Film Torments: The Clones of Bruce Lee (1980)
THIS TIME on Film Torments, Dan takes a look at a standard-bearer for a forgotten sub-genre.
Exploitation as a cinematic phenomenon comes in all forms and fashions. As the name implies, films that snuggle beneath this nebulous banner are designed to cater to very specific demographics; blaxploitation caters to black audiences; giallo and slasher films attract gore-hounds; sexploitation, imaginatively, slavers on the softcore porn for presumably obvious kicks and giggles (see: Caligula, for a hardcore variant). To call something an ‘exploitation’ film is, ultimately, describing something that capitalises on current trends or niches. They are usually low-budget in nature, quickly made and rolled out to cinemas or streaming websites (or places like Blockbusters before obsolescence swung round), and either deified in cult circles or condemned to obscurity.
Bruce Lee was a pop-culture icon during his lifetime, entering this rarefied air around the time of Enter the Dragon, the final film he completed before his untimely death in 1973. His passing was greeted the way these things often are: eulogies and laments first, then shameless pandering and, indeed, exploitation thereafter. Martial arts films were enjoying a huge boom in the 1970s, spearheaded by Lee’s charisma and physical prowess; ergo, lesser studios saw a gaping gap in the market, one that may not have been obvious to those of a more ethical nature.
Enter (the) Bruceploitation, a sub-genre which sought to resurrect the spirit (and box-office clout) of Bruce Lee by casting imitators in the role of the deceased martial artist. It proliferated in Lee’s birthplace of Hong Kong, where studios competed with each other to produce as many Lee-themed knock-offs as they could muster. Films like Return of the Fists of Fury, Re-Enter the Dragon and Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger gave lookalike imitators, with stage-names like Bruce Le, Lee Bruce and Bruce Leung, the chance to step into the star’s shoes. Eventually, of course, the question came up: If you can have a single man step into Bruce Lee’s shoes, why not have three?
The Clones of Bruce Lee is exactly how it sounds: Bruce Lee, having just died due to an erroneously-labelled “heart attack” (he actually died of cerebral edema, or excess fluid on the brain), is triple-cloned by the “Special Branch of Investigations” in order to conduct top-secret operations on notable criminal overlords. In a pragmatic display of federal efficiency, the three Bruces are helpfully christened Bruce #1 (Dragon Lee, sadly not the pro-wrestler), Bruce #2 (Bruce Le) and Bruce #3 (Bruce Lai), entrusted to the care of the cackle-happy Dr. Lucas (Jon Benn) and sent on their merry way across the Philippines and Thailand.
Hong Kong studio films of this era were not made for narrative or visual excellence; they existed to clear profit margins, first and foremost, and a happy by-product was showcasing impressive martial artistry. As a result, they were often made as ruthlessly and economically as possible, with the plot usually manifesting during the post-production process. Clones is perhaps the high (or low) point of this epoch, given how shoddily it hangs together. The sound completely disappears during some scenes, particularly during the prologue and a chase scene in the last third, where actors’ mouths are clearly moving and yet no voices are heard.
When the sound is present, wah-heavy funk music abruptly fades in and out during non-descript shots of a Bruce walking into frame, and every thrown punch is accompanied by a deafening “swoosh” effect. (There are, as you can imagine, a lot of thrown punches). One moment sees Bruce #1 take a deep breath prior to breaking a few bricks; the microphone in the dubbing studio sounds like it’s in the eye of a hurricane. The editing is similarly dismal, of course, with paceless cuts trying, and failing, to mask the plodding choreography of the endless array of fight scenes.
There’s a reason that Bruce Lee became as successful as he did: more than simply possessing exceptional martial arts ability, he exuded a charisma that made him magnetic to watch. He was, ironically for the purposes of Bruceploitation, inimitable, a singular presence, so lightning quick that editors were forced to slow down the frames for the camera to register his moves. While all three (four if you count secret agent Chuck, played by Bruce Thai) lookalikes are perfectly capable of copying Lee’s moves, and look impressive while doing so, they cannot hope to capture the essence of what made him so appealing.
Even the mighty Bolo Yeung, of Enter the Dragon and later Bloodsport fame, can’t help. The fight scene between Bolo and Bruces #2 and #3 is perhaps the worst in the whole film in how sloppily it’s put together; every attack lands about a foot away from its intended target, while the camera fails to convey any sense of momentum with its flat angles and random close-ups. It’s emblematic of the rest of the film’s fights, where faceless goons literally jump out of the woods to attack the Bruces to be defeated with consummate ease. This culminates in a legion of Y-front-clad “bronze warriors”, complete with clanging metal sound effects, whose only apparent weakness is consuming poisonous grass.
The film proceeds in this laborious manner for the duration of its 80-minute run-time: brief expository scene establishing some villainy or another, followed by 20 uninterrupted minutes of haphazard fight scenes, and then another brief expository scene. The camera is constantly losing focus, the film changes aspect ratio for one scene and, hilariously, a black frame appears mid-sentence. How this wasn’t caught in editing is baffling, but the more likely scenario is that the editor simply didn’t care.
At one point, an unscrupulous film producer-cum-crimelord decides that, in order to covertly assassinate the undercover Bruce #1, they will “kill him in front of the camera” with a loaded gun. This narrative beat is mercifully abandoned, since the unknowing reminder of Brandon Lee’s death is eerie enough. Of course, the unveiling of this plan is followed by this golden line: “We can capitalise on his death for years to come when this news comes out!” If that isn’t a perfect encapsulation of Bruceploitation, I don’t know what is.
There are other films within the genre that are more outright ridiculous (an unrelated clip of The Dragon Lives Again), but The Clones of Bruce Lee might be the standard-bearer in how brazen and, indeed, exploitative it really is. It is an unapologetic piece of shit; an incompetent, slapdash, morally bankrupt motion picture that traffics the legacy of a true cinematic icon… and, yet, the audacity of how tremendously shit it is becomes infectious. If nothing else, it will make you appreciate how unique the real Bruce Lee truly was, and help you understand why he remains so influential to this day.