How did a gangster use Kung Fu movies to launder money? And how did a Bruce Lee lookalike end up fighting Dracula? These are the wildest true stories from martial arts films of the 70s and the 80s.
The Star Before Bruce Lee
To many casual fans of the genre, Bruce Lee is the alpha and omega of 70s-era martial arts cinema, but there were plenty of other martial arts performers who scored substantial screen hits in their native countries and the United States. Well, at least before Bruce Lee broke into the mainstream with 1971’s The Big Boss. Among these breakout actors was Taiwanese performer Wong Yu.
Yu starred in the early Shaw Brothers hit The One-Armed Swordsman. He also helped to shift Asian action films from wuxia movies to blood-soaked brawl fests by writing, directing, and starring in The Chinese Boxer in 1970. A year later, another Taiwan native, Chinese Opera school student, Angela Mao, signed with Golden Harvest, the production company of ex-Shaw Brothers exec Raymond Chow. She would play the lead role in numerous features, including Lady Kung Fu and Lady Whirlwind. Mao displayed astonishingly athletic fight skills in her films, many choreographed by Jackie Chan collaborator and future US TV star Sammo Hung. Both Mao and Wong Yu remained popular stars in the Asian and U.S. markets for several years.
However, their successes were overshadowed by Lee’s brief-yet-meteoric rise, even though Mao would play Lee’s doomed sister in Enter the Dragon. Wong Yu moved on to increasingly smaller pictures and suffered a string of personal setbacks before returning to movies for a short period of time in the 2000s. Mao, meanwhile, left acting in the early 1980s and oversaw several Taiwanese restaurants in New York City.
Black Martial Artists
One of the primary through-lines in the book These Fists Break Bricks is the connection between martial arts and the Black Community. Inner-city black youths embraced both the self-defense disciplines and the movies themselves. The book details the lives and careers of early Black martial arts champs like Victor Moore, Sijo Muhammed, Owen Wat-Son, and Dennis Brown, all of whom faced personal and professional challenges throughout their lives. As co-author Grady Hendrix explained, “Karate champion Victor Moore couldn’t compete in whites-only venues.”
In spite of how thoroughly entrenched the martial arts were in the Black Community, Black martial artists faced a number of struggles. Jim Kelly cut a fly figure in Enter the Dragon, but he found it impossible to find career traction otherwise outside of low-budget fare like The Tattoo Connection. On the powerfully built and charming Ron Van Clief, Hendrix elaborated: “He never had a single movie produced by a major studio, finding all his work on indie productions.” “Black Dragon’s Revenge” saw Van Clief paired with skilled Latino martial artist Charles Bonet. “The Puerto Rican Panther,” as Bonet was known, also struggled to land movie work and later wound up temporarily homeless. He also struggled with drug addiction before gaining sobriety and stability with the help of his former students.
Black martial arts stars in the 80s and 90s didn’t fare much better. Taimak Guarriello, a student of Ron Van Clief, came from nowhere to capture the lead in the Berry Gordy-produced The Last Dragon, only to see stardom ripped away when subsequent film deals fell through. Billy Blanks, who starred in numerous low-budget kickboxing movies, found greater fame as the creator of the Tae Bo cardio program. Today, a handful of Black martial arts stars enjoy varying degrees of fame, including Michael Jai White, Sebastien Foucan, and stunt performers Lateef Crowder, Aaron Toney, and Bobby Samuels.
Bruce Lee’s Road To Stardom
The popular myth surrounding Bruce Lee is that he was a success in everything he attempted, from martial arts to movies in both Hong Kong and America. But the truth, as Hendrix shares, is very different. Hendrix had this to say about the legendary martial artist: “When Bruce Lee went back to Hong Kong to appear in some low-budget Kung Fu movies, he was a washed-up former child actor and C-list television star.”
Lee’s stint as a young actor in Hong Kong dramas ended shortly before he relocated with his family to the United States in 1959. His impressive physical feats at martial arts tournaments led to a screen test for “Batman” producer William Dozier, who cast him as Kato in The Green Hornet TV series. When the show was canceled after a single season, Lee went on to teach martial arts to actors like Steve McQueen and James Coburn while waiting for his big U.S. break. It never came, so he returned to Hong Kong to star in a low-budget action film for Golden Harvest.
That film, 1971’s The Big Boss, became the highest-grossing film in Hong Kong history, until its follow-up, Fist of Fury, broke its record. The overwhelming success of these two films would stand as a testament to Lee’s captivating on-screen presence and powerful performances. After establishing himself as a global star with films like Way of the Dragon, which featured a pre-stardom Chuck Norris, Lee began working on Enter the Dragon.
The film was Lee’s first U.S.-Hong Kong co-production, but the legendary actor sadly passed away four weeks before its release in 1973. Historian Chris Poggiali writes, “Bruce Lee worked so hard for so long to become a movie star that his sudden and premature death at age 32 left his growing number of fans wanting more than just four completed films.”
Though Enter the Dragon was Lee’s final completed movie, the heavily edited cult classic Game of Death was his final film project. Written, produced, and directed by and starring Lee, the film nevertheless became one of the first “Bruceploitation” flicks that emerged after the actor’s death.
Following his passing, a plethora of cheap Bruce Lee imitators jumped in to fill the massive void in the genre that Bruce left behind.
The Weird World of Bruceplotation
Hong Kong film companies, including Golden Harvest, immediately began cranking out films to capitalize on Lee’s fame. The “Bruceploitation” subgenre can be broken down into three types of films: the first type is the biopic, which employs a mix of reenactment footage with the real Lee to tell the story of the martial arts icon. The second type are spinoffs, in which Bruce Lee not only lives, but also becomes a mythical hero battling gangsters, mad scientists, and in the berserk The Dragon Lives Again, faux versions of James Bond, the Man with No Name, and even Dracula. All with Popeye as his sidekick.
The third subgenre, sequels, feature threadbare follow-ups to Lee’s biggest hits. Actors from Bruce’s original films, such as Shih Kien and Bolo Yeung from Enter the Dragon, would often appear alongside the Bruce copycats. Producers tapped a host of actors from Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea to play the new Bruces. These actors were renamed with creative monikers, such as Bruce Li with an ‘I’ instead of two ‘E’s, Bruce Le, Bruce Leung, Bronson Lee, Dragon Lee, and Myron Bruce Lee. Taste and logic rarely mattered in Bruceploitation films: in Fist of Fear, Touch of Death, footage from Lee’s childhood films is awkwardly shoehorned into a baffling plot about the search for the next Bruce Lee. All of this is anchored by footage from a real martial arts bout in Madison Square Garden, fake street fights with Ron Van Clief, and an outrageous narration about Bruce’s “samurai grandfather.”
The Kato Show
The demand for Bruce Lee movies, or any footage of Bruce on film for that matter, led distributors to get creative. Case in point: Larry Joachim, a New York-based distributor who specialized in weekend matinees for kids. Among his most successful titles was the 1966 Batman film starring Adam West.
The success of Batman sparked an idea from Joachim’s son, Marco. Marco recalled that Batman producer William Dozier had also overseen The Green Hornet with Bruce Lee. Being a die-hard Kung Fu movie fan himself, Marco suggested to his father that money could be made from the old series. Larry used his connections with Fox to wrangle some 16-millimeter prints of Green Hornet, which he turned over to Marco. Marco then watched the prints and assembled a rough cut that combined footage of Lee from the episodes into a semblance of a new story. The completed film, entitled The Green Hornet, opened in 1974 and grossed $45,000 in five days. Enough footage from The Green Hornet was left over for a sequel, called Fury of the Dragon, which was released in 1976 and played in theaters for a decade. These films remain two of the most lucrative and widely distributed examples of what would be referred to today as a “fan edit”.
The Kung Fu Gamgster
There were a number of colorful film industry figures distributing martial arts films in the 1970s. However, Georgia-based Michael Thevis took the “colorful” label to new heights, or depths, as it were. In 1973, Thevis scored a modest box office hit after acquiring the rights to a 1971 Taiwanese film starring Wong Yu called The Desperate Chase, which he retitled Blood of the Dragon. It was believed at the time that Thevis was an affluent music producer from Atlanta, who had made his foray into distributing Kung Fu films. But after the FBI hit him with charges of pornography and arson, he gained a reputation as a violent pornographer, using film distribution as a means of laundering his money. Thevis was making millions by overseeing his own peep show booth empire and wasn’t above killing a few people who stood in his way. He even went as far as placing a pipe bomb in the car of a rival businessman.
Thevis went to prison in 1974, but used his connections to Georgia congressman Andrew Young to secure transfer to a minimum-security prison in Indiana, from which he escaped in 1978. After murdering Roger Underhill, a former associate who had turned informant to testify against him, in 1978, Thevis earned a spot on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. His time in the spotlight was brief, however: the feds busted him for trying to withdraw cash under a false identity. He even earned additional convictions while serving a life sentence for telling fellow inmates about the murders he’d committed. Thevis died in prison in 2013.
Sonny and the Street Fighter
As with all film trends, the first wave of Kung Fu movies eventually wound down in the 70s, but not before the release of one of the most outrageous Asian action films ever produced. A 1974 article about yakuza movies in Film Comment convinced New Line Cinema president Robert Shaye that the next big martial arts picture might come from Japan instead of Hong Kong. A visit to Tokyo’s Toei Company did yield a gangster movie called The Tattooed Hitman, but Shaye also spotted a poster for an action thriller featuring actor Shinichi Chiba. Shaye screened the film and was floored by Chiba’s near-maniacal anti-hero and astonishingly violent set-pieces, especially one particularly memorable scene featuring the screen image turning X-ray to reveal the full devastation of a fist-crushing a man’s skull with ease.
Shaye bought the rights to the film and gave it to filmmaker Jack Sholder for an English-language cut. Sholder retitled it The Street Fighter and dubbed its star “Sonny” Chiba. The MPAA slapped The Street Fighter with an X rating for violence, which revolted most critics, but audiences flocked to the film and made it a box office hit. New Line released two sequels – Return of the Street Fighter and The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge, along with a related film, Sister Street Fighter, featuring Chiba and Etsuko “Sue” Shihomi. Other companies, such as Aquarius Releasing, snatched up more Chiba titles like The Bodyguard to further feed his fan base. Chiba, who was not a big fan of The Street Fighter himself, remained active in dozens of Japanese and U.S. action films for decades. Chiba tragically passed away from complications of COVID-19 in 2021.
Kung Fu Didn’t Mex Well
There was a feeling that the martial arts boom was beginning to tap out in the mid-1970s. As a result, producers fell back on another tried-and-true method of bringing audiences back to theaters: folding Kung Fu into other genres. Cross-pollination produced some memorable experiments within the martial arts genre: Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung scored big hits by folding comedy into action, but efforts to merge Kung Fu with other genres weren’t as successful. Shaw Brothers saw mixed results by co-producing The Stranger and the Gunfighter.
The film was a martial arts-spaghetti Western with Lee Van Clief and Lo Lieh from Five Fingers of Death. Shaw also partnered with the UK’s Hammer Studios for the horror-Kung Fu hybrid The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. From there, the mash-ups only got more dire. Shaw teamed with Warner Bros. for the blaxploitation-action thriller Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, and Enter the Dragon star Jim Kelly was stranded in crummy martial arts-sci-fi-spy oddities like Death Dimension. Efforts to release Kung Fu in 3-D, such as the Taiwanese films Revenge of the Shogun Women and Dynasty, only yielded minor returns in the States.
Chris Poggiali, one of the authors of the book These Fists Break Bricks, sums up the genre hybrids succinctly: “Mixing martial arts with comedy and horror seemed natural in Hong Kong productions, but attempts to combine Kung Fu with other fading genres like blaxploitation and spaghetti Westerns — even when the hybrids were entertaining — mostly came across like acts of desperation.”
In the world that existed prior to the internet, it was much easier to pass fiction off as the truth. Most people simply had no viable way of verifying claims, and Kung Fu film distributors at the time were all too willing to take advantage of people’s ignorance. Many exploitation outfits weren’t above playing fast and loose with the facts about titles. The “Bruceploitation” subgenre is a perfect example, as is the practice of attributing fake awards to their films and stars, like the Ebony Fist Award won by Playboy Playmate Jeanne Bell of TNT Jackson. The Deadly Knives aka Fists of Vengeance never won Karate Film of the Year, and China’s Grand Master of Kung Fu, Chang Ming Lee, didn’t endorse Iron Fists, because neither the award nor the man are real.
Sleazy film distributors were always eager to exploit new trends to promote their movies. This would often mean retitling Kung Fu films to resemble contemporary box-office winners. These included Chinese Godfather, Kung Fu Exorcist, and Kung Fu Halloween, just to name a few. Another entertaining trend was the announcement of movie projects that never existed. The fact that no script, director, or funding was in place didn’t stop Boston-based producer-distributor Serafim Karalexis from announcing Enter Three Dragons, nor did it prevent ads promoting the release of Ilsa Meets Bruce Lee in the Devil’s Triangle. That picture that would have brought together Dyanne Thorne, star of the infamous Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS and a Bruce imitator for some wacky hijinks. Unfortunately for exploitation fans, the ad is the only element of the film that actually exists.
Jackie Chan Imitators
Jackie Chan’s early career path was pretty similar to Bruce Lee’s. Both men started out as child actors, and Chan even worked as a stuntman and minor player in Lee’s Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon. After working his way up to stunt choreographer, Jackie was tapped by producer-director Lo Wei to imitate Bruce in New Fist of Fury, a phony sequel to Bruce’s breakout feature. Jackie later found his groove with comedy-action hybrids like 1978’s Drunken Master, which led to his ascension as a leading man.
After parting ways with Lo Wei, Jackie moved to Golden Harvest, where he created many of the jaw-dropping action films that made him a martial arts legend. Just as Bruce Lee’s success generated the Bruceploitation scene, Jackie’s popularity spawned a similar explosion of imposters doing their best to ape the Kung Fu star’s signature style of comedic action. Chief among them were Indonesia’s Willy Dozan, also known as Billy Chong, and Ulysses Tzan. Also on the Chan train: Korean actor Jeong Jin Hwa, who sported the incredible pseudonym of Elton Chong. In one of the most perfectly reductive mash-ups of all time, the 1981 South Korean film Jackie and Bruce to the Rescue featured impersonators of both Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.
The Next Chuck Norris
Theatrical screenings of martial arts movies took a flurry of roundhouse kicks in the early 1980s. Changing audience tastes, headlines linking Kung Fu to real-life violence, and the collapse of the grindhouse theater circuits eliminated many of the venues that played Asian action films. Mel Maron of Cinema Shares and World Northal kept many older titles in circulation through Black Belt Theater packages for television. But if you wanted to see the latest martial arts movies in the 80s, your choices were limited. Your only options were going to Chinese-language theaters in big cities to see the new Jackie Chan titles, ponying up exorbitant fees for videocassettes, or settling for the action stylings of Chuck Norris.
Norris operated on the fringes of the film industry throughout the early 70s, including a face-off against his friend Bruce Lee in Way of the Dragon. However, he vaulted to leading man status with a string of low-budget action films, beginning in 1977 with Breaker! Breaker!. From there, he enjoyed box office success that extended into the early 1980s. Attention from major studios soon followed, as did a second wave of stardom for Norris as a mainstream star in films like Missing in Action. Of course, once Norris’ characters started focusing more on guns than kicks, someone had to take his place.
Many of these would-be heroes were cut from the same cloth as Norris: young white men with martial arts backgrounds like kickboxing champion Joe Lewis, Loren Avedon, and Kurt McKinney. Each got a shot at Kung Fu stardom in films, like McKinney in No Retreat, No Surrender and Avedon in King of the Kickboxers. But they were quickly supplanted by a new crop of stars, many of whom shared the screen with them in supporting roles. This era produced a few more recognizable names: Poggiali wrote in These Fists Break Bricks — “It wasn’t until the close of the 80s, when solid box-office draws like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal filled the void left by Norris, while Cynthia Rothrock, Billy Blanks, and Don “The Dragon” Wilson became direct-to-video action attractions.”
Amateur ’80s Kung Fu Movies
Martial arts found a comfortable second home on VHS in the 1980s. Older or obscure titles gained new audiences through VHS releases, and the demand for new material gave acting and directing hopefuls a shot at making and releasing their dream projects. It seemed like anything that was feature-length and somewhat competently produced could make money in the home video market.
Many of these homegrown efforts came from places outside of Hollywood. Missouri-based detective and martial arts instructor Ron White threw down a little over $12,000 to make 1985’s Justice, Ninja Style, in which he starred as a small town ninja. Jun Chong, who starred in Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave, made several ultra-low-budget ninja pics — including L.A. Streetfighters, which featured the 41-year-old Chong as a high school gang leader.
Chuck McNeil directed a slew of home movie-style action films like Dragonspade and Dragon from the East, though the actual existence of several of his films is unclear. Despite challenges and critics, these regional filmmakers remained undaunted. Hendrix wrote in These Fists Break Bricks: “They delivered low budget cult classics like the chicken-obsessed ‘Furious’ and Grandmaster YK Kim’s ninja-riffic ‘The Miami Connection’, and oddities like Wichita’s ‘King Kung Fu’ about an escaped, Kung Fu fighting gorilla who abducts a Pizza Hut waitress and scales the tallest Holiday Inn in town.”
Ninjas Dominate 80s Pop Culture
The ninja craze in the United States was at full spin-in 1985. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had just burst out of the sewers and onto the scene, toy stores were packed to the brim with Remco’s Ninja Strike Force action figures, and ninjas were the cutting-edge of fashion for Halloween that year. Ninjas had been on the sideline of movies and television for decades, like in the 1967 James Bond feature “You Only Live Twice.” It was the release of Eric Van Lustbader’s 1980 novel The Ninja that sparked mainstream interest in all things stealthy and Japanese.
This newly stoked interest in the clandestine warriors brought about Cannon Films’ Enter the Ninja in 1980, which featured Franco Nero, the original “Django” of spaghetti Western fame, playing a ninja doing battle against an evil businessman. Few found Nero believable in the role, but the top brass at Cannon Films saw a new star in Sho Kosugi, who played an evil ninja. A martial arts teacher and minor actor in Bruceploitation films, Kosugi briefly became the go-to on-screen ninja in the 1980s. Still, his early showcases for Cannon were underwhelming, or in the case of “Ninja III: The Domination,” downright bizarre. He parted ways with the company in the mid-’80s to oversee his own films for Trans World Entertainment, including the box-office hit Pray for Death.
Cannon Films rebounded with American Ninja, a vehicle intended for Chuck Norris which instead became a star-making project for former model Michael Dudikoff. Dudikoff stars as a rather conspicuous white guy who just so happens to find out he’s descended from a long line of ninja masters. This ludicrous effort was followed by four more “American Ninja” titles. Regardless of how off-the-rails some ninja films were getting, ninjas retained their hold on martial arts fans and pop culture through toys, costumes, and video games through the early 1990s.
Godfrey Ho’s Discount Ninja
In a subgenre where plot cohesion often took a back seat to smoke bombs and color-coordinated costumes, the ninja films of director Godfrey Ho stand out as some of the most confusing, haphazardly made titles in the martial arts genre.
Ho cut his filmmaking teeth at Shaw Brothers before teaming with producers Joseph Lai and Tomas Tang of Intercontinental Film Distributors, or IFD. Together, they went on to crank out dozens of low-budget action films in international markets that were largely ignored by other Hong Kong filmmakers. The success of Enter the Ninja spurred IFD to produce their own ninja films. Many starred American actor Richard Harrison, who had been a major player in Italian Westerns and spy films in the 1960s. It didn’t matter that Harrison had no apparent martial arts abilities: the full-body ninja costumes allowed for the extensive use of body doubles during action scenes. Even though Harrison technically appeared in four IFD ninja films, including 1984’s Scorpion Thunderbolt, he later learned that Ho had edited footage of him into at least a dozen additional ninja films, each more baffling than the last. Hendrix wrote of Ho in These Fists Break Bricks. “He always wanted more. More ninjas! More explosions! More everything! As he said to his actors, ‘I can’t see your acting — more acting!’
IFD later turned its attention from ninjas to kickboxing after the success of Cannon’s “Bloodsport” starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. Ho later parted ways with his IFD partners and worked in films with Cynthia Rothrock, among others — all while enjoying cult status among fans of truly bizarre cinema.
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