Despite the soaring popularity of Jackie Chan and Jet Li in the past decade, Bruce Lee, or “Little Dragon” as he is called in Chinese, remains the iconic martial arts fighter. No doubt a lot of this is attributable to his death at the young age of 32. Like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe before him and unlike, say, Marlon Brando, Bruce Lee’s visage will never age. He remains eternally in his bustling prime for all to remember. Still, Lee’s reputation is all the more surprising in that it was more or less based on only four feature films – The Big Boss, Fists of Fury (aka The Chinese Connection), The Way of the Dragon, and Enter the Dragon. Lee was certainly no great shakes as an actor, but he projected a brash charisma in the way he held himself. His self-serious arrogance could be off-putting, but on screen, he uniquely combined ferociousness with grace, hot-headedness with calculation. Being so light on his feet and startlingly swift in his attacks set Lee apart from previous martial arts stars.Not until the 1980s would the rest of the martial arts film world catch up to him in speed and fluidity. After Lee’s death, only JFK conspiracies surpassed the fanciful speculations over how Lee died. Following that were Elvis-like rumors that Lee was still alive and would one day make an Arthurian return from his secret Avalon.
The documentary, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey, works in familiar territory covering Bruce Lee’s life. What seems like an endless number of previous attempts have ranged from being little more than hagiography (Bruce Lee, The Legend) to blatant exploitation (The Real Bruce Lee) to the utterly ridiculous (The Last Days of Bruce Lee). Journey certainly isn’t an attempt to show balance in whether Lee was a good human being, which would be a rather pointless exercise. Its primary motivation is to present footage from Lee’s last unfinished film, The Game of Death, as Lee intended, as opposed to the 1978 Robert Clouse-directed version. The 1978 film had a wholly different plot from the one that Lee fashioned (Lee was director, producer, writer, choreographer, and lead actor on the incomplete film). Clouse included only 11 minutes of actual footage that Lee shot and he substituted an unconvincing double for Lee’s character the rest of the time. Of Journey’s 101-minute running time, the last 35 are devoted to presenting the original footage cut to Lee’s wishes according to his script notes.
The new edit is difficult to evaluate without the context of an entire movie around it. The original story had Lee playing a retired martial arts champion being blackmailed by the Korean mafia when they kidnap his family. The mobsters force him to retrieve a treasure at the top of a five-tier pagoda. On each level, Lee has to fight a guardian (most of them played by his students) who each practice a different martial arts style. Only three tiers of combat were filmed. The climatic battle features a doozy of a fight between the 5’7 Bruce Lee against the 7’2 Kareem Abdul Jabbar. The new edit features Lee with two sidekicks who appear to be around only to show how superior each guardian is before Lee dismantles him. The 1978 version was more streamlined and efficient without the two lackeys, but Journey’s editing reveals much more dialogue between the combatants. Unfortunately, much of that is Lee giving a polemic on how much better a fighter he is than the guardians.
Unless one is alien to The Game of Death footage, the biography section works better. It covers how Lee’s kung fu style and philosophy developed over the years. From his initial Wing Chun style, Lee developed his own, Jeet Kune Do (Way of the Intercepting Fist), which emphasized an offense to counter another’s offensive attack. In this, he was influenced by European fencing and American boxing. Lee broke from tradition in introducing the idea of full contact sparring sessions. His fighting philosophy, which embraced economy of motion and simplicity, drew to him celebrity students like Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Kareem as well as veteran black belt karate champions Joe Lewis, Chuck Norris, and Mike Stone.
Lee was fond of advising, “Become formless and shapeless like water. When water is poured into a cup, it becomes the cup. When water is poured into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Be water, my friend.” One gets the sense Lee’s Confucius-like sayings worked to exploit a Western stereotype for his own gain, which is ironic in that he faced so much racism in trying to break into Hollywood. Hollywood rejected putting an Asian actor in lead roles. Lee came up with the concept of the “Kung Fu” television series, but a Caucasian, David Carradine, played the Chinese character. Lee got his break in Hong Kong and quickly became a superstar there. He brought greater realism to Hong Kong action, paving the way for Jackie Chan and away from the likes of the Swordsman series and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There are no impossible leaps or flying in Lee’s movies.
The bulk of Journey’s commentary comes from widow Linda Lee Cadwell and former students Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Taky Kimura. The documentary fails to mention more sordid details of Lee’s life like how he resorted to drugs to counter pain from a back injury he sustained in 1970 that plagued him for the rest of his life. The film does not even say how he died (from a brain edema), nor does it bring up the tragic death of Lee’s son, Brandon. Still, it is easily one of the best documentaries of Lee among the many out there, and despite its own hokey title, A Warrior’s Journey beats such over-the-top biopics as Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.