I saw the Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story before I’d ever seen a real Bruce Lee movie. I had just discovered Brandon Lee in the previous year’s Rapid Fire (with Showdown in Little Tokyo on HBO around the same time) and hoped to see him become the next big star. Brandon died just a month earlier on the set of The Crow. After the tragedy, Dragon was a way into the Lee family.
I still understood the conceit was it was the Bruce Lee story as a Bruce Lee movie. Bruce (Jason Scott Lee) would get into graceful fights and rip his shirt off gratuitously. Fortunately, he carried nunchucks around to formal dances in the event a fight broke out.
Hollywood was about to have a brief love affair with Hong Kong cinema. Later that summer John Woo’s first American movie would open. Jackie Chan and Jet Li would finally find Hollywood vehicles five years later. And with The Matrix, Hollywood choreographers would use wirework. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon would be Oscar-nominated and win Best Foreign Feature. Yuen Woo Ping got some work before Hollywood moved onto the next thing which unfortunately was shakycam.
Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story director Rob Cohen may have been just a tad ahead of his time. It seems he updated the fights to reflect where martial arts choreography was by 1993. Dragon’s fights are more acrobatic than Lee’s movies ever were. Lee was about efficient strikes. Dragon has him flipping off the walls, though it suggests how Lee’s fights would have evolved had he lived into the ‘80s and ‘90s.
All biopics have to consolidate a life into a screenplay structure. Using the fights to introduce pivots life moments is an effective dramatization. A fight with bullies leads to the idea of teaching students. In real life, a back injury incapacitated him, so why not make that a dramatic fight too?
The racism Lee constantly faced was hopefully a thing of the past by 1993 but we know it was not, so it’s always relevant to show how wrongheaded it is. Bullies hassle him at the gym. Linda (Lauren Holly) is open and forward thinking when even her friend offers up her refusal to kiss a Chinese man (don’t worry, lady, Bruce wasn’t into you anyway). Linda’s mother is even harsher.
Even so, Linda faces her own privilege. She takes Bruce to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s and laughs along to Mickey Rooney until she sees it through Bruce’s eyes. I’m sure someone has disputed whether they actually watched that movie together, but it’s a timely device to show even people like Linda had blind spots. What shows her admirable character is she adapts. She doesn’t lecture Bruce on why he shouldn’t be offended.
Nationalism too. Bruce is an American citizen but white Americans refuse to accept him as an American. That is unfortunately even more relevant today as immigrants are persecuted by born citizens who blame them for things that are being done by our own economic manipulators. Modern people blaming immigrants aren’t exactly going to analyze modern economics or research historical parallels.
The artistic conceit of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story is that there was a demon plaguing the Lee family. His father believes that’s why they lost his older brother in childbirth. The implication is that in the end, the demon got Bruce too. Unintentionally it suggests the demon came for Brandon as well only weeks before this movie opened.
It’s a nice way of trying to understand how such promising talent could be taken so young. There are lots of conspiracy theories and I suppose it’s plausible that Chinese triads were demanding protection money or other martial artists wanted to stop Bruce from teaching kung fu to white people.
The truth is probably less dramatic. The amount of physical stress Bruce put his body through was probably more than his brain could take. He died of a cerebral edema, but if it wasn’t his brain it might have been his heart. His physique and skill was impressive but maybe our bodies are just not built to maintain that. Or maybe that’s just how I justify missing a workout when I’m tired. According to the film, doctors warned against fighting again after his injury.
Brandon Lee conspiracies were flying around this time too. The facts there unfortunately prove it was just shameful negligence on a movie set, and a macabre coincidence that it bore similarities to his father’s movie Game of Death.
Linda is really the hero of Dragon. Depending on your interpretation, Bruce Lee either destroyed himself with his obsessions (workaholic and pushing himself physically) or succumbed to tragic forces that overwhelmed him. Linda defied society and her family. Linda defied Bruce when he pushed her away and she fought for the marriage, and his teaching by writing the book The Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Linda preserved his legacy when he was gone, including the book Dragon was based on and she supported the movie.
By the way, Dragon has one of the best movie scores of all time. Randy Edelman’s score is so good you heard it in trailers throughout the ‘90s, most famously in Forrest Gump. How many other movies did the music of Dragon sell to much greater success and acclaim than its source.
After Dragon: The Bruce Lee story I did watch all the Bruce Lee movies, although it would still be years before I saw them in the proper aspect ratio and their original language on DVD. There were only three and a half actual movies, yet he has more charisma in those than Hollywood could contain. At the time, I thought that was the end, I’d seen everything he left behind. I had no idea how much more Hong Kong cinema I was soon to discover, but Jackie Chan and Yuen Woo-Ping movies weren’t being imported easily in 1993.
To this day I still cannot quite cope with the fact that both Bruce and Brandon had so much more to do in their lives. A movie can’t make such losses okay, but it helped to have something honor the family. Heck, in 1993 we didn’t even know if The Crow would ever come out. It did and that became a way to cope with grief too.
Now that I’ve discovered the work of Hong Kong Cinema Bruce Lee inspired, there’s more than I can ever hope to see. I think Lee would be proud of the artists who followed him, Still, as an admirer or martial arts, the story of Bruce Lee remains as poignant to me as ever. Here was a man whose ambitious exceeded his own lifespan. He faced great hardships to achieve what he did, and his family continued to alternatively prosper and suffer after he was gone. (Shannon Lee did a few cool Hong Kong movies too.)
As a love story, as an immigrant story, as a sports story, as a love letter to cinema, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story remains as moving as ever in all regards. It’s no wonder Cohen would go on to create the ultimate family saga eight years later with The Fast and the Furious.