Thursday, March 10, 2011

Underrated Movie #111: Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story


Cheesy Week mini-unit #2: Kung Fu Fighting!

Title: Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story
Year: 1993
Director: Rob Cohen
Writers: Edward Khmara and John Raffo and Rob Cohen, from books by Linda Lee Caldwell and Robert Clouse
Stars: Jason Scott Lee (no relation to Bruce), Lauren Holly, Nancy Kwan

The Story: Young Bruce Lee is sent to America to escape the reach of the demon that has cursed his family. He marries a wonderful woman, teaches his own brand of kung fu, and shows the world what he can do, but the demon finally catches up to him at the height of his career.
How it Came to be Underrated: No bio-pic ever served the fans of its subject better (they actually capture his appeal), and it did fine box office at home and abroad, but its unabashed cheesiness kept it from getting taken very seriously, and it was quickly forgotten in this country.
Why It’s Cheesy Fun:
  1. The central conceit of this movie is wonderfully ballsy: if you’re going to make a Bruce Lee bio-pic, why not make it into a real Bruce Lee movie, filled with several impromptu over-the-top fist fights? After all, Bruce’s life really was filled with fighting, although those fights may not have been as gamely entertaining as these.
  2. The casting of Jason Scott Lee was initially criticized because he was only half-Chinese (and half-Polynesian) and not a martial artist (he was trained as a dancer). But he couldn’t have been more perfect. He did get trained to fight (well enough for closely-edited action) but that’s only eight scenes. Far more importantly, he was able to move like Lee in every scene—elegantly fluid and joyously springy. He also captured something no one can teach: charm. It’s a crime that he didn’t go on to become a bigger star after this.
  3. Several elements have been cavalierly fictionalized to make them more dramatic. Whenever Cohen has to choose between showing how Lee’s life was or showing how it felt, he wisely show chooses the latter. The only way to turn a whole life into one seamless story is to re-arrange and combine many elements. That method gets highly criticized in more controversial bio-pics, but it serves this sort of movie just fine. Cohen modestly and carefully details all of the fictionalizations in his commentary.
  4. Bruce broke a lot of barriers, but nothing was more brazen about him then or now than his ridiculous amount of sex appeal, which was strictly forbidden for Asian men in America. This movie does a beautiful job capturing that. Remember way back when movies were still allowed to have sex scenes? Whatever happened to those?
  5. This was supposed to feel like an exploitation movie, but a real life tragedy intervened at the last minute which made it seem far more exploitative than they had ever intended. In the metaphorical demon scenes that run through the movie, they establish that Bruce has to defeat the family demon or else it will come after his son. This was supposed to be a triumphant note (he died to save his son!) but after this movie was finished, one month before it opened, the actual Brandon Lee died in a bizarre on-set tragedy that eerily echoed his father’s mysterious death. It was too late to do anything but send a ghoulish message about the inevitability of fate.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: What else? The best Bruce Lee movies are Enter the Dragon and an earlier movie that was released here later as Return of the Dragon, but they’re all great, even Game of Death, where he was just in the last twenty minutes—but what a twenty minutes!
How Available Is It?: The DVD has an excellent in-depth commentary from Cohen, who seems like a real pro and a great guy, but the DVD is not anamorphic, so it could really use a new edition.
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2 comments:

Matt Hannum said...

I remember seeing this when it came out in theaters when I was 14. Aside from developing in me a major crush on Lauren Holly (hooray for Picket Fences!), it also got me into Bruce Lee's cinema, and, all-too-briefly, Brandon's (and by that I mean "The Crow"- "Showdown in Little Tokyo" isn't really anyone's cinema). I rank their deaths right up there with Jim Henson's in the "Jesus-f'ing-Christ, why?" category. I'm glad to see someone else remembers the film fondly.

Steve Spatucci said...

I saw this movie when it came out, saw it a month ago, and a few times in between, and I've never stopped enjoying it - for all the reasons you mention.

My five year old son was just learning about Bruce Lee when we watched it recently, and he liked it too - though it was hard to explain that it wasn't really Bruce Lee... in a movie about Bruce Lee...

Have you ever seen "Map of the Human Heart", Matt? 1992, also staring Jason Scott Lee and directed by Vincent Ward who also did "The Navigator". I haven't seen it in a while but I enjoyed it a lot in the nineties. Worth looking into if you haven't seen it, since you like Jason Scott Lee's performance in "Dragon" so much.