Hailed as cinema’s first bridge between the cultures of East and West, Bruce Lee helped put Hong Kong and martial arts on the movie world map. Twenty years after his untimely death, a loving biography, adapted from his widow’s memoir, Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew, was made. The film was released only a few short weeks following the supposedly accidental death of rising film star Brandon Lee, son of Bruce and Linda. Brandon died of a gunshot wound on March 31, 1993, on the set of The Crow. Like father, like son, their demises have been shrouded in mystery, rumours, and conspiracy theories ever since. One of the strengths of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, however, is its refusal to deal with Lee’s death. Instead, the film is a celebration of how Lee lived. As such, it accomplishes what it set out to do while keeping its audience entertained from start to finish.
As adapted from Linda’s book, Dragon is entirely from her perspective, so don’t expect a hard-hitting drama. She is his biographer, and thus, Dragon spends most of its running time as a love story. As with most biopics, Dragon suffers from excessive melodramatics and sappy sentimentality. We see very little of Lee’s internal struggles and early childhood. As a love story, Dragon works well to some degree, simply because of the charisma and chemistry of its two leads. But as a story about a Chinese outsider, Dragon succeeds with its treatment of racism and stereotyping in America, especially in Hollywood, and Lee’s constant struggle to overcome discrimination. One of the film’s highlights sees Lee attending a screening of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in which Mickey Rooney is cast as Audrey Hepburn’s Asian neighbour. In that moment, Lee gets his first true glimpse into Hollywood’s discrimination against ethnic minorities. Later, Lee loses a role in Kung Fu, a TV series starring white actor David Carradine, and later when cast as Kato in The Green Hornet, the producers requested he never takes off his mask.
Where Dragon shines is with director/co-writer Rob Cohen’s direction and John Cheung’s (a former member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team) fight choreography. While Dragon might fail in giving us a complete picture of Lee, the film deftly captures the energy and exuberance of Lee’s Jeet Kune Do style of martial arts. Dragon’s fight scenes are constructed after the manner of Lee’s oddball grace, speed, and over-the-top kung fu style seen in his motion pictures. We get all of Lee’s greatest hits, including memorable re-creations of Lee as Kato on The Green Hornet, the icehouse fight from Fists of Fury, and the hall-of-mirrors climax from his most successful film, Enter the Dragon. The result is most entertaining, especially a back alley brawl set to the sound of Booker T. & the M.G.s.
Yet with all the martial arts glory, what makes Dragon a winner is the lively central performance by Jason Scott Lee, a Hawaiian actor with no relation to Bruce. Lee provides an accurate portrayal of Bruce, capturing his firm and precise physical movements as well as his sense of humor and explosive onscreen magnetism. Although he had no prior martial arts training, Lee is at his best during the fight scenes, revealing a repertoire of kicks, punches, and somersaults. With training from fighter Jerry Poteet (a disciple of Bruce Lee), he captures the practicality, flexibility, speed, and efficiency of Jeet Kune Do. In short, he is the movie’s best ingredient.
“The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.” This St. Augustine quote, which appears at the end of the film, best summarizes its tone. While many of the events of Bruce Lee’s life aren’t explored in much depth, this biography does wholeheartedly capture and celebrate Bruce Lee’s spirit.