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Return of the Dragon
The world’s greatest martial arts star, Bruce Lee, is remembered in Hollywood biopic Dragon. Alan Morrison met the ﬁlm’s lead, up- and-coming actor Jason Scott Lee.
When Bruce Lee died in l973, aged 32, he had starred in a mere four ﬁlms, only one of which — Enter The Dragon — was made in English. Nevertheless, his legacy in Hollywood terms has ﬁltered down from the likes of James Cobum and Steve McQueen (both of whom were Lee‘s pupils and pallbearers at his funeral), through countless straight-to-video imitations, to the contemporary antics of Van Damme, Seagal, Nom's et al. But unlike the stars of the 90s, the Lee who screeches, punches and kicks his way across the screen was a lithe, sinewy ﬁgure who favoured ‘usable muscle‘ to body mass. Outside of the ﬁlm world, he was instrumental in developing the technique of Jeet Kune Do (‘The Way Of lntercepting Fist‘), a style that took the most useful aspects of all other martial arts and combined them with a philosophy that promoted the confrontation of personal fears.
The mystery surrounding Lee’s death immediately promoted him to the ranks of pop culture immortals like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Jim Morrison. Rumours of a drugs overdose (unlikely: he never smoked or drank) or a Triad hit (possible: his teaching non-Chinese students angered traditionalists) furthered the rapidly developing legend, but an autopsy revealed that he suffered a cerebral oedema, a fatal swelling of the brain, brought on by an allergic reaction to an asprin he took for a headache while completing Game Of Death in Hong Kong. The fact that his son Brandon, star of Rapid Fire, also died in mysterious circumstances earlier this year on the set of The Crow, when he was accidentally shot by a gun supposedly ﬁring blanks, has only rekindled the notion of a family curse. By a strange coincidence, a scene in Game Of Death had Lee the elder shot on a ﬁctional ﬁlm set by a hit man who substitutes real bullets for blanks in a prop gun.
Dragon is one of the more successful bi0pics of recent years, given that any ﬁlm treatment of someone's life will automatically involve compromises. Director Rob Cohen, using the book Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew by Lee‘s widow Linda as his basis, weaves together three strong plot strands: an interracial love story, kung fu action scenes and a stylistically heightened sense of fate and destiny. The result is a movie that delivers the obligatory thrills for the action audience while shedding more light than usual on the motivations of its central character. The story itself takes Lee from
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his street-ﬁghting days in Hong Kong across the sea to America, where he enters college, sets up a martial arts school and marries a white girl before becoming a minor television star (incidently, he devised the idea for long-running 70s TV series Kung F u and became disillusioned when the role went to distinctly non-Asian actor David Carradine), and returning home for greater glory on the big screen.
‘I think that Bruce was a really expressive actor. But I don’t think he really took it that seriously because he was a martial artist before he was an actor.’
‘l think that Bruce was a really expressive actor,‘ says Jason Scott Lee (no relation), the newcomer chosen for this difﬁcult role. ‘But ldon't think he really took it that seriously because he was a martial artist before he was an actor. You look at other kung fu artists and they don't quite have the same explosiveness. Actually, l was reluctant to take the role because. as an athlete, i knew physically what it was to perform the type of abilities that he had; the things you saw on ﬁlm were organic, you could tell that they weren‘t fooled with by camera tricks, that he was actually slowing down his speed for the camera.
‘l met with Brandon early on, and he told me not to be so taken by this whole legend status, to try to perceive it as a man - a man with an incredible amount of abilities — but just a man who had nerves and failures and passions and sorrows and all the conflicts of being human. That gave me the incentive to start on a small level and take baby steps towards the idea of who this character really was. The
beneﬁts for me were that I had the footage of what he used to do, and also the private footage I was shown of home videos, and other ﬁrst-hand opportunities — talking to family, friends and colleagues — to see what this man was about. It was clear that his inner life kept spurring him on, driving him and keeping his attitude positive.‘
A native of Hawaii, but of Chinese-American descent, the 26-year-old actor’s versatile looks have already been put to good use: earlier this year he played an Eskimo carrying on a 30-year love affair with Anne Parillaud in Map Of The Human Heart; now he is an Asian martial arts star; next up, he is a 17th century Polynesian in the Kevin Costner production of Rapa Nui, which charts the class conflicts on Easter island which led to that culture’s decline and fall. Once Dragon’s producers had decided to cast an actor rather than a martial artist in the lead role, Lee had to undergo months of rigorous training under the expert eye ofJerry Poteet, a former student ofthe master himself. Within six months, the young actor had reached an impressive physical level that allowed him to do 95 per cent ofthe ﬁlm‘s stunt work himself. But even with impressive international productions behind him, there must now be a temptation to indulge in a few lucrative action movies, given his new-found skills.
‘It would have to advance personal growth, taking the martial arts to a new level,‘ he says, lapsing into Califomia-speak. ‘It would deﬁnitely have the foundation of Jeet Kune Do, because of where l‘m coming from, but it would probably encapsulate more of quick, aggressive swordplay — not the clunking style of fantasy, but more in the vein of the [ samurai. which is where I think Bruce would have I gone. I think he was experimenting with that before : he passed away.‘ ' Dragon opens in Scotland on Friday 22 October:
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The List 22 October—4 November 199319