It’s safe to say that Bruce Lee is a legend to most people, a role model to a lot of people, and a fascinating man to even those who barely know the name “Bruce Lee.” Besides popularizing “gung fu” to the West, Lee opened up the international film audience to Hong Kong and other Asian filmmakers. Oh sure, those films were mostly chop-socky, cheapo productions, but a foot in the door is a foot in the door, and Lee was certainly a big reason for it, if not the only one. If nothing else, Lee certainly changed the way Americans look at Asians. Not just Chinese, since your average American couldn’t tell the difference between a Chinese and a Japanese, but Asians in general.
“Dragon” tells the story of Bruce Lee (Jason Scott Lee) from his time in Hong Kong to his trials and tribulations in America. In the States during the ’60s, Lee experiences racial prejudice in every corner of society, but still manages to fall heads over hells in love with the pretty (and very white) Linda (Lauren Holly), open a successful kung fu school in Downtown San Francisco, and take on all comers, Chinese or otherwise. By movie’s end, Lee has shot “Enter the Dragon,” the movie that would make him an international star, and begun production on “Game of Death,” the Hong Kong film he would never finish because of his untimely death, which ended his young and burgeoning movie career.
“Dragon” is, first and foremost, entertainment in the guise of a biography, so those looking for a real, in-depth look at the man’s life from childhood to death need not apply. As with any person (famous or not), it would take a lengthy mini-series to tell all the important events of their life. Bruce Lee is no exception. So with only two hours at his disposal, director/co-writer Rob Cohen (“The Fast and the Furious”) concentrates on hitting all the high (and low) points in Bruce’s life, adding sprinkles of “Bruce Lee-like” fight sequences in-between to liven things up. As Cohen himself admits in the audio commentary, much of the movie’s fights were added to give Lee’s main audiences the kind of action they’re used to seeing in real Bruce Lee films. Did Lee really have all these violent encounters in real life? Probably not.
Playing Bruce Lee is Jason Scott Lee (no relation to the real man), who seems to be channeling all the charm and charisma people know and love about the real Bruce Lee. Scott Lee is a natural actor, and although he’s clearly not a martial artist in real life (Cohen points out that Scott Lee didn’t even know martial arts until he started training for this movie!), Scott Lee nevertheless does a good job selling the action. He could have been faster and more powerful in various places, but on the whole he does a very credible job. But where Scott Lee really shines is in pure acting; the man is just talented, and his face is a canvas of expressions that requires no words, much like the real Bruce Lee himself.
The main woman in Bruce’s life is Linda, whose book the movie is partly based on. Besides telling her mom that she’s “going bowling” for the umpteenth time (so much, in fact, that Bruce quips, “[Your mom] must think you’re a bowling champ by now.”), Linda encounters racism alongside Bruce and grows as a person. Lauren Holly and Scott Lee have good chemistry, and a couple of steamy scenes between the two don’t hurt the film, either. The other woman in Bruce’s life is Vivian (Michael Learned), Linda’s mother, who is incapable of accepting her daughter seeing a Chinese man. As Vivian tells Bruce, “You’re an American citizen, not really an American.”
Of course “Dragon” isn’t just about Bruce encountering white bigotry. The film also takes aim at the secretive Chinese groups who doesn’t want to share their culture with the whites, despite living among them. In fact, it’s a Chinese martial artist who becomes Bruce’s archenemy throughout the film, and the two engage in fisticuffs numerous times, including an excellent and exciting match inside a ring with a clock counting down.
Did everything that takes place in “Dragon” really take place in real life? I highly doubt it. The film is more of a merging of real broad strokes from Bruce’s life and sequences taken from his movies. The subplot about Bruce being stalked by a demon from his childhood is used as metaphor, but comes across as much too literal a translation of a very traditional Chinese (and really, Asian) theme.
In perhaps the most ironic realization of all, the film ends with Bruce defeating the demon via an ethereal battle, and thus saves his son Brandon by not passing the demon curse onto the boy. This was a good ending, very creative, but after the real Brandon Lee’s death on the set of “The Crow” a few weeks prior to the opening of “Dragon” in 1993, the whole ending comes across as rather eerie. Not to mention very sad, since Brandon was about his father’s age when he died.
“The Crow” went on to become a hit, as did Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon,” making both men movie stars posthumously.
Rob Cohen (director) / Edward Khmara, John Raffo, Rob Cohen (screenplay)
CAST: Jason Scott Lee …. Bruce Lee
Lauren Holly …. Linda Lee
Robert Wagner …. Bill Krieger
Michael Learned …. Vivian Emery
Nancy Kwan …. Gussie Yang