There is a reason why most people would answer Bruce Lee when asked about the most influential martial artist turned actor. His movies (as few as they were) were not just a success in his home country, but also shaped the way action heroes were perceived in America.
Thus, the ‘80’s were completely changed, well after the death of Bruce Lee. If Jackie Chan (who was happy to have been hit by Bruce Lee with a bo staff) attempted (unsuccessfully) to come to Hollywood with Project A and Police Story, Chuck Norris became the legend he is with movies like Lone Wolf McQuade and Missing in Action.
In the same decade, a new star was born – Van Damme often said that he is a fan of Bruce Lee and his Bloodsport is clearly an Enter the Dragon adaptation. The muscle from Brussels then dominated the ‘90’s action/martial arts stage, alongside Steven Seagal.
Still in the ‘90’, Jackie Chan became the action hero he wanted in America, with movies such as Rumble in the Bronx and later on with Rush Hour. Jet Li (known for his Fist of Legend remake of Bruce’s Fist of Fury) also entered the stage, thus completing the crossover of the Asian culture with the Western one (of course, concerning just the movie industry).
Of course, in Hong Kong, the martial arts movies were still being made – however, the westerners already adopted this style of movie-making, with the Matrix and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon being the pinnacle of the genre.
In 1999, even Brad Pitt admitted being influenced by Bruce Lee’s style when shooting Fight Club.
Obviously, we cannot fail to mention Tarantino with his Kill Bill movies (we are still waiting for the third part), which are clearly inspired by Bruce Lee – but this is an understatement, since Uma Thurman’s character is obviously intended to be an homage to Bruce Lee.
One other significant film is Ong Back, whose main actor (Tony Jaa) has said repeatedly that he is a fan of Bruce. Tony Jaa’s style brought back into attention the skilled martial artist and not just the CGI and all the wires behind him (it is well known that Jaa did all his stunts, most of them seeming impossible for an average man).
In the most recent years, we have seen the rise of another martial arts style (Pencak Silat) in the Raid movies directed by Gareth Evan – just like in the case of Tony Jaa’s movies, this director also puts a great deal of interest on the actors’ skills as martial artists.
If in the case of Matrix the actors needed just a few months of training (with all the work being done by the stunt crew and the choreographers), in movies such as the Raid ones you know that you have in front of you a perfect fusion of Western and Asian filmmaking.