The most iconic moment in 1972's Bruce Lee vehicle The Chinese Connection, and maybe of his entire career, comes when he walks into a Japanese dojo with a sign that the Japanese, as an insult, left at his teacher's funeral. He says he'll take on anyone in the dojo, and when one guy steps up, Lee spends about a half-second dismantling him. Then he takes out another guy, and another. Every student in the dojo jumps up, surrounds Lee, tries to take a shot at him. But he just pulls out nunchakus, makes angry-cat noises, and leaves every single person in the dojo, including the teacher, lying in a moaning heap. And he caps everything off by making a couple of guys literally eat the sign.
It's the archetypal beating-up-everyone-in-thre-room scene, the yardstick by which every subsequent beating-up-everyone-in-the-room scene is judged. And here's what set Lee off: The sign called the Chinese "sick men of Asia." Lee was so mad about being called a sick man of Asia. The term apparently has deep cultural implications, but if you're not Chinese yourself, it's probably best that you just accept that it's a thing you will never understand. Bruce Lee felt like fucking up a roomful of Japanese karate students, and that should be enough for you.
After he earned some measure of international fame by playing Kato on The Green Hornet TV show, Lee made three movies in Hong Kong. When he got done with those, he did 1973's internationally funded Enter the Dragon and then died before he finished making Game of Death. So those three Hong Kong movies were all it took to make Lee an international icon and damn near a god in his hometown. They're all incredible, in one way or another, and they're all streaming on Netflix. I could've honestly picked any of them, and maybe I'll eventually get to the other two: 1971's The Big Boss is raw and mean and barely coherent, and features Lee in full haughty-dick mode; the following year's Way of the Dragon is relatively slick and confident, and has that incredible fight scene with Chuck Norris.
But I went with The Chinese Connection (aka Fist of Fury) because it's the one that drilled deepest into the cultural subconscious, the source of all those "you killed my teacherrrr" half-jokes that I hope kids still tell on playgrounds. It's the most nationalistic of Lee's movies, and it's the only one that doesn't make much use of his amazing, naturally arrogant charisma. Lee doesn't have much to do other than seethe and brood and yell (and, obviously, fight), but he still transforms the movie through sheer presence. With anyone else in the starring role, it would've been pretty boring. With Lee in there, it's a thing you need to watch if you have even a passing interest in action movies.
Lee is mesmerizing in The Chinese Connection, even in the scenes where he doesn't have much to do. When Japanese goons invade his teacher's funeral, he stays in the background, but he stares holes in everyone's heads, and you can't stop looking at him. There's a bit where he's camping in a graveyard and eating some kind of animal he's cooked over a campfire, and he glares at his meat like he's got a grudge against it. During the quiet moments before every fight scene, he's all tense, coiled energy. His eyes in the movie are crazy, and you get the sense, watching it, that his character isn't all there, that he's a danger to everyone around him.
Before that dojo fight, Lee claims that he's actually the weakest of his teacher's students, but that's obviously a bald lie. He never comes close to losing a fight in the movie, and that's not something the other Chinese fighters can say. In fact, he plays his character like an off-balance Superman, one who's so obsessed with justice that he becomes a massive pain in the ass for everyone around him.
Lee is convinced that his teacher was murdered, so he puts everything into solving the crime, even when his friends tell him to move on with his life. He singlehandedly destroys the Japanese dojo, so of course the Japanese fighters go to his school and beat everyone up when he's not there. He starts picking off Japanese conspirators, one by one, like he's Jason or something, so of course, the Japanese start killing his friends. His myopic revenge-drive turns out to be a terrible thing for his enemies and his allies and him. He's a single-minded engine of pure righteousness, and he can't stop, even if he should.
The movie isn't entirely a Bruce Lee solo show, but it might as well be. I do like the Russian strongman who looks cool when he's slamming nails into a board with his bare hands but comes off like an absolute doof when he's watching Japanese strippers. And I like the wormy Chinese interpreter who works as a translator for the Japanese and talks, in the dubbed version (the only version on Netflix), like Urkel. I like how the main Japanese underboss is a tubby guy with coke-bottle glasses and a cop mustache. But Lee is the only real reason to watch The Chinese Connection. He's more than enough.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and The Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
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Previous installments: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning | District B13 | Uncommon Valor | The Heroic Trio | Safe | Mad Max |Ip Man | Big Trouble in Little China | Sonatine | Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior | Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd | 13 Assassins |Death Wish 3 |The Legend of Drunken Master