If the key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering, few people have achieved immortality to a greater degree than Bruce Lee. Under the direction of Rob Cohen, 1993’s “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable biopics to make it to film. It’s certainly one of the best cast with Jason Scott Lee assuming the title role in a truly lightning-in-a-bottle performance made that much more impressive by Scott Lee’s lack of martial arts experience prior to taking on the role.
Jason Scott Lee steps into the title role of the legendary Bruce Lee, and by the time the end credits roll around, few will leave the film not convinced that this was the role he was destined to play! Lauren Holly assumes the equally integral role of Bruce’s wife, Linda Emery, while Robert Wagner appears as Bill Krieger, a Hollywood producer who helps kickstart Bruce’s career in show business.
Ric Young also appears in the role of Bruce’s father, Lee Hoi-chuen, while Luoyong Wang tackles the role of Bruce’s Wing Chun mentor, Ip Man. Michael Learned also portrays Linda’s mother, Vivian Emery, while Iain M. Parker and Michelle Tennant take on the roles of Bruce’s children, Brandon and Shannon Lee. Sven-Ole Thorsen fills the role of the demonic warrior who haunts Bruce’s nightmares, while John Cheung takes on the more tangible villainous role of Johnny Sun, analogous to Bruce’s famed opponent Wong Jack Man, with Ong Soo Han playing his loyal brother, Luke.
As a child, Hong Kong youngster Lee Jun-fan becomes a disciple of local Wing Chun master, Ip Man, and quickly excels in mastering the art of kung fu. However, a teenage Lee finds himself in hot water after getting in a fight with a group of British sailors. Knowing that his son was born in San Francisco, under the English name of “Bruce Lee”, Lee Hoi-chuen sends his son back to the United States in an effort to set him on the right path. After arriving in his new homeland, Bruce is forced to battle against the prejudice of being an Asian immigrant, but finds support with his American girlfriend, Linda Emery, whom he later marries. She continues to stand by his side as Bruce faces opposition from the local Chinese community for teaching kung fu to non-Chinese students, and during his later efforts to break into the film industry in his quest to communicate his philosophy of martial arts and life to the world.
Like most biopics, “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” takes its share of poetic license with the life story of its title character, and if you’ve done your homework on Bruce’s life, its easy to spot the areas where the film blurs the line between fact and fiction.
What’s important about “Dragon”, and indeed any great biopic, is that it captures the soul of its subject’s life. The essence of “Dragon” is that Bruce Lee was an extraordinary man who lived an extraordinary life, broke down cultural barriers in the East and West, and inspired an incalculable number of people across the planet, including yours truly.
Of course, no biopic could get that across without just the right leading man for the job, and few biopics have cast their main character as splendidly as is the case for Jason Scott Lee. From the moment he sets foot on-screen to put a few arrogant British sailors in their place to the final frame of our hero diligently training in front of a setting sun, Jason IS Bruce Lee. In everything from posture and speech to mannerisms and his beyond incredible martial arts ability, Jason embodies the one-of-a-kind energy Bruce lived and breathed with an ease that is simply out of this world.
The unenviable task of recreating a life is what every biopic lives or dies on, but with Jason’s commanding performance in the title role, “Dragon” is one of the most rock-solid examples of the former you’ll ever see.
Of course, “Dragon” faces a further challenge in doing justice to the life of the greatest martial artist of the 20th century, but it proves to be anything but a burden for director Rob Cohen and his supple leading man. Cohen has said his intent was to craft “Dragon” into the stylistic equivalent of an actual Bruce Lee movie, and in that endeavour, few viewers will be able to resist the urge to declare “mission accomplished” by the end.
Jason Scott Lee may have been a rookie martial artist (at least, at the time), but you’d never guess it in a million years after seeing him in action in the film’s excellent energetic fight sequences. It’d be hard to pick where the film hits it out of the park the most, but Bruce’s two duels with the formidable Johnny Sun (a stand-in for his famed real-life opponent, Wong Jack-man) are where the film arguably hits its hardest. Their first match-up will clean your clock just as thoroughly as the two combatants clean one another’s. (Side note: the fight’s conclusion, which creates a fictionalized tie into Bruce’s infamous back injury for the sake of streamlining the narrative, has always been my theory as to why Wong’s name was changed for the film.)
Bruce’s rematch with Johnny Sun later in the film is perhaps the most triumphant moment in the film for him, and marks the point where Bruce lands his first big break as Kato on “The Green Hornet”. The director and leading man’s attention to detail is further exemplified by little moments in each set piece that harken back to some of Bruce’s on-screen persona signatures. From leaping in the air to stomp an opponent into oblivion to licking the blood from an open wound before going into berserker mode complete with cat-like sound effects. Jason further does his role proud with his use of Bruce’s iconic weapon of choice, the nunchaku, in both the opening and climactic battles of the film. (The latter with a demonic warrior haunting Bruce’s nightmares, whose quest to destroy our hero is foretold to him throughout the film by both his father and Ip Man himself.)
Cohen certainly delves much further into the metaphysical than most biopics, but it proves a fitting thematic anchor to the battles of Bruce’s life, envisioned in “Dragon”; as symbolically internal as they were external.
In its lofty aim to present the audience with the life of a man who quite simply changed the world, “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” is one of the most enjoyable and uplifting biopics you could ever ask for. Jason Scott Lee gives a star-making performance as history’s most legendary martial artist, as the film engrosses you with one satisfying fight sequence after another. However, the film, above all, is testimony to the foresight of director Rob Cohen’s approach to adapting Bruce’s life as if it were part of his own filmography, and as we can all surely agree, the life of Bruce Lee makes for one hell of a movie!
- Prior to being cast in this film, Jason Scott Lee had no formal martial arts experience, training in Jeet Kune Do for the role. After the film, Jason would continue his training under one of Bruce’s original students, Jerry Poteet, and since became a certified Jeet Kune Do instructor. Jason would also later train at China’s famed Shaolin Temple as covered in the documentary “Secrets of Shaolin”.
- The film is dedicated to the memory of Bruce’s son, Brandon Lee, who was tragically killed on the set of “The Crow” in 1993, just a few weeks prior to the film’s release.
- The character of Jerome Sprout, played by Sterling Macer, is based on Bruce’s real-life student, Jesse Glover.
- The fight between Bruce and Johnny Sun is modelled on Bruce’s Coliseum fight with Chuck Norris in “Way of the Dragon”, with its arena setting and the warm-up routine both fighters go through before the fight.
- The fight between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man would later serve as the basis for the 2017 film “Birth of the Dragon”, with Bruce and Wong respectively portrayed by Phillip Ng and Xia Yu.
- Bruce’s daughter Shannon Lee makes a cameo as the singer at a party for “The Green Hornet” cast, in which Linda reveals to Bruce that she’s pregnant with Shannon.
- Van Williams, Bruce’s co-star from “The Green Hornet”, makes a cameo as the director of an episode of “The Green Hornet”.
- In Rob Cohen’s 2001 film “The Fast and the Furious”, this film can be seen playing on a television in a scene in Dominic Toretto’s house.
- “I’m different.” – Bruce (when another Hong Kong native shares the hardships Asian immigrants face in the West.)
- “They are not the enemy. They just don’t know us. We’ve been so closed for so long, they’ve never seen the real beauty of our culture. Let’s show it to them.” – Bruce (justifying his practice of teaching non-Chinese students.)
- “We all have inner demons to fight. We call these demons ‘fear’, and ‘hatred’, and ‘anger’. If you don’t conquer them, then a life of a hundred years is a tragedy. If you do, a life of a single day can be a triumph.” – Ip Man (explaining the essence of kung fu to a young Bruce Lee.)
- “All these years later, people still wonder about the way he died. I prefer to remember the way he lived.” – Linda (reflecting on Bruce’s legacy at the end of the film.)
Film Rating: 8.5/10
Some 25 years after its original release, how does “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” hold up in your view, what parts of the movie do you remember best? Which martial artists or action icons would you be keen to see a biopic on? Let us know in the comments below; Like, share and join in the conversation with us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter & Instagram. (Activate your own Dragon-story by exploring KFK’s veritable FUniverse of movie reviews!)