 documentary about Lee, let’s examine why he’s still so beloved today.

Something people don’t realize is that there are only four Bruce Lee movies: The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon, the last of which was released just days after his untimely death. Because of this, you might think that Lee’s untimely death has built his legend larger than his accomplishments in the public imagination, but you would be very wrong.

Action movies were very different before Bruce Lee made his four films in the early 70s. The biggest action star in the world before Bruce Lee was probably John Wayne, star of western and military films. This is what a fight scene from a John Wayne movie in the late 50s looks like.

That’s directed by John Ford who shot a lot of Wayne’s films, including The Searchers, one of the Duke’s best. This is not some rinky-dink production, it’s basically the 1950s equivalent of a Marvel movie.

Let’s compare that to a similar large group fight scene from The Big Boss.

Initially, aside the more advanced camera work, this scene plays out similarly to the scene from The Wings of Eagles. But things very quickly change when Bruce Lee enters the scene.

Bruce Lee hits a guy once and he goes down and stays down. This could seem like a cheap way to make a guy seem strong, but Bruce Lee makes you believe it; without Bruce Lee’s acting ability and martial arts prowess, none of this works.

People tend to think of Lee as a martial artist who made movies, and Lee was certainly an incredible martial artist, but he’s also a great actor. He’s not a guy like Steven Seagal who obviously can’t act; Lee commands the scenes he’s in and not only is he the strongest fighter, he’s clearly the strongest actor, as well. Lee actually came from a family of performers and was a child actor in Hong Kong.

You might also notice how dated the John Ford movie looks today but how the scene from The Big Boss pretty much holds up; the film is grainier and that makes it look older, but aside from that, if you put that exact scene in a movie that came out today, you wouldn’t need to change anything.

Bruce Lee advanced action cinema that much with four movies, and it hasn’t really advanced much since. Imagine what would have happened if Bruce Lee had made forty movies instead of four. Still, the four movies he did make were enough to show the world he was an irreplaceable legend, no matter how hard Hong Kong producers tried.

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