Here at Daily Grindhouse we’ve made an internal commitment to exploitation. It’s our lover. Our mistress. It fuels us and sustains us. But I’m the first to admit that all of this exploitation tends to muddle our brains regarding what is and isn’t in bad taste. It takes someone going way overboard to offend me, and my natural response is usually to be impressed rather than sickened. I have to applaud the effort. But even my own twisted soul has a sense of morality that, when crossed, makes me feel a bit spiritually icky.
Now, let’s start with a quick and dirty history lesson. Bruce Lee dies suddenly in 1973, leaving a huge void in martial arts cinema. After the requisite ten minutes of mourning, the major studios all start scrambling to find his successor. There were attempts to groom charismatic young performers into superstars. Some respected names were given opportunities to take it to the next level. And when that didn’t work, they started the cloning process. Not literally, of course. That came later.
But soon after Lee’s death, a massive number of imitators started popping up. Some were skilled performers in their own right, while some were hired strictly because of an (often minor) physical resemblance to Lee. Heck, even Jackie Chan started out as a Bruce Lee imitator in NEW FIST OF FURY (a half-baked remake of the Lee classic) before developing the comedic kung-fu style with which he made his name. But the most memorable stars of this new genre of Bruceploitation had names like Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Lai, Dragon Lee, or (this is a favorite) Lee Bruce. And, in a particularly scummy move, the films in which they would star – sometimes unofficial sequels or remakes of Bruce Lee’s films, sometimes ill-conceived bio pics, sometimes misguided tributes – would often be listed as starring the ACTUAL Bruce Lee, just to keep us all as confused as possible. Oh, but save your disgust. There’s more!
You see, while Bruce Lee only ever made four and a half (including GAME OF DEATH) films when he was alive, he had actually been a child star in China where he had appeared in a number of films throughout the 1950s. Occasionally, this older footage would be re-appropriated (and re-dubbed) into these Bruceploitation features so that the makers could somewhat legitimately credit Bruce Lee as appearing. Losing your lunch yet? Oh, we’re just getting started. Lee’s death and funeral were a massive event, and covered by media from all over the world. Footage of the funeral procession, as well as of Lee in his coffin, were broadcast internationally, along with footage of the throngs of fans who mourned him. Truly a momentously sad occasion.
Except when that footage is taken in prime MONDO style and inserted into a new Bruceploitation film! Yep, numerous times producers literally used Bruce’s corpse to hock their cheap pieces of celluloid, jamming “documentary” footage into their films. Perhaps no film capitalized quite as ridiculously as the memorably titled BRUCE LEE FIGHTS BACK FROM THE GRAVE, which despite an INCREDIBLY garish cover and opening scene (featuring Lee’s gravestone being struck by lightning) doesn’t provide as many bad-taste thrills as you might expect. Much more promising is Joseph Velasco’s 1981 THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE, which is sort of the IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD of Bruceploitation films, seeing as it not only includes FOUR of the most popular imitators, but also a collection of some of Bruce’s co-stars who apparently thought starring in a film which nearly literally kicks the corpse of their former associate would be a good idea. Or maybe they just did it for the money.
We begin – predictably – with the death of Bruce Lee. His (or, close enough) body is brought to a hospital where a team of doctors work, and fail, to save his life. And then things get ridiculous! Colin – played by token Brit Alexander Grand – of the SBI (the Special Branch of Investigation) immediately arrives to confiscate the body, and pass it over to the crazed Professor Lucas (Jon T. Benn, from WAY OF THE DRAGON) who takes a few blood samples and – you guessed it – begins the CLONINATION. Apparently something was a bit off in the mix, however, since his three clones end up looking quite different – and none much like the actual Bruce Lee. Nevertheless, they are each strapped into a head-plate while Professor Nutball uses a few classic mind control techniques (“I will command you. I and I alone.”) to get them under control.
Ok, now let’s see who we have. Just try and keep them straight. Bruce Lee #1 (and, yes, they refer to themselves by number) is played by Dragon Lee, a Korean actor proficient in taekwondo and hapkido who – if you squint quite a bit – looks a teensy bit like Bruce Lee. He’s also the most impressive of the collection of imitators on display here, showing great physicality in the many, many fight scenes. Bruce Lee #2 is Bruce Le, who worked at Shaw Brothers until the late 70s where he started making Bruceploitation films exclusively. Titles like THE RETURN OF BRUCE, BRUCE AND THE SUPER HERO, and BRUCE – KING OF KUNG-FU. He has an impressive physique, and has the usual Lee mannerisms – howling, flicking his nose with his thumb, beating the shit out of people – down, but is different enough facially that they keep him in giant sunglasses for most of the film. Also in sunglasses is Bruce Lee #3 who is played by Bruce Lai, an actor with some impressive early credits who eventually ended up working with Godfrey Ho – pretty much the lowest point a person can hit. He’s the least impressive Bruce Lee, which I guess is why he got stuck with #3.
So, we get a few training sequences. Bruce #1 trains with veteran kung-fu player Kong Do, who sports a jaunty moustache while the theme from Rocky plays. Yes, the actual theme. Let’s try not to think of the legal ramifications while we’re watching a film called THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE. Bruces #2 and #3 (who oddly appear separated from #1 for almost the entire film) train with the legendary BOLO YEUNG (from ENTER THE DRAGON) who really, really should have known better. They are trained in the five techniques – Dragon, Tiger, Snake, Panther, Crane – though they never really come up again. But apparently the training comes to an end, as Bruce #1 has been assigned to infiltrate the devious Chi-Lo, who is both a prominent drug lord AND the head of a movie studio.
The SBI get Bruce #1 a job as an actor in one of his films, since what better way to not seem suspicious than to star in films while looking like the most recognizable Asian actor the world has ever known? Everyone is super impressed by Bruce #1, but Chi-Lo is immediately a bit wary, so decides to have him killed – sending two assassins who go by the names WHITE PANTHER and QUICK TIGER. Bruce makes short work of them, and this is a great opportunity to mention that the sound effects in this film are just desperately bad, and we’re talking about a genre that is flooded with awful sound. Every kick makes the exact same sound, like a particularly cheap NES game. But what did I expect? The director comes up with a brilliant new plan. While Chi-Lo heads off to dig up his hidden gold (“Burying it was a clever move”), he’ll keep Bruce #1 busy on set, before having the actors ambush and kill him. But this is Bruce Lee(‘s clone)! He demolishes them easily, until they all run away – catching up to Chi-Lo who is escaping on what appears to be a pirate ship. Fake Bruce jumps aboard and continues his brutal assault. Chi-Lo is concerned, but one of his goons reassures him by shouting “Do not fear! He will die!”. He is incorrect. Bruce #1 keeps punching and kicking until everyone is unconscious.
Now, THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE is a tad episodic. It’s sort of all over the place, and I can only imagine that the actual shooting was done depending on availability, since we’re now WHISKED off to the most magical place on earth: THAILAND! Bruces #2 and #3 are tasked with tracking down the insane DR. NIGH (not the science guy) who has developed a liquid that immediately destroys plant-life, as well as a serum that turns ordinary men into.. metal. I am not making this up. The two Bruces meet up with their SBI contact Charles Li Singh who, despite not being another clone, is played by Bruce Thai – another Bruce Lee lookalike! To save on confusion, we’re given possibly the most exploitive scene in the history of cinema. Bruce #3 wants to go swimming, so Charles takes him to a beach which just happens to have a collection of beautiful, naked ladies cavorting around and saying things like “All we need now girls is a man!” while rubbing themselves. They immediately attack (sexually) some random creep that wanders by, forcing him into the fetal position as they dog-pile on top of him. And that’s it. Completely and totally superfluous.
Bruce #2 has his own issues, and is attacked by a topless woman who gets chopped in the throat by a returning #3 (along with Chuck). The three head to Nigh’s hideout and just pummel everyone in sight. For some reason, the people in this universe have never heard of guns. Or arrows. Or any weapon that doesn’t involve them getting their skull crushed in hand-to-hand combat. Meanwhile Nigh is in his lab testing out his grass-killer and saying things like “Soon I will conquer the whole world!” and “Today we conquer Thailand. And tomorrow the entire world!”. What a nut! The two Bruces (along with the not-quite Bruce) break into the lab and destroy all of the scientists – along with Bruce Li cleverly dumping the liquid onto the face of one particularly groveling a defenseless crony. Hey! That’s murder, ya goof! But Nigh escapes and starts using his “turn skin into metal” drug to create a race of super-soldiers who go “PING!” when you try to hit them with things.
Now, we get to the DUMBEST moment in the entire movie. Finding they can’t do damage to the metal-skinned goons, the Bruces get an ingenious idea – let’s poison them with grass! Yeah, we’re introduced to this poison grass concept in a bafflingly awful scene where a metal-guy just happens to fall face first on some, and just happens to eat it. Apparently, like cats, men with metal skin can’t help but chew and swallow anything that is put in their mouths. This works to their major disadvantage when the Bruces, instead of using their kung-fu skill, just pie-face them with grass until they all keel over. Movie magic! They also grab Dr. Nigh and, of course, beat him into submission.
The SBI are overjoyed at this result, but Clone-creator Dr. Lucas is pissed off. Thinking he’s not getting enough credit, he decides to put the clones against each other, which finally gives us our long-craved Bruce on Bruce action. It’s fine, but the choreography is uninspired, and certainly it’s lacking the intensity of the actual Bruce Lee films. Some helpful nurses manage to break Lucas’ mind control by snipping the wires on some machines – or something – and the three clones team up to finally take down Lucas (as well their two trainers, including Bolo!), who gets arrested by Colin and is theoretically tortured to death by the mysterious SBI. And in grand kung-fu fashion, things end immediately!
I suppose it’s all a bit too ridiculous to be truly offensive, but THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE is truly a bizarre piece of work. I mentioned its episodic nature, and it really does feel like a collection of ideas – and even scenes from different films – that have been jackhammered together with little respect for continuity or common sense. This frankenstein approach to film-making actually makes it feel a lot like a Godfrey Ho film, which definitely isn’t a compliment. While it’s a bit of a treat to see familiar actors from Bruce Lee’s films, their appearance really is depressingly exploitative – particularly as they don’t really do anything of note.
While fans of these films will be interested in seeing some of the Bruceploitation stars face off, none of the fights end up being very memorable, despite the performers generally being very capable. Still, it’s definitely packed with fights – and it is fun to seeing these Bruce sorta-lookalikes steamroll through endless throngs of baddies, especially when wrapped up in a silly science-fiction plot. While I have to admit that I would guiltily watch a CLONE OF BRUCE LEE television show modeled after CHARLIE’S ANGELS, there’s nothing here to interest fans of quality kung fu, aside from a few jaw-droppingly awful moments. It’s all goofy fun, but is neither self-conscious enough nor oblivious enough to be anything but an oddity.
NEXT WEEK: PROJECT A (1983)
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