Eye For Film >> Movies >> I Am Bruce Lee (2011) Film Review
I Am Bruce Lee
Reviewed by: David Graham
Ever the enigma, Bruce Lee's earnest efforts to break Asian actors - and martial arts - into mainstream Western cinema are highlighted in this captivating chronicle. The tragic star inspires a frenzied following nearly 40 years after his death despite only having made a handful of movies, but behind the chop-socky onscreen madness there is a bigger story that will probably only be familiar to his most devoted fans. Facing Ali director Pete McCormack has made a distinguished, well-rounded portrait that only misses the mark when it gets bogged down in soppy celebrity adulation and inappropriate MMA propaganda.
A child star in the East from a showbiz family, Bruce Lee had to leave China as a teen on account of all the gang violence he was embroiled in, returning to his birthplace of America to continue his education. Working as a waiter and studying drama and philosophy at a Seattle university (where he met his future wife Linda), Lee subsidised his academic pursuits by teaching a selection of martial arts, which he would later combine to create his 'style of no style'.
A supporting - not to mention scene-stealing - role on The Green Hornet didn't open enough Hollywood doors for the charismatic performer, while Lee's attempts to get his own projects off the ground stalled, but he wasn't willing to buckle to easy exploitation; he had his own agenda for silver screen domination, taking him back to China where his skills were seemingly better appreciated. Warner Bros soon got wind of Lee's extraordinary potential though, producing his biggest feature yet with Enter The Dragon. The film's phenomenal success was tinged with sadness, however, when the 32-year-old died in 'mysterious' circumstances a mere week before its release.
A fuzzy black-and-white talk show interview forms the spine of McCormack's narrative, and offers the most illuminating glimpse into Lee's multi-faceted persona; faced with an appreciative but ill-educated host, the then-rising star comes across as both humble and self-aggrandising, politicised and socially conscious. He's able to be charming and funny when he needs to undercut his intensely coiled presence, and hypnotically erudite when it comes to explaining his worldview and beliefs. It's easy to see that Lee was trying to make a real difference in terms of the way Eastern people (men in particular) were viewed by Westerners, while making a sincere argument for martial arts as an art-form. This interview in itself would make a fantastic watch in its own right, so it's a shame it hasn't turned up as a special feature.
Elsewhere, McCormack flits between archival material, classic movie clips and traditional, studio-shot talking heads to build up a picture of Lee's life and talent. A casting tape for the young wannabe gives startling evidence of how naturally handsome and appealing he was away from the action, while the home movies of him coaching Hollywood icons like James Coburn and Steve McQueen show how respected and unaffected he was by the showbiz world.
Recollections from the love of his life Linda and his surviving child Shannon are incredibly emotionally stirring; both are unmistakably strong women, Linda obviously having held her own next to the indomitable Lee and Shannon learning from his example despite barely remembering him (McCormack touches upon but sensibly downplays the eerie symmetry of her brother Brandon's death - that would be a whole other film). Testimonials from contemporary martial arts legends are also very moving, often laced with a wit that conveys the camaraderie Lee must have felt and inspired among his fellow practitioners.
Some of the interviewees selected are frankly baffling, though; there's a lesser spotted Black Eyed Pea, some unknown music video dancer, a couple of no-mark UFC has-beens, and most indulgently Dana White, kingpin of the insanely successful Mixed Martial Arts league. McCormack foolishly goes off on a midway tangent into overly technical debate about the techniques that Lee used and claimed to have created - as well as those that he influenced - leading to an assessment of the UFC and modern mixed martial arts that's meant to be an example of Lee's lasting legacy but comes across as an offensively blatant advert for the already world-beating establishment. Each individual's passion for the late actor is infectious and undeniable, but their contributions to this film are spurious at best and infuriating at worst.
Apart from these blips, I Am Bruce Lee is a solid reminder of why the eponymous actor is still the most celebrated star of fight film history. His life story is told with a level of detail that will enthrall the uninitiated while appeasing the egos of knowledgeable die-hards (who knew he was an avid ballroom dancer?). Many of his most famous scenes are skilfully edited into the run-time to give an exciting taste of where he shone best, breaking ground and bones up there on the big screen, capturing hearts like no Eastern man had done before. McCormack's mis-steps are just about excusable given the intimate access he grants the audience into Lee's private world and the clear respect he communicates for the actor's inestimable talent and contribution.Reviewed on: 10 Aug 2012