Entry #70: Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story
By Nathan Rabin
The Fractured Mirror is an ongoing column about movies about making movies.
Rob Cohen’s shamelessly entertaining and just plain shameless hit 1993 Bruce Lee biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story is based on Linda Lee Caldwell’s Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew, a 1975 memoir from Lee’s widow about her relationship with her late husband.
But if Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story is to be believed, the Bruce Lee Caldwell knew was also the Bruce Lee everyone else knew as well, an impossibly glamorous and exciting figure of mystery and legend, more myth than man.
The irrepressibly cheesy melodrama follows in the footsteps of countless cheaper, sleazier and more opportunistic martial arts films, many from Hong Kong, that depict the real-life Bruce Lee (or at least a heavily, if not completely fictionalized version), or the real-life Bruce Lee’s ghost as pretty much identical to the characters he played.
In Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, the real-life Lee is pretty much the same as the role that launched him to international super-stardom in 1973’s Enter the Dragon excerpt cooler and sexier and even more iconically awesome. When given a choice between fact and legend, Dragon invariably chooses legend.
As played by Jason Scott (no relation) Lee in a wonderfully hammy performance that captures his swaggering charisma, if not his inner Zen, Bruce Lee is the total package. He’s an explosively, effortlessly sexy hunk, the endlessly mourned and idolized James Dean of martial arts. But he’s also a philosopher who brings his unique and profound understanding of the universe and its myriad complexities to every forceful punch and kick.
The Bruce Lee of Dragon is a natural-born movie star with as much magnetism as any actor ever to grace the big screen, including the likes of Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando but he’s just as skilled at teaching his own homemade brand of martial arts to anyone who wants to learn and of course is willing to pay for lessons.
Philosopher. Poet. Warrior. Teacher. Mentor. Icon. Martyr. The Personification of the American Dream. Dragon is so busy capturing these sides of Lee’s legend that it never gets around to Lee the man, although, like so much Lee-based media, this treats Lee less like a flawed human being than a real-life superhero who could defeat anything but his own bleak destiny.
Dragon foreshadows its protagonist’s death early by having his father confront the same visions of death and doom that will haunt his son much later. To prepare his son for his battle with the abstract concept of doom he has his son study martial arts with legendary teacher Yip Man (Wang Luoyong), whose life inspired a few movies as well.
Then Bruce, with his movie star good looks and love of fast cars and beautiful girls, ends up beating up a platoon worth of British soldiers in defense of a young woman and travels to the United States to both escape the long arm of the law and pursue his heroic destiny.
The fight that inspires our hero to leave Hong Kong for the promised land of the United States is choreographed and shot so cartoonishly that it would feel more at home in the martial arts parody in Kentucky Fried Movie than in one of Lee’s own films.
Dragon only gets to Lee’s brief but extraordinary film career in its final half hour. There aren’t too many scenes of Lee fighting onscreen or on set because there are so many movie-style fights in his real life that it would feel redundant for the man to fight extensively in his films as well.
Yes, Bruce Lee spends much of Dragon beating up large groups of racists who are considerate enough to attack him in the time-honored, film-friendly one-person-at-a-time style preferred by anonymous henchmen everywhere so as not to give themselves an unfair advantage, or any advantage at all.
In the United States, our dashing hero begins instructing others in marital arts, including his future wife Linda (Lauren Holly). Linda falls in love and lust immediately with the beautiful and gifted young man but her racist, tradition-bound mother does not look at Lee and see one of the most magnificent men ever to walk the earth; she just sees someone who is not white and consequently not worthy of her daughter.
Because the screenplay is based on Linda’s memoir as well as other sources and its screenwriters’ vivid imaginations, it’s at once a crowd-pleasing action movie filled with energetic if preposterous set-pieces and a vanilla romance between a great man and an adoring partner who recognizes that greatness and nurtures it.
Linda’s support is particularly important when her husband, the father of her children, is kicked in the back by an evil arch-nemesis. In real life Lee injured himself weightlifting but Dragon generally goes for the more dramatic and visually exciting choice, whether or not it has any basis in reality.
Lee not only learns to walk again, he becomes a more or less perfect physical specimen. The icon’s ferocious ambition and focus lead him to thrive in multiple fields while still in his twenties: television (where he plays the Green Hornet’s eminently capable sidekick Cato), teaching, martial arts and finally film, where he would make his biggest mark with Enter the Dragon, perhaps the most beloved and influential martial arts film of all time.
Dragon cranks everything up to 11. Everything is played to the rafters and pitched to the cheap seats. For co-writer/director Rob Cohen there’s no such thing as too broad, too big and too melodramatic. For example when Lee’s international breakthrough film The Big Boss ends at its gala premiere the audience doesn’t just go from deathly silence to enthusiastic cheering. That apparently is not enough for Cohen so he has the audience literally hoist Lee on their shoulders in rapturous celebration as if he had just won the World Series.
Early in this gleeful exercise in hagiography Lee’s superstitious father warns his impressionable son that their family is haunted by a curse on its first-born sons, a demon that stalks them through life as a gloomy, glowering portent of death.
Within the context of the movie, it comes off as pure hokum from a crowd-pleaser with more than its share. As played by longtime Arnold Schwarzenegger associate Sven Ole-Thorsen under layers upon layers of metal and steel, “The Demon” as he is credited, emerges as a figure of pure kitsch. As the physical representation of death, he’s only slightly less ridiculous than William Sadler in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
But considering that Brandon Lee died one of the most mysterious and famous deaths in all of Hollywood history at just 28, four years shy of when his father legendarily died young, there’s something downright spooky about a climactic fantasy sequence where the older Lee fights the Demon representing early, violent, cursed death to protect him from taking his son Brandon.
Brandon Lee died roughly a month before Dragon: the Bruce Lee Story opened. The film consequently is dedicated to him. The movie seems to both anticipate The Crow actor’s eerie demise and to deny it by presenting the surreal and more than a little silly tableau of Bruce Lee, in the fight of his and his son’s life, defeating the looming specter of Death with nunchucks.
Yes, nunchucks. In Dragon’s comic book universe it’s possible to hold back abstract concepts like fate and death with martial arts mastery. In real life things play out a little differently but the film’s pre-occupation with not only its subject’s early, mysterious death but also with the death of his small child illustrates that sometimes the real world is more melodramatic and heavy-handed than even Hollywood hokum.
Dragon is such a featherweight cartoon that not even the legendarily early, premature deaths of Bruce Lee and his first-born son can lend it gravity or substance.
That actually ends up working in its favor; what Dragon lacks in verisimilitude and realism it makes up for in cheap thrills. It’s not art or real life for that matter but it certainly is entertaining.
Nathan Rabin is a pop culture writer, columnist and the author of six books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife, sons and dog.