I Am Bruce Lee
Directors - Pete McCormack
Cast - Kobe Bryant, Mickey Rourke
Country of Origin - USA
Discs - 1
Distributor - Shout Factory
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
Date - 1/18/13
The Film: 4/5
If the unification between evolving martial arts fighting styles, popular action cinema, and Eastern philosophy could be personified by one individual, it would be Bruce Lee. Lee was infinitely more than a guy who could kick some serious ass and look like the king of men while doing so, although no one could deny him that. Lee brought the full scope of his mental, physical, and spiritual capabilities to every obstacle he set out to accomplish and in the process broke down barriers for Asians working in the American entertainment industry and was probably almost single-handedly responsible for every strip mall martial arts dojo that has ever existed in the United States. He opened the door for colleagues and acolytes like Jackie Chan, Sonny Chiba, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, and Chow Yun-Fat to become international movie stars and images of Lee in his fighting prime will forever decorate the college dorm room and dojo back office walls of the world. Bruce Lee was to martial arts what Marlon Brando was to acting, Jack Kirby was to comic books, and Jimi Hendrix was to rock music; he set out to a make a career of doing the things he loved best in the world and changed the landscape permanently. There could never be enough books written or documentaries made about the man because even four decades after his sudden and tragic death Bruce Lee continues to be one of the most fascinating artists of the 20th century.
A documentary produced for Spike TV in 2011, I Am Bruce Lee tells the amazing story of the life, career, and legacy of the greatest martial arts film star who ever lived, and the main reason you think all Asians know martial arts just because. Rather than rely on a detached narrator the story is told as an oral history through interviews with Lee's family, friends, colleagues, and celebrity admirers. The line-up includes Lee's wife Linda, daughter Shannon, Filipino-American martial arts legend Dan Inosanto and his daughter Diana Lee, filmmaker Reginald Hudlin, mixed martial arts great Gina Carano (also recently seen as the star of Steven Soderbergh's underrated action thriller Haywire), actors Mickey Rourke and Ed O'Neill (a black belt in Brazilian Ju-Jitsu), boxing legend Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, championship boxer Manny Pacquiao, Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas, self-professed "grandfather of mixed martial arts" (and I am inclined to believe him) Gene LeBell, karate great (and on-screen opponent of Lee in Enter the Dragon) Bob Wall, and many more. From the perspectives of those who knew and loved him the best we get an nearly-complete journey through the highlights of Lee's adventurous life bringing his unique philosophy on martial arts and fighting styles to America and Hong Kong and his wonderful, albeit brief, career in film and television. Archival footage of a young Lee as a child actor in Cantonese movies segues into his screen test for 20th Century Fox in the early 60's, portions of which are played through the film at the appropriate moments. We see him emerge as the real star of the short-lived television The Green Hornet but fail to translate that small screen stardom into big screen immortality at first when his passion project The Silent Flute is put on the backburner at Warner Bros. It would finally reach the screen in 1978 as Circle of Iron, but by then Lee was long dead and the final film was said to inaccurately reflect his intentions for the movie he would have made.
Lee refused to let these failures deter his ambitions to bring his special martial arts style jeet kune do to the masses. Encouraged by actor James Coburn, a friend and student of his, Lee departed Hollywood to return to Hong Kong where he finally made it to the big screen as the star of the hit action movies Fist of Fury, The Big Boss, and The Way of the Dragon. In The Way Lee engaged in what is considered to this day his greatest cinematic fight as he battles the one and only Chuck Norris in a brutal showdown within the ruins of the Roman Coliseum. The international success of these films had the Hollywood studios desperate for a piece of that sweet action and Lee was soon headlining his first - and only - American martial arts adventure epic, the kick-ass classic Enter the Dragon, which Lee himself once hoped would be "the fuckingest action motion picture ever made". Sadly Lee would never see the movie become a global blockbuster and a masterpiece of furious fighting mayhem as he died of an allergic relation to a painkiller he had been prescribed for his cerebral edema one month before Enter the Dragon's theatrical release at the age of 32. Game of Death, which was to be his follow-up to Enter, remained incomplete until the movie was completed with stand-ins and a Lee imitator and puked into theaters in 1979 to capitalize on Lee's ever-growing fan base. His death left a giant hole in the hearts and souls of those he considered his loved ones and those he never knew but still had their lives changed for all time by his contributions to cinema, pop culture, martial arts, and the world at large.
We have seen plenty of documentaries devoted to Bruce Lee and his accomplishments in the past, but I Am Bruce Lee is the first that I have seen that allows us a more intimate glimpse into the life of this larger-than-life icon of cinema as recounted by those who would know the man behind the legend. Of course I could be wrong but that is besides the point. This is a terrific documentary made with pure love and respect for a man who constantly aspired to be the best he could possibly be as a human being and to inspire those in his orbit - and honestly who wouldn't want to be close friends with Bruce Lee - to do the exact same. The film makes brilliant use of rarely seen footage that tracks Lee's evolution from an ambitious young man who returned to America - his country of birth - after spending most of his youth in Hong Kong with little more than $100 in his pocket and the drive to succeed at everything he did, to the world-renowned martial arts expert who personally trained Hollywood's biggest male movie stars in his backyard and who would become one of the world's top box office draws before dying unexpectedly at a tragically young age. Portions of a screen test Lee did for 20th Century Fox early in his career act as figurative chapter headings to each phase of Lee's life and career and home movies of his martial arts bouts, backyard training sessions, and loving moments with his family contribute to the creation of a well-rounded portrayal of a man many, including myself, have long considered to be a god living among mere mortals. That may be the mother of all exaggerations, but Bruce could convince you it was the truth inadvertently without barely making an effort.
Bruce Lee lived a life truly worth immortalizing. As a kid growing up in Hong Kong he had to learn how to fight in order to survive on the street since he was always getting into brawls due to the discrimination by his peers of his part-Caucasian ancestry. Lee trained extensively in dance to hone the balletic grace that would become an integral component of his trademark fighting style and even used that training to become the Hong Kong Cha-Cha champion of 1957. Once he returned to America he desired to start martial arts schools and enter show business, first as a bit player in several Hollywood action features on which he usually served as the fight coordinator. His career began to gain steam when he signed on to play Kato in the short-lived television series based on The Green Hornet, and even though the series lasted only one season and his character was essentially a sidekick to the title masked crimefighter there was no doubt that Lee was the real star of the show to its devoted fans. There was not a whole lot of information in this documentary that I did not already know about Lee, and I would have liked a longer section devoted to the development and ultimate collapse of his cherished film project The Silent Flute (which was made five years after his death with David Carradine, the same actor who wound up starring in the show Kung Fu that had originally been developed as a starring vehicle for Lee, under the title Circle of Iron). After the movie was over I realized that what truly mattered was not the biographical information regarding Bruce Lee, but that I was seeing it told by the people he knew and did not know who would continue to carry on his legacy and keep his spirit alive by spreading his unique philosophy to the masses. In the end that is possibly what Lee truly wanted; he knew that the art he created would outlive him if it had enough impact, and judging by the great films he left behind and the way his friends, family members, and fans carry on his memory I think it is safe to say Bruce Lee succeeded.
Being a recent made-for-TV documentary shot on high-definition film it is no big shock that I Am Bruce Lee looks so good on Blu-ray. Shout! Factory's 1.78:1 widescreen presentation is very sharp and vibrant mostly during the interview segments and does not lose much image resolution whenever archival footage is shown. It is not a reference quality transfer but it gets the job done. Two English DTS-HD Master Audio tracks are included - 5.1 and 2.0 - but for viewing on standard television screens the 2.0 option would be the best way. The documentary hardly demands a boisterous soundtrack as it mostly taking head footage. No subtitles are included.
Shout! has provided a small selection of extras, the best of which is "Backyard Training: Bruce Lee's Personal Films" (11 minutes). This featurette compiles home movies of Lee's home training sessions with several of his students, most prominently actor James Coburn and basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, intercut with interviews with his friends and family. Though the picture and sound quality of the clips are unsurprisingly degraded from being nearly five decades they give us a marvelous insight into Lee's teaching methods and rapport with his pupils and how the intimate home setting allowed for his children to be on hand to witness the proceedings. Plus it is a real thrill to see the late Coburn, whom Lee said was "a lover, but not a fighter" (and he meant that in the nicest way), honing his martial arts skills in the presence of a real master.
"Inspiration: Bruce Lee's Global Impact" (3 minutes) does exactly what its title implies: give us a brief look at Lee's status as an enduring international icon of action cinema and martial arts.
"Bruce Lee in Action" (5 minutes) is a montage of fight scenes from all of Lee's movies, save for Enter the Dragon. His battle royale with Chuck Norris from Way of the Dragon is no doubt the centerpiece of this clip set, but all of the fights are juicy servings of fried gold.
"Bruce Lee's Hollywood Audition" (9 minutes) finds a very young Lee in a screen test for a show produced by 20th Century Fox called Charlie Chan's Number One Son that ultimately never made it to television, but it did get him the role of Kato on the short-lived Green Hornet series. Clad in a smart three-piece suit, Lee answers questions about his life, family, and martial arts philosophy and training methods from the director, who remains off camera for the majority of the test. At one point Lee is asked to demonstrate some of his moves on an older gentleman, but fortunately no one gets hurt. It is clear from this early test that Lee was a natural screen presence, emitting charisma and good humor even as he hurling air punches.
A theatrical trailer wraps up the supplements.
A wonderful and heartfelt tribute to a cinematic giant, I Am Bruce Lee is essential viewing for fans of the martial arts icon and his films and required viewing for those who have never seen a single one of those ass-kicking action classics and need a damn good reason to start.