Review: ESPN’s latest doc ‘Be Water’ puts Bruce Lee in cultural context


“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water,” said Bruce Lee of a revelation that unlocked a deeper, more spiritual level of martial arts for him. “Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

The new ESPN “30-for-30” documentary by Bao Nguyen, “Be Water,” explores the changes Lee went through in the seemingly many lives he lived. Opening and closing with his triumphant return to Hong Kong, and charting the less-glorious stops between, the film benefits from the participation of those closest to Lee and unearths intriguing archival footage. Peeling back layers, “Be Water” examines the actor adapting to several different environments — notably the extremely racially restrictive Hollywood of the ‘60s — until his “flow” becomes a tidal wave of superstardom.

For the record:

6:56 p.m. June 8, 2020

The article cites Bruce Lee’s family’s claims that he created the concept for the series that became “Kung Fu” in 1972, which has been disputed. He did pitch Warner Bros. a similarly-themed western set in the 19th-century and reportedly auditioned for “Kung Fu.” His original idea later became the basis for the Cinemax series “Warrior” in 2019.

The film seizes on the opportunity to reach ESPN’s audience, providing context for America’s treatment of Asians rarely addressed on the network. Given the time restrictions of a 96-minute documentary, “Be Water” does yeoman’s work in surveying the (gold) mountain Lee had to climb. Perhaps, given current events, viewers might be more open to understanding that struggle now.


There are glimpses of his relentless training and the physical feats he reeled off as casually as most people walk. There are intimate views of his home life — it’s disarming to see this seemingly invincible fighting machine mooning over his kids. There are the obligatory frames of celebrities learning from him. But mostly, it’s his incredible martial-arts prowess that never ceases to amaze. In an early screen test, his movements are too fast for the camera to capture: He’s a literal blur of power and precision.

No remarkable life can be captured in just one film, and Nguyen is wise to focus on a few areas, but there are painful gaps. The essence of what made Lee’s creation, Jeet Kune Do, unique is barely touched on. The never-completed film that surely would have been his masterpiece, “Game of Death,” gets only a passing mention. (For viewers curious about Lee’s artistic philosophy, the documentary “Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey” attempts to reconstruct his epic vision of that film.) And “Be Water” ends without fully conveying his social impact.

The doc is respectful, perhaps to a fault: It does include friends admitting Lee could be, to put it politely, difficult, but moves on without detail. It takes a similarly discreet step around at least one of his apparent relationships.

But Nguyen — assisted by the cooperation of Lee’s widow, daughter and friends including Dan Inosanto and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — succeeds in going deeper where previous Lee profiles have trod only lightly: The context of his struggle against racism in America, and his emergence as a superstar in Hong Kong. For Lee fans, that makes “Be Water” a must-watch. For the curious, it’s a fair introduction to the man who became a legend.

'Be Water'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes

Playing: Premieres 6 p.m. Sunday, ESPN; also streaming and on demand


Trailer for the ESPN documentary on the life of Bruce Lee, “Be Water.”