So once again we have survived.

Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story

tn_dragonWe here in Seattle are very proud of Bruce Lee. We claim him as our own. He’s one of our icons like Jimi, Cobain, and… well, I’m not gonna say Sir Mix-a-lot. I don’t know. Quincy Jones?

Of course, Bruce was born in San Francisco, raised in Hong Kong, filmed his movies in Hong Kong. He only lived here for about 5 years. But I think it’s fair to say they were important years. Any biography of Bruce mentions that he studied philosophy, right? Well that was right here at our University of Washington. He actually majored in drama, so give us partial credit for his acting too. He started his first kung fu schools here. He met his wife here. He married her here. When he died his family still lived here, so he’s buried here, and so is Brandon. We still don’t have a Bruce Lee statue, but Linda and Shannon Lee are trying to build The Bruce Lee Action Museum here. So we got a legitimate claim, I think. We are a Bruce Lee town.

That’s why it’s so embarrassing that some dumb motherfuckers dropped the ball and got us completely erased from this biopic. mp_dragonThe University wouldn’t let them film on campus because the script depicted one UW athlete being racist toward Bruce. That seems like denial. I have a hard time believing things like that never happened to him. But more importantly, Bruce hands the racist’s ass to him (here you go – I think you dropped this) and in the very next scene the guy and all his friends are converted into Bruce’s students. The movie hardly dwells on racism. It portrays his college years as a good experience.

But somebody said no, and according to the commentary track by director Rob Cohen (DRAGONHEART, THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR, THE FAST AND THE DRAGON FURIOUS) the city of Seattle wasn’t very cooperative either. So he got pissed and rewrote the script (and history). In the movie Bruce goes to college in California, Linda is a California girl, and some version of Ruby Chow (famous restaurant owner and politician in Seattle) is in San Francisco’s Chinatown instead of ours. Oh well, they’re basically the same – liberal west coast port cities where Bruce Lee had schools. Smash together DIRTY HARRY and McQ.

It makes me sad that they didn’t film in Seattle, but I guess it’s no big deal because it doesn’t seem like too many people remember this one anyway, or have any respect for it. They complain about all the Hollywood bullshit. It gives him fictional fights – an alley brawl with the cooks at Ruby Chow’s (with him balancing on a wire and dodging cleavers), one with American sailors (where he does a flip and perches nimbly on a table like Spiderman), a huge grudge match on the set of THE BIG BOSS (captured on film but then he destroys it), and even some nightmares or visions where he’s chased by an armored demon (Sven Ole-Thorsen). The part that seems the most like Hollywood bullshit is the duel for the right to teach kung fu to non-Chinese students, but that’s based on a real event. Of course, the movie still has to set it in a spooky BLOODSPORT type temple instead of a normal martial arts studio, and they make it the source of his debilitating back injury (actually caused by weightlifting) and create dramatic conflict by having him hide it from his wife (in real life she was there).

Despite all this I really like DRAGON and think people are too hard on it. I mean have you seen any of the Hong Kong Bruce Lee biopics? Because the Hong Kong bullshit is worse than the Hollywood bullshit. BRUCE LEE: THE MAN/THE MYTH for example just has him getting in a bunch of fights to prove that Chinese kung fu is better than the fighting techniques of other countries. Then at the end it says that he might’ve faked his death and will come back in 1983. This has less lies and more truth. Compared to those movies DRAGON seems like the Maysles brothers followed Bruce around and filmed his whole life. Yeah, so it has some silly exaggerations about the type of life he lived. But it also shows him as a fully dimensional human being. It shows his family life, his philosophy, his rebellion against tradition, his struggle to become a leading man despite Hollywood small-mindedness and racism. It shows some difficulties with being in an interracial relationship in America of the 1960s.

The script is based mostly on Linda Lee’s book The Bruce Lee Only I Knew, so it really does show sides of him nobody else had bothered to show before, and (through Lauren Holly as Linda) it shows a female perspective of Bruce as boyfriend, husband, lover and father. It’s the rare Hollywood movie with a love scene between a white woman and Asian man. It’s not only about why he’s awesome, but why she loved him.

I mean, they try to show him being awesome too. The fight scenes are fun and well shot, although it’s kind of weird that they’re supposed to be real life but use a more exaggerated style than what Lee tried to do in his movies. For example the first one has Bruce doing a flip and tearing his shirt off Incredible Hulk style. But they do pay tribute to many of Bruce’s moves and weapons (of course they got him using nunchakas and wooden staffs). Although they could be a more accurate depiction of his fights I don’t agree with the complaints about them being in the movie. I personally believe that all biopics would be improved by adding 5 or 6 kung fu scenes, and here’s a rare example where it makes sense. I mean admit it, RAY wasn’t bad, but we’d all own the DVD if it had a bunch of sword fights and stuff.

As a tribute to all the other Bruce Lee imitators, Jason Scott Lee doesn’t look very much like Bruce Lee at all. But he strays from their tradition by actually trying to imitate him. Somehow with his facial expressions and poses he makes a believable (if bulkier and rounder-faced) Bruce Lee. Jason Scott not only had to imitate Bruce’s Jeet Kune Do, he also had to recreate his charm and chemistry with his wife and the pain of his struggle to make it in America. Like Will Smith in ALI he has a thankless job, trying the impossible feat of portraying an iconic human force whose presence and charisma are impossible to duplicate. But I think he does an impressive job and deserves much more credit for this performance than he ever got. And for Christ’s sake somebody give him some good movies to be in. He’s a good actor.

The movie very intentionally ends on the set of ENTER THE DRAGON and doesn’t show his death or deal with the rumors about what he was up to and what caused it and all that. It’s true, there’s no reason at this point to dwell on his death. This movie celebrates what he accomplished in his short life, and it makes it clear that his spirit is still out there. He had an enormous impact on the martial arts (especially what we now call MMA), on martial arts movies, on the careers of Asian actors in western countries, maybe even on racial relations in general. And just as Bruce Lee’s spirit lives on in our hearts, DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY’s theme song lives on in our trailers and inspirational sports broadcasts. Examples below.

starting about 1 minute in:

1:37 in:

50 seconds:

1:50:

1:16:

and there’s this one:

http://youtu.be/CpDaWDlwi2E

(of course that one’s not as weird as when I heard the theme from SUSPIRIA used for Olympic gymnastics)

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 Wednesday, May 26th, 2010 at 10:20 pm and is filed under Drama, 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.

35 Responses to “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story”

  1. I could have sworn you’ve already reviewed this.

  2. I’ve never read Linda’s book, but is the stuff about his parents dressing him as a girl when he was a child to hide him from demons true? Because that seems too crazy to make up.

  3. The thing that bugs me about this movie is the way they shortchange Bruce in the Martial Arts Challenge scene. In the movie it’s an intense, well-matched fight that Bruce wins before his opponent lays him out with a dirty trick. In the real story as told by Linda it was pretty one-sided, and within 30 seconds Bruce was chasing their best fighter around his studio because the guy was terrified of him, and the whole thing was over in less than a minute. After the challengers left, Bruce was pissed at himself that it had taken him so long to kick the guy’s ass, and set to work redesigning JKD to make it even more efficient. That scene might not be as dramatic, but it’s way funnier and shows Bruce as the obsessive-compulsive badass we all know and love. Mostly I like the movie pretty well though. It’s a decent Bruce Lee primer.

  4. Yeah vern did review this but I think it was like his Ghost Dog review. It was just a short 2-3 paragraphs followed by a review of another movie in the same page type of deal. Or maybe not.

  5. in my opinion I think it’s more important that a biopic capture the true spirit of a person rather than be 100% historically accurate

    I haven’t seen Dragon yet however

  6. I find it weird that the movie depicts him being sent to study kung fu to prepare to defeat the demon, but come the final fight, he kills it by strangling it to death with Nunchukas. Wouldn’t it have been cooler to beat it down with just his fists and feet and then finish it off with the neck break stomp from Enter The Dragon?
    The video game of Dragon also added an extra fictional fight where the guy who plays Han in Enter The Dragon challenges him to a fight off-camera, and uses his claw prop as a weapon!
    As for the Seattle thing Vern, at least they didn’t film it in Seattle but pretend it was somewhere else. Danny The Dog/Unleashed was filmed in Glasgow and at one point the scottishness is apparent by Danny being in a tourist shop filled with tartan, but if I recall, there’s maybe only one scottish person in the whole thing.

  7. Oh and here’s another use of the Dragon Theme:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbhrz1-4hN4

  8. If you want a good biopic….you don’t hire Rob Cohen. I mean if you want a stupid actioneer that will make money*, hire him. By all means.

    Vern its not just the Hollywood shit which bugged most of us, but also how CHEESY it was. Sure maybe those HK movies are CHEESIER, but that doesn’t nullify the velvetta cheese quality of DRAGON. That’s Dubya thinking right there. Watch yourself buddy.

    I mean that whole climax was fucking silly, I’m sorry. Lee was a guy who died apparently from a freak bio-reaction to medication he was taking. Crazy anti-climatic sad ending to a guy who was on the brink of changing everything. So now we get this crazy goofy ending of him fighting demons or whatever. And sorry Bruce, but you didn’t fight that demon hard enough to save Brandon. What? Its true you know.

    From the racism to his exit to America to the schools thing and whatever, the whole thing just was dealt like it was wanting to be COMMANDO or something you watch not to take serious.

    I thought strange how the movie didn’t mention how Lee like Seagal he was also martial arts trainer in Hollywood, trained Steve McQueen and and Jabbar etc. Or for that matter, glossed over WAY OF THE DRAGON if my memory serves me correct. Weird.

    Which reminds me, how about those right wingers wanting to deny citizenship to people born on our soil? If those assholes had gotten their way decades ago, Bruce Lee wouldn’t be AMERICAN. That’s right, the NeoCons want to deny America of an awesome national treasure still kicking ass in the world today. That’s how much they love it.

    Sorry but I’m with Bruno.

    *=Or lose it like STEALTH.

  9. “If you want a good biopic….you don’t hire Rob Cohen. I mean if you want a stupid actioneer that will make money, hire him. ”

    To be fair, that was his theatrical directorial debut. Before that he was just a producer and a TV director. It was after “Dragon” that he became that FX/Action director that he is now.

  10. CJ Holden – I spoke Truthiness. A truth without necessarily hard concrete truth as a foundation which we basically agree with.

    But really, I think the best movies he was ever involved with were as a producer: MONSTER SQUAD and RUNNING MAN. No wait, the only good ones from what I’ve seen of the guy.

    Maybe he should stick to that more?

  11. he also produced the underrated Michael J Fox, James Woods movie The Hard Way

  12. Incidentally, comments from both Bruce and Linda Lee after the duel with Wong Jack Man (and how great a name would that be in English, by the way? {g}), indicate that BRUCE was the one who attacked Wong from behind. Whereas testimony from Wong and his associates tend to indicate Bruce tried to get an early sneak attack on Wong with an eye gouge (though I suspect what Bruce was actually attempting, based on wound evidence later, was a cut above the eye in order to more-or-less harmlessly blind Wong.)

    The disparate accounts of that duel from several people, make a good exercise in harmonization analysis of historical sources. (Example: did the fight last less than a minute? Two or three minutes? 20 or 30 minutes?)

  13. I can generally take or leave Rob Cohen, but I think we can all agree that the world would be a lot worse off without that scene in DRAGONHEART where Dennis Quaid humps Sean Connery’s tongue. That’s a contribution to cinema right there.

  14. Jareth Cutestory

    May 27th, 2010 at 7:00 am

    I like to think that Seattle will be used to good effect in the long-overdue Adam West biopic.

    Other famous Seattleites:

    Carol Channing
    Judy Collins
    Bill Gates
    Frances Farmer
    Jennifer Warnes
    Ryan Stiles

  15. Is Ryan Stiles the guy from Teen Wolf?

  16. Jareth Cutestory

    May 27th, 2010 at 9:53 am

    Little known fact: Ryan Stiles based his entire comedic persona on the character Rupert ‘Stiles’ Stilinski from TEEN WOLF, not because
    there was anything especially interesting about the character, but because it was the first name he came across and couldn’t be bothered to look any further. This pronounced lack of ambition explains many of Mr. Stiles’ choices of roles, from MAD ABOUT YOU and WHO’S THE BOSS to the various Drew Carry vehicles.

    You know you’re not dealing with an ambitious guy when the best thing on his c.v. is a couple episodes of THE JOHN LARROQUETTE SHOW.

  17. Hmm i thought the best thing in Stiles C.V. was his very funny stint in the british version of Whose Line is it anyways, and of course Hot Shots Part Deux.

  18. RRA- Don’t they cover (or at least allude to) Bruce training Hollywood stars by having him pick Linda up in Steve McQueen’s car in one scene?

  19. Stu – perhaps but I can’t be arsed to remember that particular one.

    I just remember “Hollywood” fully represented by the Robert Wagner character.

    Which is like NYC represented by James Woods.

  20. Well, they have him filming Green Hornet, then developing and losing Kung Fu, then going off to Hong Kong. I wouldn’t mind seeing a whole movie about Bruce, Kareem, Steve McQueen and James Coburn. But the movie’s only like 2 hours, they couldn’t fit his whole life in there. At least they have some scenes with Yip Man.

  21. man a movie about bruce, kareem, steve and james would be fucking amazing. but it would be approximately four times as difficult to cast as this movie. internet nerds, get to fantasy casting! stephen chow for bruce. maybe daniel craig for mcqueen if he could do the accent. can’t think of anyone for kareem or 1960’s/70’s coburn. it’s hard to think of “real men” actors (like coburn, bronson, marvin, etc.) that are active today. the villain could be david carradine.

  22. Yes, he WAS born in SF. Don’t you forget it, you, you, you…um, Yankee.

    Lee had chronic back pain? Just one more way he was cool!

  23. Haven’t seen Dragon for about 15years but remember enjoying it as a kid. Can imagine it hasn’t aged too well. Also, we shouldn’t just give it a pass because there are worse HK versions Bruce’s life. I’ll watch it again to see if it still holds up.

    And, have any of you seen either of the Ip Man movies? Despite all the nationalistic crap there are some blinding fight scenes, particularly in Ip Man 1. Donnie Yen is fast becoming my favourite martial artist.

    Not sure if Ip Man 2 is out in America or has English subtitles yet. It’s fun and has some comedically bad acting from some unknown English guys and some very cheesy dialogue, even by Chinese film standards. The scene with Donnie Yen (Ip Man) fighting Sammo Hung on top of a table for the right to teach kungfu in Hong Kong is well worth making the effort to watch this tho.

  24. Si – I loved Dragon in the theatres when I was a kid and saw it again recently, and it’s actually aged pretty well. Stuff that bothered me the first time, like the demon stuff and the over-exaggerated fights – i kinda just accept and roll with now.

    On another note, the scene I’ll always remember is the one where he’s watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s with everyone in the audience laughing hysterically at the Mickey Rooney character (including Linda, at first). It’s just a painful scene to watch, but little did I know I’d re-enact it in real life when I saw Lost In Translation years later.

  25. As biopic, this movie is retard like hell. It’s also insulting. Mixing martial arts bulslhit in the middle of the story of his life? It reeks of filmmakers who are so incompetent thay had to forcefully put action fight bullshit crap so to make the movie “more interesting”. Well, the life of Bruce Lee was full of events, and if a filmmaker needs some dodgy action fight bullshit to make the movie interesting, then they are the wrong people to make the movie. That’s it.

    And i loved how the movie never tells the death of Bruce Lee. Kinda embaracing to know that this legend died from drug abuse, wouldn’t match well with the stupid action fight bullshit and the evne more retard mystical bullshit shoved in the movie. Really, what kind of retards made this movie? Oh yeah, Rob Cohen, that Michael “Michelle” Bay wannabe.

  26. Sorry Asimov, but your line of thinking just doesn’t jive. Would you really do Ali and not see him fight? Even in one scene? Or Ray Charles not play the piano in Ray? If you are going to do a Bruce Lee biopic, you better damn well see him fight in at least 1 scene. Yes, it could have been done much better, but I disagree that it shouldn’t have been there. Martial arts is what Bruce brought to America, and did play a huge part in his life, so explain the logic of why a fight scene doesn’t belong there (or at least a better/more realistic fight scene?)

  27. Also Bruce Lee was an athiest so to think he believed in such demons is sort of humorous. As a Biopic this film totally missed the mark, I would’ve liked to see some of his more scandalous things like cheating on Linda (Betty Ting Pei, the woman’s apartment he died in was speculated to be one of his mistresses) and he was known to be a Lady’s man. Also his drug use (Mary Jane) , his arrogance, his fighting with many people who would jump over a fence to challange him,his troubled youth, the conspiracies surrounding his death and much much more. Once again there is a great movie that can be made about Bruce Lee but this was no more than just a kung fu movie and even on those levels such is lame considering most kung fu movies don’t have so many soap opera-ish moments. The only scene that recalls Lee’s presence is the sequence where Lee balks at going back to the U.S for the way they screwed him over because he was Asian. Also his show choosing David Carradine is barely scraped over and pretty much this is a Hollywood rise to fame TV movie meets Bruce Li kung fu flick. I didn’t care for it but It’s not awful so much as disappointing.

  28. But see, I like that it doesn’t have any of that tabloid shit. I like that it’s the point of view of his wife instead of everything that people made money writing books about for years after he died. That’s why it’s interesting I think.

    As for David Carradine, that’s actually the most emphasized part of his Hollywood experience. There are scenes of him excitedly coming up with the idea for Kung Fu, then naively counting on it when Green Hornet is cancelled, then his crushing disappointment when they say they want a white guy to star in it. Then it pulls the classic biopic move of having him sitting watching the premiere at home, being depressed, and then getting a call that his dad died. And then when he’s offered ENTER THE DRAGON he’s skeptical at first because he doesn’t trust the producer (Robert Wagner) due to what happened with Kung Fu. It’s a big part of the movie.

    Has anybody seen this new TV show THE LEGEND OF BRUCE LEE? I’m excited to see it, but as far as I know there’s no English subtitled version yet.

  29. Vern – I wonder how that program dealt with the interracial marriage thing, since it’s a CCTV production and that is of course the TV channel of the Chinese government. And Beijing really aren’t really been OK with that. I mean these were the same suits who forced the Rolling Stones to not play “Brown Sugar” at a concert held at China some years back.

    I think I agree with many here in saying that DRAGON was just a misfire. I would consider this for the fact that one word kept coming to mind when I watched it on TV several years back: “Silly.” Either the filmmakers didn’t take the subject seriously, or they were incompent. Maybe a mix?

    I like to believe the best biopics take this basic formula: (1) Include the most fascinating anecdotes, embellished or subdued. (2) Make the person as compelling complex, not so much a love letter halography or meanspirited hitpiece. Try to give the person a fair shake, and (3) in context, tell us the modern audience why twofold this biopic should exist, and we should give a shit about this person.

    Anyone saw that history channel doc HOW BRUCE LEE CHANGED THE WORLD? Sure it didn’t bother with #2 I listed, but damn it did a darn good job with #3 in context examining Bruce Lee’s impact on the world, immediate and in long term.

    I mean like that bit about how he’s seen by many as the first “MMA Fighter”….which within 2010’s standards, the DNA resemblance is there. Never considered it within that frame, yet it makes sense. I learned something new about something I figured I already understood.

  30. When I was 9 I sprained my ankle trying to immitate that jump on the poster.

    I kind of fall between the two stools on this; I don’t think I liked it as much as Vern or as little as most of my fellow, er, respondees. My main problem with it was that Bruce came off more as a cocky frat boy with a prodigious talent than one of the most appealing and charismatic (by popular decree at least) movie stars of all time. I only saw it once all the way through though, and that was about six years ago.

    I’m kind of a moderate when it comes to Cohen. xXx, THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS and STEALTH to me are as soporific as they are moronic, and his MUMMY film was kind of flat (and I _liked_ the others (including THE SCORPION KING)). But DRAGONHEART and DAYLIGHT kicked ass. Or at least they kicked my ass.

  31. Unlike a lot of people, I really disliked the Johnny Cash biopic, because they made the guy seem just so… ordinary. My Johnny Cash biopic would have had him slaying demons with his guitar as they burst from the ground. Silly? I still think it’s a better idea than having him deal with drug problems and daddy issues.

    So I’m honestly kind of forgiving of the idea that Bruce Lee’s life was a Bruce Lee movie. It sells the importance of the man better, I think. But I’m also sympathetic to the idea that this was a ridiculous misfire too. Something no one has mentioned is that the movie is in large part a condemnation of institutionalized Hollywood racism, but then they give Bruce a jive-talkin’ black sidekick. And in any case it’s just a weird-ass movie, with action fight sequences mixed with inside-baseball studio politics. Still, movies rarely deal this intelligently with interracial relationships and the Asian-American experience. My favorite scene is where Bruce is watching the Mickey Rooney scene while everyone involved is laughing their ass off, and he’s just sitting there with a weird expression on his face. Maybe he’s infuriated and offended, maybe he’s saddened, but I like to think predominantly he’s just confusedly trying to figure out what the joke is supposed to be.

  32. I agree with you MBI. Ultimately I think the recent-ish Oscar-bait breed of biography movie (not only WALK THE LINE, but also RAY, ALI etc.) is just as cheesy as DRAGON, but in a way I frankly find less enjoyable. That’s why WALK HARD is easily my favourite Appatow-stable comedy

  33. Kiaikick, that logic is faulty beyond belief. If you have to show Bruice Lee fight IN A BIOPIC, the do a realistic fight scne, not one that looks out of his movies (aka, fantasy) and even more exagerated. also, that’s the only way you can engage an audience about a Bruce Lee biopic, to show him fighing? That’s EPIC FAIL right there! Stop finding excuses for hacks and their complete lack of ability to tell a tale, man!

  34. New Bruce Lee biopic in the works. Here is what THR is reporting.

    “Dragon, according to QED and Groundswell, is inspired by the true-life duel between Lee and Wong Jack Man, who was China’s most famous kung fu Master. The no-rules fight took place in San Francisco in 1965, when the city’s Chinatown was controlled by Hong Kong triads.

    The writers are using this true event as a jumping-off point for a wider-canvas action movie in which Wong and Lee team up to battle a band of Chinatown gangsters.”

    You know, this could actually work. On the level of THE UNTOUCHABLES in embellishing what actually happened (i.e. make shit up) and make an action movie fantasy.

    http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/bruce-lee-origin-story-heading-422340

    Will we get a corny scene when Lee is bloodied up and his girlfriend afterwards has to clean his face, scolds him “next time you wipe your own blood off!” HAR HAR HAR

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