There have been a number of attempts to bring the short life of martial arts legend Bruce Lee to the screen. In the years following his untimely death in 1973 Bruceploitation was born, a whole new genre created to continue Lee’s legacy starring lookalike actors with names such as Bruce Li and Bruce Le in films either emulating Lee’s style and re-hashing his previous films or taking the biopic route and telling fantastical, mythical interpretations of Lee’s life. As new stars began to emerge from the martial arts scene the genre was thankfully short lived, despite this the desire to tell a definitive version of the Bruce Lee story never faded.
In 1993 director Rob Cohen made a valiant effort at bringing Lee’s story to life with Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. Starring Jason Scott Lee (no relation) in the leading role the film had all the elements of a Bruceploitation flick with an added authentic attention to detail and at its core respect for Lee and his memory. However, the most ambitious attempt to tell Lee’s story must surely be The Legend Of Bruce Lee, a 50 episode Chinese television production which makes its UK debut, albeit in an edited form, on Blu-ray and DVD this week.
The Legend Of Bruce Lee follows the story of Lee’s journey from Hong Kong to America where he studied the many different forms of martial arts to develop and become the founder of his own style, Jeet Kune Do. The film sees Lee enter a number of martial arts competitions where he forges friendships and gains enemies in equal measure all the while supported by his wife Linda. As Lee’s star grows, the film details his rise to international fame in a series of groundbreaking martial arts feature films shortly before his death aged 32.
The makers of this Blu-ray presentation had the unenviable task of editing around 2000 minutes of footage from the television series into a more palatable 180 minute film and it is a testament to director Li Wen Qi and the series executive producer and Lee’s daughter Shannon that they have managed to produce a relatively coherent film with a beginning, middle and end.
Sadly the film’s television roots and production values are evident throughout with poorly designed, cheap looking sets, absolutely no attention to period detail whatsoever and for the most part the look and feel of a bad mid-eighties television soap opera. It might have been useful for captions to appear letting us know what year it is supposed to be as there really is no way of knowing. External scenes feature modern vehicles, extras dressed in modern clothes with fashionable haircuts, and in one scene a blatant advertisement for a PS3 game on the side of a San Francisco tram, in fact, it is only Lee who has been dressed in the style of the period in which the story is supposed to be taking place.
On the plus side Lee is played by Kwok-Kwan Chan, who many will recognise from Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer, where he played a Lee obsessed goal keeper and Kung-Fu Hustle as the leader of the Axe Gang. He brings an authentic look to Lee and manages to capture the mannerisms, style and overall screen presence of the man himself. He more than holds his own in the numerous fight scenes and seems just as comfortable wielding nunchucks as he does with the more tender scenes demanding emotion and depth.
The film’s fight scenes are generally pretty good and varied in their approach. Often enhanced by some rather obvious wire work and nicely done, if a little over-used, x-ray visual effects showing the impact on the fighters’ bones. The action scenes also offer a number of cameo appearances for some well known martial artists, Gary Daniels, Ray Park (Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace) and Mark Dacascos are all given a decent opportunity to show off their talents.
The film is at its strongest in the final hour when Lee makes his journey back to Hong Kong to star in a number of feature films. Here a number of his most memorable scenes are faithfully recreated offering a brief insight into the making of these films and Lee’s state of mind at the time.
The film’s three hour running time is a tough slog and although there are a number of decent scenes and performances the overall pacing means you have to sit through a lot of needless, poorly made material to get there. Cohen’s 1993 film tells almost the same story in a much more interesting way that it makes it difficult to recommend this film to anyone other than die-hard Bruce Lee fans.
While the picture quality is generally clear throughout it does not look like a film in the traditional sense. When the film begins during a karate championship I thought that it was using home video, camcorder footage for effect then after a few minutes I realised this was the look of the whole film, as I mentioned earlier, a poor quality soap opera visual style. It might be HD quality but it lacks the depth and feel of real film.
Sound quality is acceptable but the single choice of the Mandarin dubbed soundtrack is all that is on offer. It is badly synced during any dialogue exchanges but at least the subtitles are clear and well timed if, on a few occasions, oddly translated. Sound effects are typical for a cheap martial arts movie and the soft rock soundtrack seems out of place.
There are no extra features on this disc unless you count the ability to switch the subtitles on and off or a scene selection option featuring a choice of 12 chapter points as special.
Despite the film having been edited from over 2000 minutes to just 180 minutes there are still too many superfluous scenes to spoil the overall pace and makes it a lengthy slog to get to the good stuff.
Visuals – 2 out of 5
It looks like a mid-eighties soap opera but at least it offers a clear picture in HD.
Audio – 2 out of 5
A standard cheap martial arts movie presentation with dialogue out of sync with the image.
Extras – 0 out of 5
Presentation – 2 out of 5
Animated menu featuring scenes from the film and a typically Bruceploitation style cover artwork that will draw in Lee fans.
Overall – 2 out of 5
With the full co-operation of the Lee family this should have been the definitive telling of Lee’s story, instead it covers old ground and is let down by poor production values. Only a solid central performance and some well executed fight scenes save this from total mediocrity.