July 12, 2012
I am Bruce Lee
Director: Pete McCormack
Run time: 94 mins
Review by Bill Harrington
That a film star who made very few films, the majority of which a relatively small amount of Western audiences have seen, should remain such an iconic figure throughout the world nearly 40 years after his death is remarkable. Yet Bruce Lee remains instantly recognisable to millions and seems to generate near religious devotion among fans. Some high-profile figures from sport and entertainment number amongst them, and they chip in their recollections and adoration in this punchy documentary which traces Lee's story from childhood to premature death, and goes some way to identifying why this man remains a rarefied pop culture phenomenon.
Take a deep breath though. It moves apace. Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco in 1940 and made his (uncredited) film debut shortly after as an infant in Golden Gate Girl. His family took him back to their ancestral home of Kowloon, Hong Kong, where he continued in work as a child actor and then spent his formative years winning cha-cha dancing titles and duffing up rivals in street-gang fights. Fearing he was on an inexorable path to deliquency, his parents sent him back to the US to improve his education. He began teaching students kung fu in his spare time and in 1963 he brought attention to himself by agreeing to train students of any race. This angered traditionalist members of the Chinese community. Lee was always one for breaking with traditions however. He thought the old styles of martial arts too inflexible. His solution was too incorporate other modes of fighting, such as boxing, karate and even wrestling, into traditional forms and thus develop his signature fighting style the Jeet Kune Do. He caught Hollywood's eye, winning the role of Kato, the Green Hornet's sidekick, who for many a child fan was of far greater interest than the hero himself. Hollywood stars fell over themselves to train with him. Steve McQueen was an eager and aggressive student. James Coburn showed control and poise. Roman Polanski, James Garner and Lee Marvin were other big names eager to learn under this charismatic tutor. Hollywood was ultimately to let Lee down, preferring to cast the American actor David Carradine in high-profile TV series Kung Fu. He returned to Hong Kong where, to his surprise, he was greeted as a returning hero. The Green Hornet's Kato was a hugely popular figure there. Encouraged by his popularity, Lee teamed up with film producer Raymond Chow to make The Big Boss. This violent revenge film became a box office sensation in Hong Kong. Audiences were now hungry for Lee's aggressive charisma and astounding martial arts skills, and he now set down the road to creating his most famous roles and ultimately achieving cultural immortality.
This is a documentary as springy and nimble as the man himself. Director Pete McCormack, whose previous documentary Facing Ali centred on one of the few modern cultural icons in Lee's league for recognition, packs in a tremendous amount of information into a lean amount of running time. The tone is reverent but fairly balanced too. Amongst the interviewees Lee's wife Linda, his daughter Shannon and former student and friend Dan Inosanto provide touching personal testimony of their relationship with the star. Famous names featured include basketball player Kobe Bryant, actor Mickey Rourke and recently robbed boxing legend Manny Pacquiao. Modern martial artists barely contain their worship for the man they regard as being hugely influential on mixed martial arts and UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship). Old bruiser Gene LeBell is a little more measured in his estimation of Lee's fighting ability. There are some little known and surprising facts thrown in (which I won't spoil), and some interesting meditation on how Lee gave confidence to the Chinese male psyche. From the fascinating interview footage we see of Lee as a very young man, and then again a mere few years prior to his death, we see he was a man who had confidence enough to sustain a nation. This energetic collision of interviews, facts, footage and philosophy makes for exhilarating entertainment, and being a fan of Bruce Lee is no prerequisite for enjoying it.