Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Starring Jason Scott Lee

Jason Scott Lee, the young emerging actor, can now be seen in two new movies: Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and Map of the Human Heart. Neither film is very good, but singly and jointly, they feature the talents of an attractive actor who brings to the screen both physical intensity and lyrical, emotional expressiveness. Born and raised in Hawaii, Lee (who is unrelated to Bruce Lee) studied acting in Southern California and made a number of TV movies before his two breakthrough roles this year.

Dragon, a biopicture of the late martial arts expert Bruce Lee, is admittedly enjoyable and entertaining, but it is also old-fashioned and conventional. The problem with many biopicture movies is that, no matter what persona and what life they celebrate, they ended up sounding and feeling the same. Dragon also suffers from other weaknesses of this popular genre: excessive melodramatics and sappy sentimentality. Bruce Lee may have been a larger-than-life figure, but he is regrettably contained in a small-than-art picture.

Using the format of many biopictures, which can be summed up as the rise and fall of an extraordinary individual, Dragon follows a chronological approach, beginning with Lee’s childhood in China in the 1940s, his emigration to the U.S. and work in a San Francisco restaurant.

Dragon has an interesting story to tell, particularly an interracial romance with a white girl (Lauren Holly), who defies her mother’s wish when she marries him. But unfortunately, the film isolates the couple from their social surroundings; we need to know more about the reaction of their friends (the movie doesn’t show any) and of the society at large to this mixed and unconventional marriage. By standards of the time, Lee’s wife must have been an extremely strong and courageous woman.

The film is based on the memoirs of Lee’s widow (titled Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew), but I suspect that here and there, the movie deviates from historical accuracy. I have not read the book, but my feeling his that Ms. Lee has not written such clich dialogue as, “I don’t understand you, I don’t know who you are anymore”

One of the film’s highlights, which is effective without being overstated, is Lee attending a screening of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in which the all-American Mickey Rooney is cast as Audrey Hepburn’s Asian neighbor. In one brief second, we get an insight into Hollywood’s discrimination against ethnic minorities, specifically the tendency to cast white actors in Asian (and black) roles. This theme is later elaborated, when Lee loses Kung Fu, a TV series he originated, to David Carradine.

The last chapter takes place in Hong Kong, where Lee relocates with his family to make movies. Once again, we need to know more about the personal and marital tensions that this lifestyle created for a man who was so proud of being an American citizen.

Lee’s best-known film, Enter the Dragon, was released in 1973, just weeks after his premature death, when he was 32 and at his prime. The popularity of Hong Kong’s action movies in the U.S. has renewed interest in Bruce Lee’s martial arts and increased the cult of his personality.

The recent death of Brandon Lee, Bruce’s son, who was accidentally (and negligently) shot while shooting a movie in North Carolina, adds an inevitable sadness and greater resonance to the viewing of Dragon. This tragic event also makes the film’s allusions to Lee’s family curse (which apparently is transmitted from one generation to another) really strange.