Ninja vs Bruce Lee (1978)

The first thing to note about Ninja vs Bruce Lee is, of course, that it features neither Bruce Lee (who’d been dead for five years by the time this was made) nor any ninjas. The amazing images on the cover art are taken from completely different films (the ninja is from The Super Ninja and I haven’t seen the Bruce Le film that the machine gun shot is from yet). I’m reviewing it here for completion’s sake and so fellow deep ninjologists don’t accidentally think they’ve found some kind of holy grail and give themselves a heart attack from the excitement. That said, despite the mendacity of the title, Ninja vs Bruce Lee (aka Concord Of Bruce) is by no means the worst way to spend an hour and a half…

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It’s part of the Bruceploitation boom of the mid-70s, when many actors and martial artists changed their names to things like Bruce Le, Bruce Li, Bruce Liang, Bruce Lea, Bruce Lai, Bruce Thai, Dragon Lee, etc, in order to cash in on the late legend’s name. Sometimes the movies would mimic the plots of actual Bruce Lee films, other times they’d have “Bruce” as a character in a new plot (sometimes straightforward, sometimes outlandish, like when Bruce goes to Hell and fights Dracula in The Dragon Lives Again) and, at its maddest, Bruceploitation went mega-meta and would splice in actual footage of Bruce to stories about fictional Bruces defending the real one’s honour. If you want to read more about it, I’ve written a guide to the genre over on Den Of Geek.

Anyway, one of the most prolific Bruce clones was Bruce Le and this film’s Taiwanese director, Joseph Velasco directed him in several Bruceploitation features. This is a bizarre Velasco megamix; a cut-and-paste job splicing together footage from My Name Called Bruce, Return of Bruce and Enter The Game Of Death into one mental martial arts meltdown with a new dub track and story…

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Here, “Bruce” is a secret agent working for the Hong Kong police on the trail of an antique flask that’s been smuggled out of the country and into the Philippines by a bad Japanese dude called Mr Matsuda. The Manila police force are on the trail of the flask too but it’s really a meaningless McGuffin (so gratuitous that they don’t even bother telling you who ends up with it in the end – although if you watch My Name Called Bruce, you can find out) and just an excuse for Bruce to jet-set around the far east, duffing up different dudes in different countries. Whatever is said or done and whoever’s saying or doing it, all roads lead to kung-fu chaos. The splicing of footage from three different films enables Ninja vs Bruce Lee to pack in far more fights than is normal, even for a film like this.

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There’s some camp value here too in the new, horrendous dubbing. Mr Matsuda is so villainous he walks around with a tiny kitten on his shoulder for much of the film. He has a flamboyant homosexual henchman (“Although he’s queer, he is loyal!” Matsuda explains(!)) and a harem full of slave girls in flimsy outfits. It actually looks like a lot of fun being Mr Matsuda even if he is super evil. At one point, Bruce goes undercover with a false beard to try and infiltrate Matsuda’s gang but the henchmen see through his tricks instantly, leading to the immortal line “You really think you’re acting like an antique buyer!?”

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The closest we get to actual ninjas are some dudes in funny hoods who show up at the start of the film (again, footage from My Name Called Bruce) and are never seen again. A couple of characters pass mention to “the ninjas” but, alas, any actual shadow warriors remain hidden in said shadows throughout… Looking at these guys, it’s probably for the best:

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You’re probably getting the impression this is a terrible movie. The incoherent plot, shameless splicing and relentless fighting is pretty much what the term “chopsocky” was made for but there is some appeal here for martial arts fans nevertheless. The fights are shameless riffs on Bruce Lee movies, with Bruce Le donning the yellow tracksuit from Game of Death, the black pants from Enter The Dragon and the white vest from Way of the Dragon. There are a couple of amusing comedy fights (like the one where he takes on a Buddha-like fat guy with a steel belly) and a few that are nicely choreographed but the biggest appeal is the one where Bruce takes on Lo Lieh (originally in Return Of Bruce).

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Although Lo Lieh appeared in a few Bruceploitation movies the novelty never wears off of seeing King Boxer fighting Bruce Lee, even if it isn’t quite the real thing. It’s a fight many kung-fu fans dreamed of and doesn’t disappoint. What’s strange, looking back now, is that Lo Lieh did Return Of Bruce the same year he starred in the legendary 36th Chamber of Shaolin and this is such super low budget stuff; a long, long way from the lavishness of the Shaw Brothers. Ninja Vs Bruce Lee’s locations are all cheap (it’s mostly shot outdoors in deserted areas), the film stock is terrible quality and the music all stolen from other movies (including Enter The Dragon). But I think Lieh’s appearance here is just a testament to how unpretentious so many of these old Hong Kong superstars were. They went to work, they did their jobs, they got paid. We got more of them for our buck.

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As well as Lo Lieh we get Christina Cheung as a battling police officer and she’s just incredible. She was only ever in one film (My Name Called Bruce, which is where all her footage here comes from) but she’s another actor who could’ve been A-List in another time, another place, with her stunning good looks and acrobatic martial arts skills. And that’s the strange thing about Ninja Vs Bruce Lee: Bruce Le, Christina Cheung and Lo Lieh all have tremendous screen presence and that alone elevates this Z-List crud into something bizarrely watchable. It’s a “greatest hits” (or “greatest misses” if you prefer) relic from a neglected but glorious period of Hong Kong cinema. This combined with the near-hypnotic effect of the constant action (seriously, it never lets up – literally everybody is kung-fu fighting!) meant I enjoyed the “movie” more than I probably should’ve, especially given the total absence of ninjas. You’re obviously better off watching the three original source movies if you’re looking for a remotely coherent story but as exploitation of exploitation goes, there’s something daring about such a shameless, crowd-pleasing mess like Ninja Vs Bruce Lee. So, while I wouldn’t tell you to avoid it, I would say please proceed with caution… Altogether now, hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii-ya!

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