Few people make as big an impact on society that such a wide array of cultures, generations and lifestyles can identify with their contributions and legacy as Bruce Lee has left on not only America but the entire world. Find me a place, country or scope of society that Bruce Lee has not transitioned into and I will show you a matter not worth perusing. Everywhere we look nearly 40 years since Lee’s death we can find his footprint and inspiration.
If you would like to begin with the most benign and wide range of impact let’s begin right with marketing. Bruce Lee’s image is selling Brisk Ice Tea to a generation of grandchildren that have never seen a Bruce Lee film, yet they all know and recognize his image and needs no introduction. Not only does the Master sell beverages but he helps you make calls too, with a touch of Nokia branding… frankly how Bruce Lee playing ping-pong in his Game of Death yellow and black jumpsuit with a set of nunchuku relates to mobile phone calls I have no idea but the commercial was cleaver no doubt. I could research and list commercials for another 4,000 words but this is not a foray into the marketing strength of his imagery.
Even more than marketing you could write an entire PhD dissertation on the influence of Bruce Lee in modern cinema and that would just be the obvious references. You could argue that the only Kung Fu films not influenced in some way would be those filmed prior to Fist of Fury, I would not argue, but lets look at the more obvious instances of influence.
“The Last Dragon” a Barry Gordy film from the 1980’s that portrayed the young “Bruce” Leroy Green who is pushed to fight for the safety of his family, more than just the character’s name the entire film is an homage to Bruce from the outfits, to the dialogue to the moral. Some critics shun the movie as 80’s teen cinema, but I find few films with the staying power of “the Last Dragon.”
You could look for more obscure films such as “No Retreat, No Surrender” which finds a young bullied martial arts fan running from the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme until the Ghost of Lee comes from his poster to train and inspire the hero to save not only himself but the entire City of Seattle (Bruce’s American Hometown) from mobsters.
But easiest to spot for anyone with interest in the genre would be the many incantations of Bruce Lee imitators that arose after his much too early death in 1973. Actors, or but yet Bruce-impersonators like Bruce Li (Bronson Lee, Bruce Chen, Bruce Lai, Bruce Le, Bruce Lei, Bruce Lie, Bruce Liang (also known as Bruce Leung), Bruce Ly, Bruce Thai, Bruce K.A. Lea, Brute Lee, Myron Bruce Lee, Lee Bruce, and Dragon Lee all graced the covers of VHS films of little quality to cash in on the power of his image. Most famously Bruce Li was chosen as the actor to finish the scenes for Game of Death following Lee’s death before going on to film a laundry list of films such as Fist of Fury II, The Image of Bruce Lee, Fists of Bruce Lee, Bruce Lee’s Secret and many more following until the mid-80s.
While most cultures and age groups have embraced Bruce Lee as an innovator and inspiration, no culture has taken to Bruce Lee like our African-American brethren. Bruce has crossed into so much of black culture that he almost seems like he was born to be black. The 1980s in NYC were crazed with Kung Fu-mania and you could not find a street without young men dressed in Bruce Lee influenced style. While he was not an imitator, Ron Van Clief was deeply influenced by Lee. Clief went from Marine to Police officer, to Actor after meeting Bruce in the 1970s to become the most well know African-American Kung Fu star during its peek. After his acting day ended Clief moved on to stunt coordination and even a stint at training the US Secret Service as well as a more than amazing professional fighting record of 110-8 leaving most opponents scared before the opening bell.
When you consider Bruce Lee in music look no further than hip-hop and his name and image are used almost as frequently as an analogy and one of hip hops biggest names the Wu Tang Clan created there entire style after the Eastern Culture of martial arts.
No place on Earth is out of the reach of Lee’s Legacy, the most famous face of the NBA today Kobe Bryant is a die-hard Bruce fanatic, so much so that his latest line of sneakers was heavily inspired by a combination of Enter the Dragon and Game of Death colorways and the tiger claw scratch.
How deep can it go? Clothing designs, toys everywhere you turn, video games to this day still use Bruce’s imagery and even iPhone apps that simulate Bruce’s signature howls and screams every time you shake your phone. Like I said in my opening, find me a corner of God’s Green Earth that is untouched by Lee’s influence and I will show you a place void of life and in need of revitalization.
Lee was not just a famous face, he has become a lifestyle for so many.