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'The Bruce Lee Story' suffers from mysticism



MCA/Universal, rated PG-13 1993

Tackling a biography of an entertainment personality is loaded with difficult choices, from the approach to casting to deciding on which aspects of the subject's private and professional life to focus.

The producers of "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story" faced the added challenge of dramatizing the life of a legend, whose career has been well-documented in the 20 years since his tragic and sudden death, which remains shrouded in mystery.

Unfortunately, the movie gets off to a bad start. Credibility is almost immediately sacrificed with an opening scene of some sort of mystic Chinese demon haunting a youthful Lee, followed by a sequence in which a teen-age Lee encounters several ruffian American sailors at a Hong Kong dance hall and dispatches them in a manner that is not only improbable but also more hokey than the most silly of the many choreographed scenes from one of his movies. The young Lee's father then explains that the display will surely alert the demon who took his firstborn during birth in an attempt to end his bloodline and from whom he tried to hide his second son (Bruce) by giving him a girl's name and dressing him in girl's clothes. Lee flees to America with a new name and naive hopes of becoming a movie star like James Dean.

From here the movie settles into a more believable account of Lee's struggles in America. He battles anti-Asian racism at school, with his girlfriend's family and in the entertainment industry. He also alienates the Asian community when he blends several ancient martial arts disciplines into his own hybrid style. Asians are also angered when he starts a school to teach his form of martial arts and allows non-Asians to enroll.

Viewers who had only a casual interest in Lee may be curious about the cocky attitude he shows here. But this arrogance is substantiated in interviews with friends and business associates the two-hour documentary also recently released on video, "Bruce Lee: The Curse of the Dragon."

Likewise, weekly combat challenges from co-workers in a restaurant and from envious followers who accost him on his Hong Kong movie sets are also verified by those who knew him, though the extended restaurant brawl seems almost certainly exaggerated.

But just as the film gets to the point where we can begin to relate to the public Lee we came to know through his biggest production, "Enter the Dragon," and his shocking death almost immediately thereafter, the movie comes to an abrupt halt, with only one last plunge into the mystical warrior fantasy, which takes on an unintended extra creepy dimension in light of the accidental death this year of Lee's son Brandon.

It would have been nice to see more of the background of Lee's preparation and approach to his work on his most popular film and/or the one he returned to Hong Kong to finish -- "Game of Death." And it would have been satisfying to see a chronological playing out of the events and circumstances that led to his death and the subsequent reaction of associates and fans.

But even if we don't agree with all the tough choices made in getting Bruce Lee's story to the screen, certainly no one can quibble with the decision to use an actor who had to be taught martial arts rather than vice versa, because there's no denying the top-drawer performance of Jason Scott Lee (no relation -- son Brandon turned down the role).

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