The problem with most movie biographies of famous stars is that the wattage of the impersonators is rarely as bright as the originals. The exceptions--Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice, for example, or James Cagney as George M. Cohan--only prove the rule.
What’s exciting about “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” (citywide) is that, in Jason Scott Lee, the movies have created a new star out of an old star. The film is a tribute to Bruce Lee but it’s also a tribute to the transforming powers of performance. Lee does justice to Bruce Lee while, at the same time, creating a character out of his own fierce resources. He is, quite literally, smashing.
Jason Scott Lee is such a kinesthetic actor that, even in repose, he seems charged up. He has the kind of larger-than-life athleticism that Burt Lancaster had, or Marlon Brando in films such as “Viva Zapata!” and “The Wild One.” In Bruce Lee’s most famous movie, “Enter the Dragon,” he lectured a martial arts student about the need for an “emotional content” to his kick. Jason Scott Lee has heeded the lesson; in him, physicality and soulfulness are twinned. His emotional expressiveness is bound up with his physical expressiveness.
This explosive physicality isn’t necessarily the most subtle kind of performing but it’s intensely alive on the screen in a way that the more scaled-down kinds of acting can’t touch. And it justifies the hero-worshippy tone of “Dragon,” a movie that treats Bruce Lee as a legend from the get go, with all the trimmings. You can enjoy all the cornball confrontations and pumped-up melodramatics, you can forgive the way the film concocts and inflates incidents in Lee’s life, because, at its core, it showcases the real thing. That’s the way it is with larger-than-life actors: They prime you for larger-than-life stories.
“Dragon"--directed by Rob Cohen from a script he wrote with Edward Khmara and John Raffo based on the book “Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew” by Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Cadwell--begins with Lee’s boyhood in Hong Kong in the late ‘40s and then moves on to his migration to America, his founding of a martial arts school specializing in his innovative style of kung fu-- jeet kune do , or “way of the intercepting fist"--and his break with the Chinese-American martial arts Establishment for taking in non-Chinese students.
One of the students, Linda (Lauren Holly), quickly evolves into Lee’s archetypal stand-by-your-man mate; she defies the wishes of her mother (Michael Learned), who fears a brood of “half-breeds” if they marry. Then she defies Lee’s own demons, which, in their most mystic form, appear to him periodically as a fiend in full battle armor. When he gets his back busted in a fight and sits immobile in a hospital with little hope of ever walking again, Linda doesn’t fulfill his worst fears and skedaddle; instead, she inspires his recuperation. (In reality, Lee’s back injury came from lifting weights.)
Most of Lee’s film forays are here: his appearance as the sidekick Kato in the TV series “The Green Hornet;” his disappointment when “Kung Fu,” the series he conceived, went to David Carradine; his decision to make martial arts movies in Hong Kong, leading up to the Hollywood-Hong Kong co-production “Enter the Dragon,” which opened in 1973 three weeks after his death at the age of 32 and created an international cult of posthumous pop stardom that rivals James Dean’s or Elvis Presley’s.
The fight scenes in “Dragon” (rated PG-13 for martial arts violence and sensuality) are more flamboyant and theatrical than most of the ones in Bruce Lee’s movies, even though a number of them are based on sequences from his films. They top each other; each face-off in “Dragon” is just a little bit freakier and more jet-propelled than the one before. Jason Scott Lee, who studied martial arts for the role, builds on the florid, almost comic powerfulness of karate stars like Jackie Chan; he’s ingratiatingly lethal. (Bruce Lee was more like a lean destroyer--balletic and ballistic.) The movie--without being coarse about it--plays around with the racial angle in Bruce Lee’s confrontations. (This angle is the subtext of many a karate movie.) Against the monstrous Chinese-American pummeler Johnny Sun (John Cheung), Bruce plays David to his Goliath, but when he reacts to a white jock’s racist baiting by playing pat-a-cake with his pecs, it’s a great comic moment. Bruce is like a one-man rescue mission for Asian manhood; he gleefully overthrows the buck-toothed wimp caricature. (In one sequence we observe him watching Mickey Rooney as a Japanese yammerer in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and averting his eyes in shame. It makes Lee’s pay-backs seem all the sweeter.)
The movie peaks with Bruce exulting in his own prowess on the set of “Enter the Dragon.” Rob Cohen thankfully doesn’t work in a dreary post-mortem, but, of course, since this film was completed, Lee’s son Brandon was killed on the set of his own movie. Since Brandon is portrayed in “Dragon” as his father’s spiritual heir--and the beneficiary of his father’s successful struggle with his demons--the film takes on an unexpected sadness. Our recognition of Brandon Lee’s death suggests that a larger story is being played out than this movie can account for. Brandon Lee might have become the first international Asian-American movie star since his father. Instead, as a result of “Dragon,” that legacy will probably confer to Jason Scott Lee.
It’s in good hands.
‘Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story’
Jason Scott: Lee Bruce Lee
Lauren Holly: Linda Lee
Robert Wagner: Bill Krieger
Nancy Kwan: Gussie Yang
A Universal Pictures presentation of a Raffaella De Laurentiis production. Director Rob Cohen. Producer Raffaella De Laurentiis. Executive producer Dan York. Screenplay by Edward Khmara and John Raffo and Rob Cohen. Cinematographer David Eggby. Editor Peter Amundson. Costumes Carol Ramsey. Music Randy Edelman. Production design Robert Ziembicki. Art director Ted Berner. Set decorator Dayna Lee. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.
MPAA-rated PG-13 (martial arts violence and sensuality).