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Review of DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY (1993)

March 4, 2012 3 comments

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DRAGON- THE BRUCE LEE STORY

Universal Studios/ USA (1993)

Directed by Rob Cohen

Fight Choreographer: John Cheung

Cast: Jason Scott Lee and Lauren Holly

“I’m no bastard, I’m Bruce Lee!”

THE STORY

The bio-pic of the martial arts legend and film star, Bruce Lee mainly focuses on the inter-racial relationship between Bruce (Jason Scott Lee) and his girlfriend/wife Linda (Lauren Holly).  The film starts with Bruce as a juvenile delinquent in Hong Kong fighting British Sailors, his coming to America to start a fresh new start, dealing with racism in the 60’s, teaching kung fu to Westerners and the resistance he gets from traditional Chinese martial artists who do not want “their secrets” taught to them, and his struggle to show the martial arts and his Chinese culture to mainstream Hollywood.

THE REVIEW

Jason Scott Lee (no relation to Bruce) does a great job bringing to life Bruce Lee’s essence to the big screen.  The filmmakers made a very wise decision to choose a well-trained actor who has the skill and experience to give Bruce’s character the much-needed depth and life.  Because of this, the film gives the audience a much easier willing suspension of disbelief, rather than casting an incredible martial artist overcome the insurmountable obstacle of trying to act along with the pressure of being able to carry a movie.  We’ve seen that happen countless times over the decades where films have failed because of rigid wooden acting skills from talented and gifted martial artists who don’t know what to do with themselves when they were not fighting.  This is one of the main reasons (besides a good story) why movie critics and the general movie going audiences do not take the Western martial arts film genre seriously at all.

While watching this film, I have always felt torn because as a screenwriter, I understand that you have to condense storylines and combine characters to keep the story simple and not confuse the audience.  Screenwriters Ed Khmara, John Raffo, and Rob Cohen did an admirable job in condensing Bruce’s dense, rich, and inspiring life into a briskly paced 120 minutes, which is not an easy task.  The filmmakers were smart to focus on the romance aspect between Linda and Bruce to attract a wider audience.  But as a Bruce Lee Historian, the film was somewhat of a glossed over fairy tale or Hollywood’s multi-million dollar version of a Bruce Lee exploitation film.  Gladly, this film is leaps and bounds and nowhere near the cheesy Grindhouse classics from the 70’s such as Bruce Li in New Guinea or The Clones of Bruce Lee.

THE CHOREOGRAPHY

Having listened to Director Rob Cohen’s audio commentary on the DVD, he says that he felt Bruce’s style of fight choreography was boring and much too straightforward.  So he hired John Cheung (a former member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team) to choreograph the fights.  His reasoning was “Jackie’s style of fight choreography” was the current trend at the time of filming the bio-pic.  The problem with this theory is he mistook a film fighting style for a trend.  The reasoning is, Jackie created his style of fight choreography in the late 70’s with “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow” and “Drunken Master” because every Asian film production making a kung fu movie was still looking for “the next Bruce Lee,” recreating fight scenes the way Bruce would have done it- serious, intense, and to the point with varying degrees of success.  In order to be different and separate himself from the pack, Jackie would do everything that was the opposite of what Bruce Lee would do.  He came up with the reluctant/wise ass hero who gets into trouble but knows he cannot beat the villain by going toe-to-toe and is forced to find creative and funny ways to get out of the situation.  This was a style that would create Jackie’s film career, redefine martial arts movie fights, and would also spawn countless imitators.

As a result, I felt the fight scenes were disjointed from Bruce’s personality of meeting challenges head on and his philosophy towards the martial arts.  What I feel would have been much more interesting is to show the physical and emotional differences between the real life street fights, skirmishes, and death duels he encountered and contrast them with his kinetic and dynamic style of fight choreography for film.  However, you do see a little of the absurdity in the re-creation of the Green Hornet TV series but it was not exploited other than that small and brief fight scene.

FINAL THOUGHTS

For a man that lived for only 32 years, it still amazes me as to how much Bruce Lee has achieved in such a short life.  In order for the audience to fully appreciate the Little Dragon’s life and achievements, filmmakers will have to turn his life story into a mini-series.  This has been already done several times in Asia, but with varying degrees of success and none of the productions could not get away from being cheesy and/or exploitative.  The other reason is the unfortunate actors who portrayed Bruce had a huge task in portraying a real life person that is now larger than life and also made poor acting choices by mimicking his gestures and not delving any deeper, making their portrayal of the legend look very shallow and cliché.  So far the only portrayal of Bruce that has not gone over the top and did not coming across as a shallow one dimensional caricature was Jason Scott Lee’s portrayal of Bruce in this film.

On a positive note, it is nice to finally see Hollywood pay homage to a true legend and pioneer in action cinema and the martial arts world.  I also feel this movie was not made for true hard-core fans of Bruce Lee (like me), but more of an introduction for a newer generation of fans who were not alive or aware of his impact in the world of action cinema and hopefully pique their interest making them want to read the books he has written, the countless articles, documentaries, and biographies about him, and hopefully see his movies.  Because of that, I feel the movie has admirably done its job.

Copyright 2012. All text is the property of John Kreng and should not be reproduced in whole, or in part, without permission from the author. All images, unless otherwise noted, are the property of their respective copyright owners.

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