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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story


Starring: Jason Scott Lee, Lauren Holly, Robert Wagner, Michael Learned, Nancy Kwan, Kay Tong Lim and Sven-Ole Thorson
Distributor: Fabulous Films Ltd / Fremantle Media Enterprises
RRP: £19.99


Certificate: 15
Release Date: 14 December 2020

Death. It’s Hollywood’s all time pet tie-in. When the son of Bruce Lee (who had adamantly refused to do director Rob Cohen’s Bruce Lee bio, Dragon) died tragically on the set of The Crow in March,1993, the Cohen bio was jumpstarted to debut the following May. It was explained that Jason Scott Lee was not related to the Lee martial arts dynasty but even this was cool irony, right? Yeah, if you’re Hollywood gunge.

Joe Kane, writing in the nascent Videoscope (Vol 1, #3) called the autopsy for what it was. “Bizarre, tragic and senseless are three words that spring to mind re: Brandon Lee’s death on the North Carolina set of The Crow. That the 28-year old rising martial arts star’s fate should so uncannily parallel his dad Bruce Lee’s (who died, reportedly of fight related injuries at age 32; whose dramatized bio, Dragon, is due in bijous 5/93) - rates as beyond perverse.” Yes, Joe Kane. You were right then and your are right now.

I see this film now for the first time. Before this it felt smarmy to give it my viewing attention. (Long before I encountered Joe Kane.) I avoided it for twenty-seven years. But here I am reviewing it for you. Of course the Fabulous Films Blu-ray presentation enjoys a contrast and coloratura the Universal release never had, projected in bijous, on the best acetate VHS and early DVD. The perversity of the mortician’s hearse release that Kane cringed at is still there but now as a historical footnote. The show must go on. Even for the next generation. That’s why digital engineering matters.

Jason Scott Lee has had a consistently busy career since then but never peaked again as with this film. Of course, Rob Cohen has had many peaks as a producer, writer and director, most notably The Fast and the Furious franchise which began in 2001 and achieved its own notoriety by finishing its seventh entry with the late Paul Walker completing the film posthumously when he died mid-shoot in a car crash. James Dean had done the same thing with Giant, or had it done for him, when he died in a road accident 30 September 1955 and the movie couldn’t debut until 24 November 1956.

Cohen’s film has heart. Bruce Lee is breaking barriers. Immigration, race, showbusiness stereotyping, language and a barrier rarely talked about: body size and height. He carries a poster of James Dean and he will become an icon of similar stature. After a nasty fight with Aussie sailors, he has to flee Hong Kong. His father gives him everything he can, family savings, savvy advice and most importantly his own dreams of working in films and his youthful brush with glamour in the pre-war Hong Kong film industry. Lee heads East. He will use his martial arts acumen to reach important people. His lone practice with short swords against the background of the Golden Gate Bridge is bracing. One can’t be unmoved by the passion. He crushes himself against Hemingway (For Whom the Bell Tolls) reading aloud the sharp quick monosyllabic prose of the master. James Dean’s poster on the inside of his door is a visage he sees every time he goes out into the Caucasian world. And Dean clearly approves of the stand-up sex Lee enjoys against the door with the Asian girl everybody wants. It’s like Dean participates in a three way. Something Dean certainly would have wholeheartedly approved.

A fight against four meat cleaver wielding assholes wins the respect of his boss (Nancy Kwan.) She stakes him to clothes and extra time to study and... work out. It is in a gym with racist assholes he next makes his reputation grow. The beaten jocks want to learn. Their flexibility is the first microcosm of the empowered culture to embrace him, Lee the Chinese man, Lee “the other.” The Asian arts are unknown at this time in popular culture. They are his ticket to acceptance.

Enter the blonde girl who wants to learn. She is Linda Lee Cadwell. (Holly). She will be his wife and the mother to his son, Brandon. Cross-racial dating is abrasive and insulting to American culture at this time. Dragon is a prism of American narcissism, hopes and dreams. Mickey Rooney doing a shitty Asian stereotype in Breakfast At Tiffany’s makes all the Caucasians laugh in a movie audience. Not Bruce. Linda understands. They leave. (I must add, Rooney’s performance makes the movie unwatchable for me too and always has. It’s emblematic of Hollywood asshole cynicism, like Joey Bishop as an Indian in a Frank Sinatra dipso western.)

Lee opens his own martial arts institute. The classes grow. But he is continuously besieged by a personal demon (Thorson, a haunt to anyone’s dreams) that’s shadowed him since he was a little boy. His parents knew of it, tried to protect him from it. It is a warrior demon from the past. His arts are nothing to it.

He teaches anybody who wants to learn. Any race, age, class, bringing him afoul of the San Francisco Chinese Lords who want to keep the arts their secret. A private match is called behind closed doors. More than Lee’s reputation is on the line. This is life and death. The match is over. Lee has won but then is viciously attacked from the back. Spinal injuries threaten to disable him forever. He tries to drive Linda away. She will not go. This is, at its core, a love story and it is these scenes between Linda and the paralyzed Lee that raise the movie to elegiac status. Rob Cohen is a heart director. When Lee stands and walks again, we stand and walk with him. He is now a father and the author of the ground breaking classic, Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Martial arts with a touch of Hegel.

The trail of success leads back to Hong Kong and The Big Boss (1971)and finally the fateful deal from uber producers, Fred Weintraub and Raymond Chow, hybridizing Hollywood with Hong Kong, Enter the Dragon - and ironically, Lee’s exit from the stage of showbusiness history and entry into legend. The ominous 32nd day of shooting Dragon... Cohen cameos as director Robert Clouse. There is an inner sense of foreboding and at the same time, cheer. The circumstances around his death are still debated. See what you think.


John Huff

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