It was May of 1993 and my friends and I had just graduated from high school. We couldn’t wait for the summer movie season to begin and it was promising to be a good one. As I flipped through the Life section of the San Jose Mercury News one day, I ran into an ad for a test screening of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. What better way to start off the summer films than with a biopic of Bruce Lee’s life? Much of our excitement in seeing Dragon stemmed from Brandon Lee’s (Bruce Lee’s son) mysterious death a few months before on the set of The Crow. Due to his son’s death, public interest in Bruce Lee was very high and although tragic, Brandon Lee’s death was huge publicity for Universal. I think public interest in Dragon would have been high even without Brandon’s death, but the tragedy added a lot more fuel to the public’s interest.

My friends and I piled into the car and drove out to the Winchester Century Theaters. We were clearly not the only ones in San Jose trying to get a ticket. Upon our arrival at the theater, we were met with a line that snaked completely around the building. Bruce Lee apparently had a shitload of fans and they had easily managed to sell out the theater. Given the lackluster alternatives playing on the other screens, our only other viable choice that day was Dave. Given how prepared we were to see an action movie that day, Dave wasn’t quite the replacement we were looking for. Dejected, we returned home and I eventually ended up seeing Dragon on HBO.

Dragon is less a quality film and more of a guilty pleasure that makes for a highly entertaining experience. I was never a fan of Bruce Lee films while growing up. Sure, like anyone in the world, I definitely knew who he was. To me he was the kung fu guy who made funny noises and who faced off against Chuck Norris in a movie. However, I didn’t know anything about Bruce Lee’s life and career. Dragon looked to be my
introduction to the martial artist. The film follows Bruce Lee’s life through childhood, his young adult years spent in the Bay Area, his marriage to Linda Lee Caldwell, and his television and film career. It stands out among other Hollywood biopics because it’s an insightful look into Hollywood’s portrayal and attitude toward Asians. I could tell that
the director, Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious, Stealth, Dragonheart, The Mummy III, and XXX) had a deep respect and appreciation for Bruce Lee and he was not afraid to show specific instances of racism in Hollywood. For example, there is a memorable scene where Bruce Lee and his future wife go out on a date to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Lee becomes uncomfortable and angry when he sees Mickey Rooney’s racist portrayal of an Asian landlord and how everyone inside the movie theater is laughing at the joke. In a probably more controversial scene, we see the ABC network’s decision to cast David Carradine instead of Bruce Lee in the show Kung Fu despite the show being Bruce Lee’s creation. The film deals with Bruce Lee’s struggles to become accepted in his adopted
country in the U.S. while also introducing it to his Chinese culture. Unfortunately for Lee, his ambitions and dreams were restrained by American attitudes toward Asians and, as a result, he could not attain the level of success he was otherwise sure to achieve. Dragon effectively shows you all of this and because of how it handles these aspects of Bruce Lee’s life, the film rises above most other Hollywood biopics.

Besides the rich biographical material, the film’s success strongly hinges on the mesmerizing and powerful performance from Jason Scott Lee (no relation to Bruce Lee). There is no valid reason why Lee was not nominated for an Academy Award for his performance. For an actor to take on the near-mythic persona of Bruce Lee and ably embody not only Lee’s character and spirit but to also pull off his physical talents is
an incredible achievement. This was one of those classic Hollywood success stories where a single movie creates a movie star overnight. Before Dragon, Jason Scott Lee had appeared in small parts here and there (NOTE: He was the hysterical Asian skater in Back to the Future II). He was basically an unknown actor, which was perfect for his casting in Dragon because he didn’t have to overcome the kind of audience expectations that he otherwise would have to deal with had he already been a movie star. In Dragon, Lee somehow seems to channel Bruce Lee in his mannerisms and physicality. In fact, I was so convinced by Jason Scott Lee’s performance that when I first saw Enter the Dragon (which was after seeing Dragon), I could not help but picture Jason Scott Lee playing the character instead of the real Bruce Lee. Sadly, Lee’s career didn’t go very far after Dragon, but I have read that he continues to practice Bruce Lee’s martial arts technique and he is now a certified instructor.

Another standout performance in Dragon is from Lauren Holly (Jim Carrey’s ex-wife). She plays Linda Lee Caldwell, Bruce Lee’s wife. Holly’s character looks like the all-American girl next door, which is a huge contrast to the man she married. Against her mother and society’s expectations, she follows her man and supports him to the end. Even though this film is obviously about Bruce Lee, considerable time is spent on Linda Lee as well. After all, Bruce Lee’s life revolved around his wife and children so it makes sense that a lot of time is spent covering Linda Lee’s life as well. I liked that Holly doesn’t play the typical housewife role. She is an active participant in her husband’s career success, especially during the early years of their marriage when Bruce Lee was launching his martial arts dojos. Holly’s best scenes are in the first half of the film during the courtship years where she must deal with her mother’s disapproval of dating an Asian man and where she’s exposed to Bruce Lee’s culture.

Dragon certainly takes some creative license in telling Bruce Lee’s story. Dates, places, and particular facts about Bruce Lee are changed for dramatic reasons. The filmmakers seemed to have a particular idea of how they wanted to portray the man and details of his history are changed to fit that. Overall, however, the changes do not amount to
anything significant and the totality of Bruce Lee’s story is generally accurate. If you’re looking to show your children a martial arts film that doesn’t pander to the lowest common quotient of intelligence (i.e. Karate Kid remake that’s in theaters now), try this film out as well as Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

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