ON LOCATION : Re-Enter the Dragon : A film biography of kung fu king Bruce Lee, who died almost 20 years ago, weaves martial arts action with an interracial love story

Donald Chase is a free-lance writer based in New York.

In the garish, lantern-hung cha-cha palace created within Kowloon's Mongkok Neighborhood Centre, the fearful dancers have ceded the floor to five burly, brawl-hungry British sailors and their comparatively slight Asian adversary, Jason Scott Lee.

The young Asian, in the black pegged pants of a Hong Kong sharpie of 1962, begins by disabling the most belligerent Brit, boatswain Nick Brandon, with a swift kick to the groin. Then losing his shirt to reveal a rippling upper torso, Lee back-flips his way out of a potentially ugly punch-up with two others. Next, he mischievously dances--to the unrelenting recorded strains of "Moonlight Cha-Cha"--the recovered boatswain out of his white uniform jacket and puts it on himself.

Finally, having head-butted the Brit into semiconsciousness, he pulls him through his spread legs and dispatches him to a corner, and contemptuously doffs his pilfered jacket.

The speed, the improvisatory adaptability and the just-amusing-myself cockiness of the young Asian are all oddly familiar. And as, finally, he jerks himself into a heroic pose that brings his raven hair down on his forehead, the sense of deja vu is complete.

Jason Scott Lee seems a reincarnation of another, albeit unrelated Lee: Bruce.

"I cast him. I rehearsed him in the role, but even so, looking at Jason as Bruce, I still get the chills sometimes," said director Rob Cohen after calling "Cut!" on this scene from "Dragon: A Life of Bruce Lee."

The biographical drama, which producer Raffaella De Laurentiis said is budgeted at "around $14 million," was shooting in Hong Kong and Macao locations before moving on to San Franciscoand Los Angeles-area shooting sites and Valencia Studios. Release is scheduled by Universal for next year, before the 20th anniversary of Bruce Lee's death on July 20, 1973, at age 32.

In addition to the Asian-American Jason Scott Lee, "Dragon" stars Lauren Holly as Bruce's Anglo wife, Linda, and Robert Wagner as a TV executive modeled after William Dozier, producer of Bruce's "Green Hornet" series. The easefully courtly Wagner was also on the sidelines marveling at the resemblance between Jason and Bruce Lee, whom he had met through their mutual friend Steve McQueen. No matter that at 5 feet, 11 inches tall and 155 pounds, Jason is about three inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than Bruce.

"I was a fan of Bruce Lee," said De Laurentiis, "and I knew that despite a very few films, he is, like James Dean, a kind of mythic figure." In addition to the Dean-like early death and limited filmic output--of which the $100-million-plus worldwide grosser "Enter the Dragon," released three weeks after his death, is the only first-class production--Lee did much to popularize martial arts in the West. "What I didn't know," she added, "is that he had a life story that could be the basis of an interesting movie."

Then she read "The Bruce Lee Story," the 1983 biography-memoir by his widow, Linda Emery Lee, which was a major source of the movie's script by Ed Khmara, John Raffo and director Cohen. (Other sources include "Bruce Lee," a book by "Enter the Dragon" director Robert Clouse, and original research by Khmara.) Linda Lee's book tells of the San Francisco-born, Hong Kong-raised actor's unruly adolescence (which included a passion for the cha-cha and incidents of public brawling). It records his struggles as an Asian actor in the Hollywood of the '60s, particularly the bitterly disappointing loss, post-"Green Hornet," of the lead in the "Kung Fu" series to the white David Carradine. This loss prompted Lee's return to Hong Kong, where he quickly achieved film fame.

Finally, the book deals with the familial and cultural conflicts unleashed by the love and marriage of Bruce and Linda.

"It seemed to me that we had the opportunity here to do two films--a kung fu movie and an interracial love story," Cohen said.

Cohen decided that the kung fu aspect of "Dragon" would show, over the course of "five dramatically motivated fight sequences," the development of Lee's style of kung fu. Jeet kune do, or "the way of the intercepting fist," is Lee's streamlining of the ancient, formalized art of kung fu into a system of scientific street fighting for the 20th Century. To perform all but the most acrobatic elements of the film's fights, Jason Scott Lee, who had no martial arts background but is a natural athlete, trained for four months with former Bruce Lee student Jerry Poteet.

"I trained Jason the way I was trained by Bruce," Poteet said. That means rigorously. Jason was trained not only in jeet kune do's blocks, punches and kicks but also in the system's Bruce Lee-formulated philosophical underpinnings.

Bruce Lee, a philosophy major at the University of Washington when he met Linda, insisted that "emotion" (or being emotionally at one with your physical moves), "no-mindedness" (or clarity of focus) and "no-way-as-way" (or infinite adaptability) were key to jeet kune do's effectiveness.

The moves that Poteet said "quick study" Jason Scott Lee mastered are being combined and choreographed for the camera by John Cheung. Cheung, who was a stuntman on "Enter the Dragon," recalled "the politeness of Bruce, even to the man who swept the floor of the studio" and how "Bruce was always fighting to get more money for the Hong Kong stuntmen." He joined Poteet in praising Jason Scott Lee's martial arts skills. But he did let slip that if Bruce was occasionally so fast that he had to be shot in slow motion for his movements to register on film, Jason sometimes needs to be speeded up a bit.

As for the interracial love story aspect of "Dragon," Cohen suggested he has had more latitude than might be expected of a film based on Linda Lee's book that is being made with her cooperation. "We show the difficulties and conflicts," he said. "We have Linda's mother"--played by Michael Learned--"saying, 'Can you see yourself having yellow babies?' " Linda's mother, Vivian Emery, is still living, and, according to Cohen, has signed a release assenting to her depiction in the movie.

The movie also depicts arguments between Bruce and Linda, though Cohen said Linda talked him out of ending one of them "with that cheap screenwriter's trick of having a woman slap a man. It wasn't because it was unflattering to her but because she said, 'That's not the kind of relationship we had.' She faxed me that if Bruce Lee is going to come back, as some people believe, she'd hate to have to answer to him for that, and added: 'Sorry for the sick humor. But when you look at the lighter side of it. . . .' "

"What surprised me most about Linda when I met her was her humor--she has a very quick wit," said the woman who plays her on screen, Lauren Holly.

Holly, who stars in the new CBS series "Picket Fences," added that Linda told her of the "teasing element in her relationship with Bruce. Jason and I are working on putting it into the film."

Linda Lee also projected "independence and strength" in her several encounters with Holly. "But," Holly said, "I didn't know how much of both she would have needed to be a Western woman married to an Asian until I got to Hong Kong. The attitude toward Western women doesn't seem too open now, so I can only imagine what it must have been 20 years ago when Linda came here with two Eurasian children to join Bruce after he started making films here."

Linda has remarried and is living in San Francisco, and Holly did not discuss the death of Bruce Lee with her. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Hong Kong's Queen Elizabeth Hospital, after taking ill at the apartment of Taiwanese actress Betty Ting Pei. There were many theories, ranging from the prurient to the mystic, about the death, which was, according to the official record, from a cerebral edema--a swelling of the brain--in reaction to an ingredient in a headache tablet.

Holly attributes the widow's reticence as much to practicality as to tact. Bruce Lee's death--and Linda's reaction to it--are not portrayed in the film. Does this exclusion have anything to do with pleasing or accommodating Linda?

Cohen says no: "We're doing the life of Bruce Lee, or rather a life of Bruce Lee. In fact, I specifically titled it 'Dragon: A Life of Bruce Lee' because there is no absolute truth--no the life--you can do of anyone. Even a documentary is to some degree an interpretation."

Perhaps the most daring interpretive stroke of Cohen's life of Lee, which leaves Bruce at a personal peak on the set of "Enter the Dragon," is an attempt to account for the death everyone knows took place soon afterward. At several crucial points in the movie, a "phantom" appears to Bruce (and the movie audience). A visual composite of superstitions, animal imagery and warrior motifs that Cohen calls "an authentic part of Chinese culture," the phantom represents both Lee's fate and "his personal flaws coming at him." These flaws include--and Cohen said the movie shows them--"a quick temper" and a "cocky and egomaniacal side."

Bruce Lee, with all his positive and negative qualities, is obviously a plum role for an Asian actor. As Bruce's 28-year-old son Brandon Lee is of the appropriate age, a martial artist and a professional actor (recently in "Rapid Fire"), he would seem a likely, if slightly gimmicky, choice for it.

"Quite apart from whether he would want to play his own father," said producer De Laurentiis, "he's a major ethnic step away from Chinese. In fact, he looks like a very handsome Italian boy. I would have refused to do the movie if I had to (make him appear more Asian), the way they did with actors playing Asians before Bruce Lee." (Bruce Lee's mother was half-German.)

"I wish we had a long, involved story about how we found Jason Scott Lee," De Laurentiis went on, "but we don't. He was recommended to us early on by a casting director, and we did a screen test of him in which he was pretty amazing."

The casting director, Bonnie Timmerman, had seen him for "The Last of the Mohicans," Lee said at his hotel after work. Then he added with a grin: "But they decided I was a bit too Asian-looking to play a Mohican." Lee, 26, who grew up in Hawaii and is part Hawaiian, plays an Eskimo in the Cannes-acclaimed "Map of the Human Heart" with Anne ("La Femme Nikita") Parillaud. He noted that Bruce Lee was a childhood idol but "not in the sense he was to a lot of Asian males I know who grew up in L.A.; they felt such a connection to him because they grew up in a predominantly white part of the world."

Lee can't deny that he has thought about becoming a hero to Asians himself through the Bruce Lee role. And he's also thought about the opportunities the role may create in both the "acting-acting" and "martial arts acting" areas. But all these questions of ethnicity and careerism are currently secondary to capturing the essence of Bruce Lee on film.

"What hit me hardest," Jason Scott Lee said of his investigations, "was the seeking, that he was a man who kept on searching, maybe with a demon inside him that drove him to such levels of excellence."

Perhaps that's why he's grasped Bruce Lee most truly in "transition moments," he explained, "feeling inspiration and energy from maybe a movement you made that was involuntary or without thought, a moment that was, let's say, Zen."

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