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Bruce Lee: A Life (2018)
Book Reviews

Bruce Lee: A Life (2018)

A long-overdue examination of the cinematic and martial arts icon’s life and career, separating fact from fiction, myth from legend.

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One of Matthew Polly’s inspirations to write Bruce Lee: A Life was discovering the only biography on the subject still in print was Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit, written by Bruce Thomas, Elvis Costello’s former bassist…published back in 1994. If you’re following the timeline, that would put Thomas’ book on shelves roughly around the time when Rob Cohen’s Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story jump-kicked into theaters, and not long after the posthumous release of The Crow, starring Lee’s son Brandon, who died during the filming of what would have been his breakthrough role.

While not an ‘authorized’ biography in the traditional sense, Polly’s meticulous reportage on the life and career of Bruce Lee, including new interviews with his widow Linda and daughter Shannon, make this an essential read for anyone interested in brushing up or expanding their knowledge of the most influential martial artist in cinematic history. There’s also a wealth of info about the early days of Chinese (or Hong Kong) cinema, providing film historians a crucial backstory to the world’s fast-growing market. We now live in times when including Asian stars in Hollywood blockbusters isn’t considered “risky” but standard, especially now that Chinese box-office receipts have surpassed domestic ones.

From his rough and tumble youth in Hong Kong to breaking barriers in both martial arts evangelism and on the silver screen, Polly doesn’t shy from discussing Lee’s constant struggles with anger, infidelities or drugs, though wisely never exploits them; even by standards at the time Lee was practically a choir boy. That so much of the story of Bruce Lee’s life has been circulated almost entirely through fandom makes it fundamentally important to disentangle fact from fiction while it’s still possible.

That’s not to say the fandom hasn’t benefited the legend, of course. Take the 1985 R&B/martial arts cult-classic The Last Dragon, for example, in which young Leroy Green (real-life martial arts champ Taimak), aka Bruce Leeroy, is so obsessed with his cinematic hero he becomes a living anachronism not just in his native Harlem, but in modern society. There’s a beautiful scene where Leroy and others are watching a local screening of Enter the Dragon, faithfully reciting the dialogue and enjoying the movie the way it was intended. It’s a beautiful moment.

Among Lee’s other fans includes this book’s author, Matthew Polly, who as a child was so entranced after watching Enter the Dragon he would dedicate a portion of his life to studying the martial arts. His two previous books on the subject, American Shaolin and Tapped Out, are both hilarious and essential reads if you’re thinking about trekking to Asia at some point.

Part of Lee’s nearly God-like appeal, especially to his younger fans, is how invincible he could seem on the screen, an unstoppable hero who could achieve near superhuman feats. Older fans, however, realize just how young he was at the time of his death – 32 years old. It may sound crass to say it, but the timing of his death and growing interest in the exoticism of eastern culture helped make Lee a crucial figure in the generational bridging that would soon follow. To say that Bruce Lee should also be considered a critical civil rights icon isn’t an overstatement, and in more ways than one.

A child of two cultures, Lee was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown, before returning to be raised in Hong Kong. Polly traces Lee’s Eurasian ancestry back several generations, revealing a far more diverse cultural and ethnic heritage than previously thought. Few would recognize the younger, wilder Lee as a violent street youth with a taste for bullying, a stark contrast to the older, wiser kung fu master who would practically become the epitome of self-restraint and discipline to millions around the world.

Like most aspects of his life, it was Lee’s introduction into the world of Wing Chun, at the time just another obscure martial arts style among dozens taught around the island, that would further blend fact with fiction. Under the tutelage of Ip Man, the style’s the infamous instructor, Lee would soon learn to channel his inner rage and natural abilities into something more productive than destructive, marrying Taoist philosophy with an intense regime.

His father, Li Hoi Chuen, a struggling actor and opium addict, would prove to be an unstable role model for Lee, though his celebrity provided his son’s gateway into the world of Hong Kong cinema, including his first “role” as a newborn girl in Esther Eng’s Golden Gate Girl. After appearing in several low-budget Hong Kong films, he’d return to the States to continue his academic studies before realizing his ultimate passions lay with the martial arts and cinema, preferably some combination of the two.

As with many offspring of biracial heritage Lee would struggle to find his own identify, accused by the Chinese of being too westernized and by Westerners as too foreign. This was a position he straddled throughout his life, especially when portraying his American wife Linda and son Brandon, whom he liked to call “the only blond-haired, gray-eyed Chinaman in the world.”

He began training students in the ways of kung fu, though not without controversy. Jesse Glover, his first student, was black, a double-heresy for local Chinese who already thought teaching kung fu to non-Chinese an abomination. Lee was, in fact, the first kung fu teacher in America to accept students regardless of race or ethnicity, Polly writes, a flair for inclusiveness that would serve him well as he would eventually break down similar barriers in Hollywood. Glover would never forget this kindness, and would be the last remaining attendant at Lee’s funeral, taking responsibility to personally shovel dirt onto his late teacher’s coffin.

A major hurdle when writing about anyone, let alone someone as famous as Bruce Lee, is separating fact from fiction. So much of the “Bruce Lee Mystique” practically depends on maintaining these legends, as if any attempt to demystify them would somehow diminish his appeal. As Hollywood’s most sought-after martial arts instructor it’s impossible to imagine someone as innately ambitious as Lee moving through their circles without making his presence felt.

Polly manages to trace both the inception and outcome of many of these legends, the most famous has crooner Vic Damone transformed into Frank Sinatra, a simple misunderstanding with Sammy Davis Jr.’s bodyguard morphed into a thrilling martial arts display involving cigarettes and lightning fast kicks. The story may have been exaggerated for effect, but what an effect it would have, catching ears of the very people a struggling martial arts instructor seeking new students would need to survive, including Stirling Silliphant, most famous for his Oscar-winning screenplay for In the Heat of the Night.

Take Lee’s 1971 interview with Canadian journalist Pierre Berton, which is the only surviving one of its kind. Even in an era before YouTube the full interview has regularly been edited to showcase Lee’s most exotic and profound philosophical musings on the martial arts. The only problem, Polly identifies, is the interview’s most famous footage (“Be water, my friend”) was actually Lee reciting dialogue from “The Way of Intercepting Fist”, an episode of the short-lived TV show Longstreet in which Lee’s Li Tsung, a Chinese antiques dealer, instructs James Franciscus’ blind insurance investigator Mike Longstreet in the ways of the martial arts.

Considering Longstreet was written and created by Silliphant, by then a close friend and student of Lee’s, pure accreditation for the quote’s genesis should remain, with some satisfaction, up for debate.

No story about Lee’s complicated dealings with Hollywood would be complete without a closer look at his involvement in two competing shows with similar premises, Kung Fu and The Warrior. Lee would be famously rejected for the role of Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu, which went to actor David Carradine, as some thought he might be “too authentic.” The Warrior would never be produced, though Carradine would also eventually star in 1978’s “Circle of Iron”, based on Bruce Lee’s original script for “The Silent Flute”. It’s worth mentioning Stirling Silliphant and Stanley Mann (The Collector) would rewrite/finish Lee’s script, with mixed results.

Note: it’s been confirmed that Cinemax will produce and distribute the show Warrior, based on Lee’s original concept, with Justin Lin (Fast & Furious) producing and Andrew Koji starring as Ah Sahm.

The book also spends a sizable amount of time discussing what would become Lee’s only starring roles in major Hollywood films, the most significant being Enter the Dragon. Released shortly after his death, it would catapult its late star into another realm of popularity and unrivaled legendary status, launching a booming interest in the martials arts, kung fu films and Asian philosophy that continues to this day. It would also help end the offensive and anachronistic queue-styled “Chinaman” stereotype Lee fought to eradicate during his life.

Modern critics have finally begun to recognize the film for not just its groundbreaking introductions of eastern philosophy and realistic fighting to western cinema, but also its pivotal role as a landmark in racial and diverse casting. It’s trifecta of male stars, led by the Asian Lee, white John Saxon and black Jim Kelly, was revolutionary for its time as none of the trio was subordinate or inferior to each other.

The other would be 1978’s pastiched Game of Death, which only a portion of footage Bruce Lee filmed prior to his death distributed throughout an entirely new storyline created years later. Such was the difficulty of ‘replacing’ the deceased star that it would take two “Fake Shemp” clones (“Lee-alikes” Polly calls them) to finish the project, and even then the results were spotty. Such was the importance of having the real Bruce Lee on the screen that footage from his earlier Hong Kong films were spliced into the new one, including one notorious scene where a photo of the real Lee was taped onto a mirror.

Yes, the resulting film is a mess, but an entertaining mess thanks to Lee’s tremendous fight sequences at the end, in particular the iconic duel between Lee’s most famous student/friend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in one of cinema’s most perfectly encapsulated moments of contrast: the (relatively) diminutive Lee versus the gigantic 7-foot plus basketball player-turned-fighter. Wearing the yellow jumpsuit that would become his most identifiable trademark, the duel fulfilled one of Lee’s most exciting visual conceptions: “It would be something they’ve never seen before. I can picture their reactions when I do a sidekick straight to his face.

The book’s most controversial claim will be Polly’s assertion of what actually ended Bruce Lee’s life: heat stroke, which he calls “the most plausible scientific theory for his death. It’s a purely anecdotal diagnosis, however, given the lack of physical or medical records from the era, though he makes a convincing case from what little he had to work with. Still, I’m not sure this will change the minds of those who trade in the fantastical. Lee’s naked, lifeless body was found in the apartment of actress – and his mistress – Betty Ting Pei, his indulgence of cannabis and use of unprescribed Equagesic pills, to say nothing of attempts to cover up the circumstances of his death to avoid embarrassment, created a powerful alternative history that may be impossible to correct.

As the first comprehensive biography on the subject in twenty years, Bruce Lee: A Life is essential for both martial arts fans and movie buffs, offering a long-overdue examination into the life of the man who did more to introduce Asian cinema and philosophy to western audiences than anyone. Given his martial arts background it’s no surprise Matthew Polly takes great care to separate fact from fiction, presenting a warts-and-all look at a man struggling with his own identity and weaknesses; those who’d prefer to keep their hero mystical and mysterious may want to avoid this altogether. More than anything, it presents Bruce Lee as something I’m sure he would be most proud of: a human being.

About the Author: Nathan Evans