The story of the legendary martial arts icon Bruce Lee following him from Hong Kong to America and back again.
Growing up in Dublin, Ireland in the ’70s and ’80s, there wasn’t a whole lot for a kid to do outside of school so my friends and I would rent kung fu movies from the local video store and play them repeatedly, and then we would spar each other out in my back yard, utilizing the techniques we had just watched. The three masters we would watch constantly were Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee being our personal favorite. Mr. Lee made many movies as a child actor but the films he made as an adult, and which became worldwide box office hits and cemented him as a martial arts legend were “The Big Boss” (1971), “Fist of Fury” (1972), “Way of the Dragon” (1972), “Enter the Dragon” (1972) and of course, his final movie, “Game of Death.” While the release date for “Game of Death” is listed as 1978, five years after Mr. Lee’s death, this appears because prior to starting work on “Enter the Dragon,” he had already shot over 100 minutes of footage for GOD, halting production to appear in ETD as it was to be his first, and sadly, final, Hollywood blockbuster. He had planned on finishing GOD after ETD but that never happened. Since his death in 1973, he has spawned countless martial arts knockoffs, not just films but also actors who called themselves Bruce Le and Bruce Li, and who changed their appearance to look exactly like Mr. Lee. The man was, and still is, larger than life and that is why I was so excited to review “Legend of Bruce Lee.”
I thought it was a new show, highlighting Mr. Lee’s life but upon watching it, I realized it was actually a 2010 TV series that I had seen a few years back actually titled “The Legend of Bruce Lee.” The series runs over three hours long and Well Go USA Entertainment, who is releasing the show in the U.S., is distributing it in three parts, Volumes I, II, and III. Well Go USA releases most of their movies on Blu-ray and DVD but in this case, “Legend of Bruce Lee: Volume Two” is only available on DVD but that’s okay, the transfer quality is top-notch, even though the show is not.
It chronicles Bruce Lee’s life from that of a young man to his untimely death in 1973 at age 32. The actor who portrays Mr. Lee is Danny Chan, an actor, and musician whose physical resemblance to Mr. Lee is uncanny, to say the very least. He is the one saving grace of the entire production, as he exhibits Lee’s mannerisms, facial expressions, and physical traits emphatically. As a young man, Bruce Lee was told by his father, never to fight but upon being bullied and oppressed at school in Hong Kong by mainly British students, he begins to learn martial arts for himself, his reluctant father eventually allowing him to do so. In 1959, Bruce moves to Seattle in the United States where he eventually opens up the Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, the very first martial arts school to teach non-Chinese students. When the Chinese community demands that Lee stop teaching his foreign students, he refuses, stating that the best way to inform the world of their culture and martial arts techniques, is to instruct and train them. Lee is then given an ultimatum: fight Wong Jack Man, a Chinese martial artist, and teacher and if Lee wins, he can continue teaching at his school but if he loses, he will have to shut down his school. He agrees and after the fight, he is crowned the winner. Upon learning that he has lost, Wong attacks Bruce from behind, slamming a large wooden pole into Lee’s back, crushing the lower part of his spine. Wong is dismissed from the community and Lee ends up in the hospital, unable to walk and with the threat of living in a wheelchair the rest of his life. Eventually, Lee, utilizing Chinese training techniques, regains his strength and is able to walk again.
After trying his luck in Hollywood, having appeared in the short-lived TV series “The Green Hornet,” Lee returns to Hong Kong to star in “The Big Boss,” which eventually becomes a global blockbuster and elevates Lee to superstardom, in China anyway. He goes on to make several more movies, “Fist of Fury,” “Way of the Dragon” and as he starts production on “Game of Death,” he is called back to Hollywood to star in “Enter the Dragon,” a co-production between the U.S. and Hong Kong. However, six days before the film’s release, Lee dies but the movie goes on to become one of the highest-grossing of the year and turns Bruce Lee into a global superstar.
As I stated earlier, I spent my teen years idolizing Bruce Lee and learning as much as I could about him but with “Legend of Bruce Lee,” the producers apparently did not do their homework. While the fight with Wong Jack Man did, in fact, transpire, with several witnesses present, including his wife Linda, there was never any mention of Wong stealthily attacking him with a pole and sending him to the hospital with an almost broken back, this appears to have been added to the production for dramatic purposes only. Understandably, this happens a lot, especially when a show is talking about a real life person but in this instance, I felt it was totally unnecessary as Mr. Lee’s life was already filled with an abundance of drama and fighting. The show also states that Lee, after finishing production on “Enter the Dragon,” returned to Hong Kong where he proceeded to begin filming on “Game of Death.” Anybody who knows anything about Lee knows that he actually started shooting “Game of Death” first, then halted the production to go to Hollywood to shoot “Enter the Dragon” and then after that film was completed, returned back to Hong Kong to wrap up “Game of Death.” Also, Dan Inosanto, a Filipino-American martial arts instructor, who was friends with Lee and who introduced him to nunchaku, and who also appeared in “Game of Death” opposite him, did not have facial hair in any of his scenes but in “Legend of Bruce Lee,” the producers must not have had the time to double check this fact, as minor as it was, as their Dan Inosanto, while physically resembling the real Mr. Inosanto, sports a goatee in the film.
“Legend of Bruce Lee” also commits a big no-no in filmmaking: pandering to its audience. At one point, Lee tells one of his friends that he wants to fight all of the top martial arts teachers in the area, not to win or lose, but to learn from their techniques and to take out all of their weaknesses and replace them with his own strengths for his own form of kung fu that he is putting together which would eventually become known as Jeet Kune Do, with emphasis on practicality, flexibility, speed, and efficiency. After the fight, his opponent asks why he did not attack him with more force and before Lee can answer, the opponent immediately understands Lee’s actions, repeating to him what he told his friend beforehand, almost verbatim. How would his opponent know this, having never met Lee before? This happens repeatedly, just in case we didn’t catch it the first time and after the third instance, it begins to feel completely redundant. When Bruce is at home, still unable to walk, his son Brandon is taking his first steps and just as it looks like he will fall to the floor, a mere few inches away, Bruce miraculously jumps up out of his chair and grabs the infant, almost as if his life depended on it. When Linda, in a state of shock, says that he can move again, he goes on to state that he will indeed walk and not only walk, but train like never before, all the while accompanied by an overly melodramatic, saccharine-filled score, reducing its audience not to tears of joy, but rather, tears of mortifying affliction.
“Legend of Bruce Lee” has its heart in the right place, it so desperately wants to be the definitive version of one of cinema’s most charismatic and exemplary martial artists but given its poor production quality, hampered by a rushed feel, and terrible performances, Danny Chan’s aside, years from now, it will not be remembered for contributing anything worthwhile to one of the greatest martial artists who ever lived. If you’re looking for an in-depth analysis and thoroughly insightful documentary about Bruce Lee, check out “Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey” instead, it will give you a better understanding of the man and the myth than this incarnation.
Now available on a Three-Disc DVD from Well Go USA