Despite completing only four films (a fifth, 'Game of Death,' was never finished), one season of 'The Green Hornet' TV series in the mid-1960s, and a handful of minor film and TV roles, Bruce Lee left an indelible mark on moviegoers and film history. Lee died at the age of 32 from an allergic reaction to medication only days before the premiere of the Hollywood studio-financed 'Enter the Dragon.' He didn't get the chance to see 'Enter the Dragon' become a major commercial hit, based primarily on his star-making turn, or the long-lasting pop culture influence his last film would have on Western audiences, including countless imitations on film and related media (e.g., Marvel Comics' Shang Chi character), and a renewed (if not just new) curiosity in studying Asian martial arts.
Born in San Francisco, but raised in Hong Kong, Lee didn't return to the United States until he was a teenager, studying philosophy (among other subjects) at the University of Washington. A serious martial arts student, he developed his own variation on Wing Chun (a form of Kung Fu), Jeet Kune Do, opening his own school in Oakland and after being discovered at the Long Beach International Championships, Lee headed for Hollywood, winning the role of Kato, martial arts-trained bodyguard and driver to Van Williams' Britt Reid/Green Hornet, an adaptation of the radio series that first aired in the mid 1930s. 'The Green Hornet's' millionaire playboy character by day, costumed vigilante character by night, served as one of several inspirations for Bob Kane and Bill Finger when they created Batman in 1938.
'The Green Hornet' TV series functioned as the "serious" counterpart to the campy Adam West-starring 'Batman' series (1966-1968), and lasted only one season (September 1966-July 1967). Despite the differences in tone and approach, the Green Hornet and Kato made two guest appearances on 'Batman.' Subsequent acting roles were difficult to come by for Lee, but he made a memorable, if brief, impression as assassin Winslow Wong in the otherwise unremarkable 'Marlowe,' a 1969 update of Raymond Chandler's detective starring James Garner in the title role. With the exception of walk-on roles and behind-the-scenes choreography (e.g., 'The Wrecking Crew,' 'A Walk in the Spring Rain'), Lee's career in Hollywood was at a standstill (a pitched project, 'The Warrior,' also failed to gain traction), convincing Lee to return to Hong Kong.
There, Lee made three films in quick succession, 'The Big Boss' (a.k.a. 'Fists of Fury'), 'Fist of Fury' (a.k.a. 'The Chinese Connection'), and 'Way of the Dragon' (a.k.a. 'Return of the Dragon'), each one a bigger commercial hit with Asian and non-Asian audiences than its immediate predecessor. What the films lacked in storytelling craft or complexity, they made up with Lee's charismatic presence and martial arts moves.
Each film gave Lee ample opportunity to demonstrate his speed, quickness, and athleticism, leading, inevitably, to renewed interest from Hollywood. Lee, however, was already working on his fourth film, the never-completed 'Game of Death.' He envisioned a lengthy series of one-on-one battles with increasing difficulty and varied opponents (a definite precursor to video game storytelling) including one against NBA center Kareem Abdul Jabbar (footage from 'Game of Death' was integrated into another film with a Lee stand-in after his death). Uma Thurman wore a striped yellow tracksuit in Quentin Tarantino's 'Kill Bill' as a direct homage to Lee and 'Game of Death.'
Renewed interest from Hollywood, including the offer for Lee to headline a studio-financed film, 'Enter the Dragon,' came at a price. Still nervous about Lee's bankability, Warner Bros. paired Lee with John Saxon, a Caucasian-American actor, and Jim Kelly, an African-American martial artist. That concern, however, was misplaced. Despite limited screen time, 'Enter the Dragon' was Lee's film from the first frame to the last. 'Enter the Dragon' gave Lee, in his final film, his most iconic role: a martial artist seeking revenge for the death of his sister, a James Bond-inspired plot (with Lee as a chaste Bond), and Lee doing what he did best: Putting his charismatic presence and his martial arts skills front-and-center.
'Enter the Dragon' undoubtedly suffers from several, overlapping problems: gender-regressive attitudes and roles, a tilt toward the excesses of exploitation fare, derivative plot elements, cheesy, cornball dialogue, and stodgy staging of the action scenes by unimaginative journeyman director Robert Clouse, including the best-remembered action sequence, the final martial arts showdown between Lee's character (named Lee in the film) and the villain inside a hall of mirrors. Despite those faults, Lee's presence made (and still make) 'Enter the Dragon' worthwhile viewing. Not surprisingly given Lee's death before 'Enter the Dragon's' premiere, several images from the film became instant poster fodder for impressionable boys (and some girls).