With the possible exception of James Dean, no actor left a bigger impact on the world of film in fewer onscreen appearances than Bruce Lee. While Lee headlined only four martial arts movies during his lifetime, those films — especially the fourth, Enter the Dragon, which Lee finished only a few months before his death — became so phenomenally popular around the world that they essentially created an international market for kung fu cinema that had not existed before.

But there was a problem: Lee had shown there was an audience for his movies just as he passed away. That left a legion of fans hungry for films that did not exist and could not be made — which in turn inspired a legion of imitators to make films that traded on Bruce Lee’s image in ways big and small. Some of these films openly claimed to tell the “real” story of Bruce Lee while featuring look-alikes engaged in outlandish battles with the Mafia or supernatural enemies. Within a few years time there was a name for these movies: “Brucesploitation,” surely the only time in the history of motion pictures that there was an entire category of exploitation films dedicated to exploiting the popularity of one man.

The history of this sordid sub-genre forms the basis of the new documentary Enter the Clones of Bruce from director David Gregory, whose previous work as a documentarian includes the highly entertaining Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau. As in Lost Soul, Gregory considers this absurd tale with a bemused eye and a light touch for blending great showbiz stories with archival footage.

Severin Films
Severin Films

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To get the full story of the Brucesploitation era, Gregory speaks to directors, producers, film distributors, critics, fans, and most importantly several of the actors who portrayed “Bruce Lee” — and often adopted Bruce Lee-esque stage names in an attempt to dupe unsuspecting customers out of their hard-earned dollars. In Taiwan, there was Bruce Li, who told Gregory that while he admired Bruce Lee and appreciated the opportunity to share Lee’s martial arts moves and philosophy with the world, he strongly disliked taking on his name.

There’s also Bruce Le and Bruce Leung, two different people both kind of pretending to be a third. We also meet Dragon Lee, a South Korean martial artist who appeared in The Real Bruce Lee. (Imagine the level of chutzpah you need to give your movie that title.) For my money, Dragon Lee bears the closest resemblance to the real Bruce Lee — if Bruce Lee had taken a ton of steroids and gotten into absurdly beefy shape.

Several of the biggest Bruce Lee knockoffs even teamed up once, in The Clones of Bruce Lee, about a mad scientist who creates clones of Bruce Lee — i.e. Dragon Lee and Bruce Le, plus two more gentlemen named Bruce Lai and Bruce Thai, who then team up to take the scientist down. Imagine The Avengers for movies with guys pretending to be Bruce Lee and you’re in the right ballpark of what’s going on here.

As that description suggests, while these films were unabashed cash grabs, they were also not necessarily without their own quirky charms. If cult films appeal to you, there’s no way to walk away from Enter the Clones of Bruce without a whole list of titles to track down. (The top of my own must-see list: The Dragon Lives Again, a 1977 thriller starring Bruce Leung as “Bruce Lee,” the famous martial artist who dies and then goes to the afterlife, where he he encounters knockoffs of other pop culture icons, including James Bond, the One-Armed Swordsman, Zatoichi, and even Popeye the Sailor Man.)

Severin Films
Severin Films

The interviews and backstage stories in Enter the Clones of Bruce aren’t quite as juicy as the ones Gregory collected in Lost Soul; few can live up to the gonzo silliness of the Brucesploitation films themselves. It also would have been nice if the film included more perspective from Lee’s family, and how they reacted to the shameless mass exploitation of their lost loved one.

What is here, though, is fun and fascinating. The era Enter the Clones of Bruce chronicles wasn’t that long ago, and yet it feels entirely alien to our own. Think of a movie star who has passed away in the last few years The imagine indie producers had made their own movies trading on his or her likeness without permission for a quick buck.

Then again, these days when an actor dies, they’re not gone forever either. Recent Star Wars films have featured appearances from the likes of “Carrie Fisher” and “Peter Cushing,” conjured with computers and artificial intelligence. The “ghost” of Harold Ramis helped his old pals in Ghostbusters: Afterlife. So I might be giving our current era more credit than it deserves.

Enter the Clones of Bruce will be playing in Alamo Drafthouse theaters around the country; find a full list of playdates here. Severin Films is releasing a box set that includes Enter the Clones of Bruce and 14 Brucesploitation films. For more information, check out their official site.

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