`Journey' has footage of Bruce Lee's last film

AMC documentary also looks at why the martial artist remains so popular

July 02, 2002|By Mark McGuire | Mark McGuire,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Dead for almost 29 years now, martial arts legend Bruce Lee still commands attention on the screen.

Perhaps it was his smile/sneer, an expression that conveyed both baleful threat toward bad guys and the unassailable certainty that they were going down. Or maybe it was the eyes, which danced between amusement and a sort of remorseless contempt.

His body - just over 5-foot-7 and violin-string taut - was every bit as expressive, capable of grace and the sort of kinetic display that seemed to push the boundaries of physical possibility. There's no way a man weighing 135 pounds (at his heaviest) could have generated that power.

There was something else that surrounded Bruce Lee. Maybe it was the 1970s vogue for Asian mysticism that made audiences want to know what he was thinking between the butt-kicking sessions - some hidden key to self-fulfillment, the decade's Holy Grail.

Maybe it was just that the camera loved him.

"I think it is presence," said Davis Miller, author of The Tao of Bruce Lee (2000, Crown). "He was a little-bitty guy who didn't have nearly that type of heat in person; [but] you put him on that screen, there's virtually an aura around him. He just glows."

Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey, premiering at 10 tonight on AMC, explores the career of the martial arts guru and actor, focusing on the film he was working on when he died, Game of Death. Lee completists shouldn't miss the final third of the documentary, which shows 33 minutes of footage, much of it never before seen, of Game of Death.

In 1994, filmmaker John Little (Bruce Lee: In His Own Words) discovered Lee's original script, story, choreography and other notes; he later tracked down the missing footage. His new 90-minute film is filled out with older Chinese film footage, television and radio interviews and even a 1965 screen test.

Lee began filming Game of Death in the fall of 1972. It was to be a breakout movie, one that outlined his philosophies on life and martial arts ("Having no way as way, having no limitations and limitation"). Lee considered himself a messenger for a new discipline he dubbed Jeet Kune Do - "The Way of the Intercepting Fist."

But Lee, 32, died in Hong Kong in July 1973 of cerebral edema (excess water in the brain cavity). The eventual 1978 release of Game of Death was a farcical pastiche: Only 11 minutes of the 100 minutes of original footage shot by Lee (who wrote, produced, directed and starred in the film) were employed. Stunt doubles and even cardboard cutouts attempted to make up for his absence.

His self-invented reputation for invincibility led conspiracy theorists to declare that Lee died from the Iron Fist, a martial arts technique known only to the shadowy Great Masters that can kill with a simple touch. The legend holds that the masters were furious at Lee for giving away too many of the discipline's arcane knowledge. (The theory, which Miller dismisses as "silly," is not discussed in the film.)

It's ironic that the circumstances surrounding his death spun a complex theory, since his theory of martial arts emphasized simplicity. His fighting style drew from a variety of sources, from karate to fencing, physics to boxing.

But there was a showman in Lee, clearly evident in the clothes (platform shoes, Elvis glasses), interviews and fight scenes shown in Warrior's Journey.

Miller, a former professional kickboxer, said Lee had three childhood heroes: Elvis, James Dean and Jerry Lewis. The talents of all three transcended language barriers.

As an adult, Lee was clearly influenced by Muhammad Ali. Lee's shuffle, condescending playfulness in battle and other mannerisms (like flicking his nose with his thumb) come from Ali. The greatest drew from The Greatest.

Lee's influence is still felt. "Virtually every fight scene in every action movie since Lee has been a martial-arts fight scene," Miller said. "We don't see The Quiet Man."

Lee's films never rose above pulp, although Miller argues that "had he lived, he would have gone on to make quite good movies. In a lot of ways you can compare him to Clint Eastwood: the Spaghetti Westerns allowed him to make Unforgiven."

Lee, forever young and sneering, never got that chance.

A Warrior's Journey

When: Tonight at 10

Where: AMC

In brief: Pound for pound, one of the more powerful stories around

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