1 of 5 | Dragon Lee wears a yellow track suit like Bruce Lee's iconic one. Photo courtesy of Severin Films
LOS ANGELES, Sept. 22 (UPI) -- Bruce Lee died in 1973, just as his movie career was taking off. Enter the Clones of Bruce, which screened at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, explores the martial artists caught up in the exploitative wake of Lee's death.
Opportunistic producers sought out martial artists who could imitate Lee's style. Those actors would take stage names like Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Liang and Dragon Lee.
Those three and others appear in Enter the Clones, in which martial arts filmmakers, studio executives and international film scholars discuss the "Brucesploitation" phenomenon.
These performers had an impossible task. At best, they'd never replace Bruce Lee, and at worst they all were just actors doing the bidding of sleazy producers trying to cash in on Lee's legacy.
Enter the Clones finally gives them a chance to talk about their real efforts. Many of them approached the job with a genuine respect for Lee and desire to teach viewers about Lee.
That's not necessarily how producers presented the final cuts of the films. Some of the clips still look pretty impressive, and one can find many of these titles streaming on services like Tubi or Freevee. The scholars will steer viewers away from the worst of the lot.
While it honors the performers, Enter the Clones doesn't let producers off the hook. Some films went so far as to put the real photo of Lee's body on the promotional poster, and others included real footage of his funeral procession.
If nothing else, Enter the Clones points out the differences between movies that, on the surface, all look like the same thing. Some are actually more nuanced. Others are completely outrageous with "Bruce" fighting gorillas and mummies.
All of the clips are dubbed into English, including the real Bruce Lee movies. Perhaps the imitators did not find it worth seeking out original Chinese language editions.
The film concludes with the "clones of Bruce" sharing where they are today. It's bittersweet that they could not continue in film, as they were too tied to Lee by that point to survive once it became passe.
Some survived family tragedies, as well, but it is heartening to see each actor found a fulfilling career outside acting.
Imitation Bruce Lee movies have always been a dubious corner of the martial arts film industry. Enter the Clones of Bruce doesn't try to defend them, but explains how and why they came to be, and who even made them possible.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.