I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey

tn_warriorsjourneybruceleeiconIt just occurred to me that there’s a Fred Williamson movie I could’ve reviewed to go from GAME OF DEATH to DEATH JOURNEY to WARRIOR’S JOURNEY. But we don’t got time for word games. Let’s get rollin.

There are a whole lot of documentaries and TV episodes about the short life of Bruce Lee, so why did we need another one in 2000? Well, because this was the uncovering-King-Tut’s-tomb of Bruce Lee documentaries, created by John Little, a bodybuilding expert who is also considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on Bruce Lee. Little went through the archives and studied notes, sketches, outlines and footage to find out what Lee’s plans were for his unfinished movie GAME OF DEATH and what footage was shot that wasn’t used in the fake-beard version that was released (the Graverobber’s Cut). He shows through interviews and archival business how Lee’s career and evolving martial arts philosophy were all leading up to what would’ve been his masterpiece, a movie where he teaches all his ideas but through some of the best fight scenes ever constructed. Then Little unveils what was made of GAME OF DEATH, edited together with the takes Lee planned to use (luckily he wrote all this down!)

mp_warriorsjourneyOf course you can skip to the footage if you want, but I thought the first part was fascinating and the best explanation I’ve seen of how he went from gung fu proponent (yes, he spelled it with a g) to his own style, Jeet Kune Do, and ultimately to not believing in styles at all. It talks about his schools and then why he closed them and how close he was with his personal students, and how he wanted to teach on a larger scale through his movies. His widow Linda talks about why he taught people who weren’t Chinese, how he won that right through a challenge, how he saw himself not as Chinese but a citizen of the world. They talk about his refusal to take roles that made Asians look bad, and they mention the bullshit of why they wouldn’t do his show KUNG FU with him as the star. But in an interview clip he says that he understands as a business decision why Hollywood couldn’t bank roll movies with Asian leads. Of course, his success eventually changed that to some extent.

Alot of this is told very dryly with a narrator that sounds like an old educational film strip, but they also have a really good collection of clips from Lee interviews, his screen test, his office attack in MARLOWE, and a bunch of scenes that I think are from the TV show LONGSTREET but they play like a Jeet Kune Do instructional film with Lee counseling a student about his philosophy of fighting. They show outtakes from GAME OF DEATH which is pretty cool, seeing Bruce and Kareem laughing after takes and Bruce doing the nunchaku spins over and over, mad at himself every time it’s not perfect.

(can you believe that? Bruce Lee sometimes messed up on the nunchaku spins. So don’t be too hard on yourself when you screw up something you’re doing. Just try again.)

Then the movie explains what GAME OF DEATH was really supposed to be about. Forget the entire plot of the Clouse movie – there’s no movie actor Billy Lo, no faked death, no revenge. Bruce was gonna play a fighter who had retired undefeated. A Korean crime syndicate wanted to steal a treasure hidden in the top of a 5-level pagoda. No guns are allowed in the village, so a master fighter of different disciplines guards each level. Bruce’s wife and kid are kidnapped in order to force him to lead some other fighters into the pagoda and clear the way to the treasure.

So as Bruce works his way through increasingly hard levels he shows his philosophies of being like water, not fearing death, etc. He completed filming three of the levels before stopping to film ENTER THE DRAGON, so those are shown in WARRIOR’S JOURNEY.

If you’ve seen GAME OF DEATH you’ve seen some of the best stuff, but not all of it. And it all plays way better in this context. The big difference is that Bruce has two accomplices with him. So there’s plenty of great fight footage that was choreographed and directed by Bruce Lee but the GAME OF DEATH producers didn’t think anybody gave a shit because he wasn’t the one fighting. The best is when one of his partners goes ahead of him to the final level (Kareem) while he’s still fighting downstairs. I can’t believe they watched this footage and decided not to fit it in. There’s a real “Holy shit!” moment where the guy tries to flee up the stairs so Kareem just jumps up, grabs him and tosses him down. It’s basically an alley-oop skyhook with a human body instead of a basketball.

Another great moment is when some sand falls on Bruce’s head, he looks up quizzically as the ceiling thumps and quakes like a dinosaur is walking around upstairs. And it cuts to the guy rolling around on the floor and Kareem is trying to stomp on him.

The way Bruce defeats Kareem is different too. A window is broken that causes the sun to shine on Kareem’s face, and he figures out that this guy’s eyes are very sensitive to light. Not sure if that’s a birth defect from being a giant or if he’s turning into a moleman from sitting around in a dark pagoda all these years. It seems like a pretty Hollywood touch, actually, so I’m surprised they didn’t use it. But I guess their whole goal was just to show that Bruce Lee had awesome kung fu, and nothing else.

That also explains why they didn’t use the great ending where Bruce tries to stumble back downstairs but is so exhausted he has to break out a window and yell for the Koreans to come get him. It’s very fitting that he doesn’t even go up to the treasure himself. He doesn’t want the treasure. He’s just fulfilling his obligation to get his family back.

The chunk of footage pretty much works as a little mini-movie, even though there’s no set-up. It’s some of the best fight scenes you’ve ever seen, and it’s kind of funny how Bruce talks about the philosophy of what he’s doing, sometimes in voiceover. It sounds like it’s his real voice, although Kareem and another guy’s lines are obviously added by them decades later, reading dryly from a script. But that adds to the weird HOLY MOUNTAIN sort of feel of these encounters.

I rented this as a stand-alone DVD before realizing it was included as an extra on the such-and-such anniversary edition of ENTER THE DRAGON. If you have that one, please make your way to disc 2. This is more than just an extra. It’s a pharaoh’s tomb.

(don’t worry, it’s not cursed. Only blu-ray extras have high enough resolution to be cursed)

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 25th, 2010 at 11:58 am and is filed under Documentary, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

17 Responses to “Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey”

  1. Wow Vern , you sure are fast!

  2. I think the world of martial arts films can be divided into three numerically equal categories:

    1) Films starring Bruce Lee.
    2) Documentaries about Bruce Lee.
    3) Everything else.

  3. They do show the human slamdunk in Game of Death, it’s treated as a flashback about Kareem killing another star that refused to sign like Billy Lo and is pretty early in the movie.

  4. You going to do “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” with Jason Scott Lee? Funny how they try to make a fairly accurate story of his life (going off stuff I’ve seen in documentaries), but add some ridiculous stuff to make it more of an action film, like the sequence fighting the american sailors, or the meat cleaver wielding cooks, and the demonic armoured warrior coming for the souls of his family.

  5. what is the treasure at the top of the Pagoda supposed to be?

  6. Even though we’re out of legit Bruce features, I can’t recommend “The Dragon Lives Again”, in which “Bruce Lee” goes to purgatory and battles an insurrection led by Clint Eastwood, James Bond, and Emmanuelle … but it was pretty hard to resist. It’s on some 4-kung-fu-features! DVD. The transfer is terrible.

    Also suffered through an edited-for-TV version of “Bruce Lee, I Love You”, which is Betty Ting Pei’s not-at-all-subjective dramatization of their special relationship. Get on it, Criterion!

  7. Actually Lee wanted the final opponent to be Wong Shun Leung, his teacher from Hong Kong.

    this is briefly mentioned in the wiki entry as well.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wong_Shun_Leung

  8. Wait, this was an extra in an edition of Enter the Dragon!?!

    Wish I had known that, as I don’t have a good copy of that movie either; could’ve zapped two copies with one stone. Or some metaphor of that sort.

    And yay for my memory being at least partly good! {g} Now that I think of it, this doc was where I learned that Bruce (and by extension every other person who has ever used this move in film) based some of his intermediate polyglot fighting style on foil fencing stances. When I explain to students why I teach the palm-up instead of thumb-up way of holding a foil (there are pros and cons either way, but the palm-up way helps keep parries tighter and more prepared for ripostes, and helps minimize the body’s target profile) I always end with mentioning that this is where that “come here” gesture Bruce Lee uses came from.

  9. Just bought the double-disc version (after checking to see if the Blu-Ray re-release was any better; word is that it’s notably worse than an upstepped DVD, because it was never cleaned up and properly transferred). I guess I’ll donate my copy of “Warrior’s Journey” to someone. {wry g}

  10. Incidentally, Amazon has a bunch of people selling new copies of the double-disc “Enter the Dragon/Warrior’s Journey” Vern was talking about, for realllly good prices. If anyone hasn’t gotten a good DVD of EtD yet, this is the way to go. But Warrior’s Journey is available separately, too, in a good DVD release.

  11. I just want to say I’m impressed to learn that you’re called Sabreman because you use actual swords.

  12. That was my compuserve forum handle from maaannnnny years ago after Al Gore invented the internet or something. {g}

    Yes, I can teach all three ‘Olympic’ fencing styles, plus a few unofficial styles like florentine (different mixes of weapons) and schlager (saber fighting at arms’ length where movement or dodging is forbidden). Many people are much better than I am, though.

    The promo-photo I use at Amazon and elsewhere (for my novel “Cry of Justice”), features a ‘real’ (i.e. an actually edged) sword, btw. It’s a katana style blade (I doubt it’s an official katana) with Chinese stylings. I have no proficiency in THAT whatsoever, but it does look cool!

  13. You are very proficient in making annoying quadruple posts though, so kudos for that.

  14. Jareth Cutestory

    May 26th, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    Sabreman: Are there any movies that really stand out for having silly, impracticle swordfighting techniques in them? Or movies where they get the swordfighting more accurately than most?

  15. Jareth,

    Ridley Scott’s first film, the Duelist, has some very accurate swordfighting (of two or three types).

    Impractical swordfighting == lots of swings (unless for armor chopping), which waste energy but look a lot better on film than thrusts. (Note: a heavy cavalry saber duel in “The Duelist” quickly devolves into both fighters dragging their swords around trying to get enough energy to chop one another again.) Also, jumping: any good fighter will treat someone whose feet leave the ground as a ballistic object with a predictable arc of travel. (So, yeah, most wuxia fighting in Chinese movies would only work against relatively average fighters like myself. {wry g!})

    It doesn’t take much skill for a decent swordfighter to move his (or her) weapon faster than a camera can feasibly follow (or the untrained human eye either), so fight choreography ironically relies on sloppy fighting to even work.

    (Connecting back to the Bruce Lee topic: same problem, as you’ve probably heard. {g} He had to slow down his moves to be properly seen by the camera.)

    The Jose Ferrer version of Cyrano de Bergerac has a surprisingly well-designed epée duel (epée is a light rapier with a wide round bell guard, like the Musketeers are often shown using), toward the beginning, that goes on for a while but features practically every block and thrust technique in the formal canon (and a lot more proper thrusting than usual). The ‘theater’ staging of the strategy is apparent, because on a stage performance of the play (which Ferrer and the director based this film on) this kind of thing looks best while the actor is fresh; putting it last, toward the end of the play, is far more difficult, even though dramatically more interesting. (Which is also why stage versions of CdB don’t typically try to have the fight against the 100 assassins afterward! The Ferrer film blows its wad early, because the actor can rest between shots. {g})

    The best in-movie commentary on the difference between light deadly efficiency and showy cowchopping, might be in Rob Roy, where the villain has learned to fight with a light court shortsword (a style recently developed in the 1700s when the film takes place) and can just eat alive everyone else in a duel. (They were banned for duels precisely for that reason–too dangerous–despite being the ‘wimpiest’ of the three classic fencing weapons!) Rob has a far more cowchopping style with his much heavier sword, and basically loses the fight from exhaustion. (His awesome ass-pull win has nothing to do with being a better swordfighter, and everything to do with being cleverly hardcore while his opponent is taunting villainously.)

    Compared to western and Chinese films, I’ve found most Japanese swordwork to be quite accurate to the weapons, at least when using the standard katana: precise and quick, nothing flashy, parries are minimal to get the job done.

  16. how about the PRINCESS BRIDE? i seem to recall a fencer friend of mine say that it was the best (he also mentioned ROB ROY). he also said that the worst movie sword skills he ever saw was samuel l. jackson in the arena scene in ATTACK OF THE CLONES. also, that famous hollywood sword stunt guy whose name escapes me (he trained errol flynn, i believe, and worked on the original SW movies) said that viggo mortnesen (whom he worked with on the LOTR movies) was the best swordsman he’d ever worked with). not sure if that comes through in the films or not.

  17. Jareth Cutestory

    May 28th, 2010 at 6:28 am

    Virgin Gary: He’s probably not an expert in anything but pizza rolls, but Plinkett performs a neat autopsy on the fight scenes in the new STAR WARS films somewhere in those epic video reviews of his. Basically, he complains about how the choreography in the fight scene between Renton and that guy who looks like he failed an audition for Insane Clown Posse resists any emotional investment, contrasting it to the crude but effective scene where Luke freaks out on Vader. Showing the two clips side by side is quite enlightening.

    Sabreman: Your post is awesome. If Vern ever recruits us into a FIGHT CLUB type army, I think he’ll be putting you in charge of weapons training.

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