The Shadow of the Dragon : It wasn't easy finding an actor to play martial arts god Bruce Lee, but Jason Scott Lee found the key to the man behind the flying fists

Lawrence Christon is a Times staff writer

Could it be that by midsummer, after "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story" has made its multiplex rounds, Jason Scott Lee will have been anointed the next great action film and martial arts hero? He has all the tools, a whippet-like frame, a face that in the genre's tradition is both wary and reposeful in its staple possession of (portentous gong sound here) Ancient Secrets of the East, and an explosive tension in which he mutates onto a fearsome plane of midair dervish violence.

Director Rob Cohen's $16-million film biography, which opens Friday, with screenplay by Cohen, Edward Khmara and Jon Raffo, takes into account elements of Bruce Lee's legendary life (he died in 1973 of an edema of the brain) that were crowded out by the body count in his movies:

His interracial marriage to Linda Emery (played by Lauren Holly), for example. His conflict with the Chinese-American community after he pried the martial art of kung fu from its cabalistic grasp and turned it out into the world in the form of his personally streamlined variant, jeet kune do. His bitter and humiliating experience in Hollywood, where as Kato in "The Green Hornet," he played the martial arts equivalent of Charlie Chan's No. 1 Son, and then allegedly had his idea for a kung fu TV series stolen from under him (close-up on Lee's incredulous face as he peers for the first time at the sodden figure of David Carradine lumbering into view before the TV title "KUNG FU").

Aside from his impressive physical attributes, Jason Scott Lee brings intelligence and charm to the role of Bruce (who is no relation). A splendid figure, it would seem, who could answer the warrior nostalgia of young men for an unconquerable manhood that doesn't need city-leveling ordnance to make its way through the world, only bare hands and feet and martial wit. After all, anyone can plow a truck through a plate-glass window.

But then there's Lee's portrayal of Avik in Vincent Ward's lyrical "Map of the Human Heart," so unlike his Bruce Lee role that you could easily think you were seeing a different person.

Lee plays 20 years in the life of an Inuit who leaves the Arctic and joins the Canadian Royal Air Force, circa World War II, in search of a childhood girlfriend (Anne Parillaud of "La Femme Nikita"). Ward, a New Zealander, is a filmmaker who works with an ethnographer's rigor, and Lee has responded with a performance thoroughly stripped of ethnic cliches--his tribal innocent, relocated among the rites and amenities of an industrialized world, is appropriately wide-eyed and alert to constant discoveries. But where another actor might stop there, Lee's Avik is clearly attaching his observations to a deeper body of knowledge, a strong and gathering inner life.

"We did a lengthy casting search for an actor to play the adult Avik," Ward says. "We looked through Canada, Alaska, Toronto, New York. We looked everywhere. The role of an Inuit easily tends to look corny, like Anthony Quinn. Finally, of all places, we found Jason in Los Angeles. I decided I wouldn't do the film without him. I told our financial people, 'Whatever happens, Jason has to play this role.'

"He felt real. You knew he believed everything he was doing. He's got an interior quality. You can hold the camera on him and not only know what he's thinking, but stay interested in what he's thinking. Lee's a very intelligent man, probably the easiest person I've ever worked with. You can point him in any direction, and whatever he does, he makes authentic."

Says "Dragon's" Rob Cohen:

"There are plenty of guys who can fight, but to play a family man, a philosopher, a teacher, that's something else. We decided not to spend a day looking for a martial arts expert. We wanted an actor first.

"Jason had auditioned for 'The Last of the Mohicans' but was turned down because he looked too Asian. Casting director Bonnie Timmerman said, 'I think I have someone for you who could do Bruce Lee. He has this body .' When he came in I looked at him and saw without a word a man with a charisma, yet gentle, silent. He had a strong, handsome face. Behind those dark eyes you could see wheels turning."

Cohen, 42, has been in the business 20 years, going back to when he was executive vice president of Motown's film division and produced "The Wiz," among others. In the interim he has overseen such films as "The Witches of Eastwick," "The Running Man," "Ironweed" and "Bird on a Wire." He has also directed episodes of "Miami Vice," "thirtysomething," "Hooperman" and "A Year in the Life." He is not, therefore, a stranger to the entertainment industry's turnstile swirl of talent. But he was taken big with Lee.

"Every movie is like Thomas Merton's seven-story mountain," Cohen says. "The screenplay is the first step. Then in this case it was finding the actor who could play a man the whole world knows and could do all the things Lee could do, plus dramatic scenes. When Jason came in I gave him the script and said, 'Read this. Let's discuss.'

"I waited all weekend long, like I'd given the script to Mel Gibson. I waited all day Saturday, all day Sunday. Finally I couldn't take it anymore and called him. 'Well?' 'I don't know if I can do the man justice,' Jason said. That convinced me. If he'd said, 'Hey, no problem,' I might've had a different feeling. I promised him, 'I'll never let you down. I know you'll never let me down. We're gonna pull this off.' 'OK,' he said."

So here we have, in the spring of 1993, an intriguing arrival: for the action movie crowd, a fearsome new Avenger. For serious filmgoers gripped in boredom and displeasure over the test-market trash Hollywood has been spewing out with greater and greater redundancy, not just a new face--there are always plenty of those--but the stirring possibility of a new talent, a genuine actor who might take them places.

Who, then, is this figure emerging from the subcontinental Hollywood genus termed Virtual Unknown?

"I was born here in L.A., but my parents moved us to Oahu when I was 2," Lee said. "I have an older brother and sister, and two younger brothers who're twins. My dad is retired from the telephone company and recently went to work driving an airport bus for Avis. He's one-quarter Hawaiian and three-quarters Chinese. My mother is all Chinese. She was studying fashion design at Los Angeles City College and he was in the Air Force when they met.

"Oahu is a real melting pot. You have not only Hawaiians, but Samoans, Filipinos, Portuguese, Japanese. A lot of my upbringing was around nature. We'd go crabbing on the beach and do lots of outdoor things. The major outlet for my life was physical. You grow up acquiring an identity based on grace and movement. As I grew older I began to think about how form dictated what you did, like if you were running, the motion your body took to generate speed. I was trying to develop a philosophy, but I didn't have a lot of book learning. I was raw, not heady. I realized I needed an academic education, so I came back and enrolled at Fullerton College."

At 26, Lee is in the prime-time zone of an athlete's life, when the body almost hums with muscular tension yet retains a peculiar reflexive delicacy (he was a top volleyball player and gymnast at Pearl City High School and practices jeet kune do daily). He stands an inch or so under six feet and wears his hair shoulder-length, like a figure out of Gaugin. You can see in a flash what captivated Cohen and Ward: angles that would successfully appeal to the camera's ruthless inquiry. And something in the eyes, humor certainly, and curiosity. And perhaps owing to the tranquillity of his upbringing, a fearlessness.

Though it was early in the afternoon, Lee was shaking off the sleepy aftereffect of a long flight up from Easter Island, where he's filming "Rapa Nui" for director Kevin Reynolds (Lee plays the grandson of a tribal chieftain during a period of cultural upheaval). He stood in a hotel suite gazing indecisively over a large platter of fruit, wearing a white tank top and a lava-lava--that is, a cotton Hawaiian garment cinched at the waist like a bath towel and blended with tropical tones, lavenders and pinks and blues. He settled on a soft drink and sat down.

"I was taking a full academic load at Fullerton, but I wasn't that happy about it," he continued. "It was more like something I had to do. But then I signed up for an acting class as an elective. I felt myself opening up. I didn't even know how to walk on a stage until my second semester, but I felt the challenge to do things terribly unknown to me. I had a teacher, Sal Romeo, who emphasized the spiritual side of acting and the exploration of the subconscious, the quieting of mind-chatter."

It's a bit startling to hear Lee speak in the seeming uninflected accent of an Orange County school-kid; it's then, recalling his Chinese-American accent as Bruce Lee and the laconic, tundra-flat tone he brings to Avik, that you realize what a superb vocal technician he is.

"It felt strange being in Orange County. It's such a homogenized culture. The idea of success is having a BMW or a Mercedes. The vibrations felt so strange to me, the way people dressed, the way they walked and talked, their rhythms. And Los Angeles seemed like such a huge metropolis compared to Oahu."

It was the sensation of being an outsider that fed Lee's growing bank of observations, which in turn fed into his preoccupation with acting; he left school in 1987 to join Romeo's new theater group on North Vermont Avenue, the Friends and Artists Theater Ensemble.

"He was a shy intellectual young man of 19," Romeo recalls of Lee (they are still professionally close). "He very much kept to himself. But it was clear he had a natural feeling for acting. Our teaching is Method-oriented, very Stanislavskian. Lee's got a great understanding of how to focus and make his feelings real. He has a wonderful ability to bring out his vulnerability and intensity, and unlike a lot of actors, he communicates with other human beings. He listens with his eyes. And nothing intimidates him."

Romeo's assessment of Lee now does not hearken to invitations for plum roles then. Lee had small parts in the ensemble's productions of "Marat/Sade" and "Balm in Gilead," and that was it. For three years he scuffled.

"I cleaned lobster tanks, delivered flowers, steam-cleaned kitchens, did gardening and maid work, ikebana arranging," Lee said, with a wry smile. "A long list of odd jobs. At the theater I swept the floor and cleaned the toilet. I was still an outsider, but an apprentice. I did a lot of tech things, like sound cues and lights. But the best thing was the private classes. It's something I still need to do more of; I always work best on my own. But it was a rough time. My parents were not happy."

Said mother Sylvia Lee, on the phone from Oahu: "My husband and I always made sure to be active in our children's activities. All five grew up in Hawaii and did well. We were concerned."

"Not being familiar with the movie industry, we had reservations," said Robert Lee, choosing his words carefully. "We felt there were a lot of actors unemployed; many never get a chance to make a go. They starve for most of their lives. And being Asian, the odds were even greater that he wouldn't make it. He's naive. He thinks everybody is a good guy. We were unhappy, but he never gave up. We decided to support him."

"He's persistent," said his mother. "A fighter and a survivor. He kept us in touch with what he was doing, so we thought we'd stand by him and see what he'd do. I told him he could always come back here and forget about it. He was my easiest child to raise, non-materialistic. He could make friends with anyone. A star athlete in high school. He made me feel like a celebrity mom."

Lee played a bit part in Cheech Marin's "Born in East L.A.," as well as small roles in "Back to the Future Part II" and the CBS-TV movie "Vestige of Honor." He also played an adopted young Korean searching for his roots in the after-school special "American Eyes." Then "Map of the Human Heart" came along, for which he prepared by spending a week in the Baffin Islands' Lake Harbour, near the Arctic Circle.

"It helps, being from a place like Hawaii, where the culture is based on sensibility and inner softness--the aloha spirit," Lee said. "I really connected with the Inuits. I felt a bond."

"He learned to speak with a stylized Eskimo accent," Vincent Ward said. "They thought he was from the next-door village. When they (Rob Cohen) asked for some footage for the Bruce Lee project, we gave it right over. We wanted him to do well. In 'Dragon' he shows a whole other range of possibilities."

Cohen and company were clearly taken with Lee, but getting him or anyone else to deliver a convincing portrayal of Bruce Lee bordered on the inconceivable. Though only 5-feet-7 and 135 pounds, Bruce Lee was an almost inhumanly powerful figure, with electrifying reflexes. First as a martial arts master who developed a new fighting method from an ancient form, and a philosophical underpinning to go with it, then as a film figure of incomparable speed and athleticism--he looks lethal even in stills--he was an Asian icon, a Muhammad Ali of the East, and one of the world's most recognizable figures.

"I once made a movie for Orion called 'Scandalous' that was a disaster," Cohen said. "It taught me that if you don't believe deeply in what you're doing, you're betraying your calling. I vowed never to sell an audience short again. So when Jason started work for the screen test, I went to San Francisco. I didn't want to see him and get my heart broken. In four weeks he was making moves so balletic, so Bruce, that now I knew he had the body in motion." (After he passed the screen test, Lee began an arduous regimen of daily workouts with martial artists Jerry Poteet, who had studied with Bruce Lee, and Fran Joseph.)

"I was reluctant to take the part," Lee said. "To really understand the ability that Bruce had, to see him not just as a martial artist or another figure in the genre, but in depth, I didn't think I could pull it off. I got frightened. How could I face the public criticism of playing a legend? I didn't know much about kung fu, or even much about Lee, just how he moved, his explosiveness. I didn't think I was ready. Now I look back and say, 'I was ready.' "

Which hardly means there was clear sailing. The Primal Curse that allegedly hounded the Bruce Lee family--and was most recently evoked in the March 31 shooting death of Lee's actor son Brandon--seemed to scatter a few imprecations over the head of "Dragon" as well (the Curse is a prominent element in the movie's story line).

Certainly there was unfortunate coincidence. Production was delayed when Jason Scott Lee came down with hepatitis. Lauren Holly's brother was killed in a fire. Hong Kong was hit with the worst monsoon in its history during filming. Triad, the infamous group of Hong Kong extortionists otherwise known as the Chinese mafia, tried to put the muscle on the company by demanding payment. Cohen suffered a heart attack.

"It changed me," Cohen said. "I had come out here as a Wunderkind , an angry man. I related to Bruce on that level. But the angry man in me died. The idea that this business is a jungle you have to hack and fight your way through daily, or whatever other ridiculous standard I'd set for myself--it all fell aside. I felt the joy to direct. We sailed into the Bay of Hong Kong through heavy swells. Everyone was losing their cookies. The boat grounded. I said, 'Don't worry, we'll do it. If not today, then tomorrow. We'll get it done.' "

"Do you believe in magic?"

The question came up during one of those odd peripheral excursions interviews sometimes take, and Lee paused scarcely a beat before answering: "I've always had an attraction to the occult. Not black magic, where people manifest their greed and mistrust and insecurity and their diabolical sides. There's white magic too, where different levels of consciousness, and past and present, combine in an energy field so that the unseen becomes seen. That's acting too, isn't it?" His face lightened with self-discovery.

The next question is the unanswerable: What next? Lee has enjoyed the staggering good fortune of beginning feature-length portrayals with back-to-back, once-in-a-lifetime roles. How will he manage his career? How will he handle the irresistible blandishments of celebrity, and avoid its attendant traps? When Ward says, "He's so good that he'll be able to play parts that have nothing to do with being Asian," you have to wonder about what will be offered him and how wisely he will choose.

All this will play out in time, of course. Meanwhile, we are witnessing a talent whose limits have not yet been defined.

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