There is a priceless moment in "Rapid Fire," where Brandon Lee is transformed by anger from a scared college kid to a vengeful fighting machine. Co-star Powers Boothe, playing an older and wiser heroic sort, advises Mr. Lee to calm down and get his "fists of fury" under control.
The reference may sail right over the heads of the customers who don't keep track of such things. But it's a small treat for the fans: Mr. Boothe's line in "Rapid Fire," which opened at area theaters Friday, is a nod to Lo Wei's "Fists of Fury" (China; 1972), a watershed martial-arts film as well as a star vehicle tailored to the commanding screen presence of the celebrated athlete/actor Bruce Lee.
Brandon Lee is Bruce Lee's son.
And at 27, Brandon Lee is proceeding deliberately with a career that has more than a superficial resemblance to that of his father.
"I'd like to be able to show 'Rapid Fire' to my dad," Brandon Lee said the other day. "I'm that proud of what we've accomplished within the framework of the action-adventure formula.
"As for what he might have to say about the picture -- well, no point in imagining."
San Francisco-born of Chinese ancestry, Bruce Lee had earned a degree in philosophy and become a martial-arts ace before he took a run at acting during the 1960s, first on the "Batman" and "Green Hornet" TV series and at length in a variety of feature films made in Hollywood and Hong Kong. His unexpected and still-unexplained death in 1973 left a void that remains unfilled in the movies' action-adventure genre.
Brandon Lee learned the martial arts first but began pursuing an acting career before he was out of high school.
"I've wanted to follow my dad into acting for as long as I can remember," he said. "I've had a very serious round of dramatic training, and I like action films that take their characters seriously, so I figure I'm making it the best of both worlds if I try to bring some serious acting to a shoot-'em-up picture."
Mr. Lee's breakthrough year was 1986, when he landed a supporting role -- as a Manchu assassin who means to do David Carradine some harm -- in the made-for-television "Kung Fu: The Movie." He followed through rapidly with a star turn in "Legacy of Rage," a Cantonese-language thriller that seems never to have been dubbed into English for general release.
"Legacy" has, however, played in some U.S. Chinatown districts. Producer Robert Lawrence -- whose projects have ranged from the acclaimed "Rain Man" to the "Child's Play" shockers -- caught the import on one such engagement, perceiving Mr. Lee as a potential contender in a movie-star marketplace that has been dominated by Occidental action stars since the departure of Bruce Lee.
"I was involved with the project before there was even a script," Brandon Lee said. "Not to suggest I had a lot to do with the writing, but I did enjoy the luxury of having access to the screenwriter, Alan McElroy, while things were developing. I doubt I added much beyond just acquainting the writers with the kind of personality I'd bring to the picture."
A substantially friendlier picture than his previous such effort, the antagonistic buddy movie "Showdown in Little Tokyo," this new entry presents Mr. Lee as a Chinese art student/athlete who happens to have witnessed the slaying of his father in the Tiananmen Square uprising. Now in America, the character resists contact with reminders of that experience but is drawn back into a fighting stance when he has a run-in with a drugs-and-politics mob.
The elements of genre formula are all there, of course, but "Rapid Fire" also bothers to present some vivid characterizations and touches of realism.
"Action-adventure, that genre, only works for me if you can care about the characters," Mr. Lee said. "If the hero's not taking some kind of a journey, then there are no stakes -- and no stakes, then you don't care if he lives or dies, wins or loses."
Meanwhile, Mr. Lee is exercising his thespian muscle on more demanding fare, as well: In a Los Angeles stage assignment, he at work on a new production of the acclaimed playwright Sam Shepard, who is about as far removed as one can get from martial-arts movies.
"I just happen to like the action-adventure movies," Mr. Lee said. "No law that says you can't work in all types of dramatic stuff."