'Bruce Lee Story': The fists are still furious, but the film is flimsy

May 07, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Now and then the movies conjure up an authentic demon, someone whose energy is so vivid, whose way of moving is so radical, whose attitude is so harsh, that he declares himself essential inNow and then the movies conjure up an authentic demon, someone whose energy is so vivid, whose way of moving is so radical, whose attitude is so harsh, that he declares himself essential in the first few seconds.

And so it was with the Chinese-American star Bruce Lee, who blazed ever so briefly and ever so brightly in the early '70s. Lee moved the martial arts film out of the junky city grind-house and the zone of camp tackiness into the suburban malls and the possibility (never realized, alas) of aesthetic distinction. With his musculature standing out on his lithe body like frozen ripples, and his eyes locked in a laser-beam glare of determination, he spin-kicked and dragon-punched his way into the collective unconscious.

"Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story" attempts to capture this blob of violent human mercury, this body in motion but never at rest, in that clunkiest of forms, the movie bio. It's sort of like euthanizing a butterfly to display it: beautiful but dead.

The movie just bumps along awkwardly, never picking up much steam, from highlight to highlight to death.

American-born Lee (played by Jason Scott "No Relation" Lee) was raised in Hong Kong where his combativeness got him in trouble; fleeing to America, he eventually opened a karate academy, founded his own style (called Jeet Kune Do) and became a minor star on TV's "Green Hornet." Then, in Hong Kong for his father's funeral, he was given a starring role in "Fists of Fury," an Asian film that broke out to worldwide success. Another movie followed; then an American one ("Enter the Dragon") and, before it could be released, a mysterious death came in the apartment of his mistress. He was 32.

"Dragon" dramatizes these stops on the road to glory, though one suspects it considerably inflates them. (Did Lee really fight a duel nearly to the death in Chinatown to defend his right to teach martial arts to non-Asians?)

Derived from a memoir by Lee's widow (and, tragically, the mother of the late Brandon), it's very much a wife's story, adoring and basically uncritical, never rigorous. It only hints at the darkness that surely lay behind Lee's drive and anger, and Lauren Holly, who plays Linda Lee, seems quite sugary. Yet at the same time, director Rob Cohen wants not only the life but the action; he wants "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Fists of Fury" combined. This leads to odd fissures.

The martial arts film, as practiced by Lee and a host of lesser imitators, was an extremely stylized form; its very artificially was part of its charm, and its fighting style was so hypercharged and overchoreographed it became dancelike, absurd and paradoxically interesting. Yet in the naturalistic genre of the biography, complete with its banal domestic tiffs and child-rearing scenes, its career crises, infidelities and bigotries -- in short, its sense of reality -- Cohen insists on re-creating some of the great Lee battles in all their phony acrobatics, with the weird sound effects and the punches that sound like haunches of beef landing on a battleship deck after falling from a satellite.

Cohen even goes in for some magic realism, depicting Lee as the object of a curse from ancient Chinese demons, as reflected in dream sequences set against ghostly vistas shrouded with fog, in which an ancient warrior 12 feet high seeks to squash the young man's dream spirit.

Inadvertently, this lends extraordinary poignancy to the movie it might not otherwise deserve: How could the filmmakers have known that the curse of the early death was yet to be visited on another generation of Lees?

The movie does enjoy one unequivocal triumph. Jason Scott Lee is a 26-year-old Hawaiian and an extraordinary actor and most of all captures what was so special about Lee: his utter fierceness. In action, he is impressive, but in many ways he's more impressive in repose, when he lets us sense the smoldering interior fury that the camera reads so well.

Jason Lee's fists beat a tattoo just as furiously as Bruce's; it holds the movie together. He may not be an authentic demon but he certainly plays one.

"Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story"

Starring Jason Scott Lee and Lauren Holly.

Directed by Rob Cohen.

Released by Universal.

Rated PG-13.

** 1/2

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