Monday, February 06, 2012

Still the Baddest: I Am Bruce Lee

Here’s a Chuck Norris fact: Bruce Lee laid a monster beat-down on him in Way of the Dragon. Frankly, it was a good thing for the then reigning karate champion’s career. He was one of many world class martial artists who studied with Lee and were later recruited for roles in his films. There has only been one Bruce Lee though. His friends and admirers pay tribute to the master in Pete McCormack’s I Am Bruce Lee (trailer here), which has the first of two special screenings this Thursday throughout the country.

Lee was a man of destiny. A child star in Hong Kong, he learned the Wing Chun style of Kung Fu from master Ip (or Yip) Man, who has recently become the subject of a host of film treatments, including the internationally popular franchise starring Donnie Yen. Most viewers will know Lee’s story chapter and verse, but McCormack shoehorns in some interesting details. The 1957 Hong Kong cha-cha champion? But, of course.

In terms of format, I Am is not all that different from Fuel-TV’s recent tribute series Bruce Lee Lives, mixing film excerpts with reminiscences from his family and colleagues, as well as commentary from contemporary mixed martial arts fighters, nearly all of whom revere Lee. However, the participation of Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, and breakout martial arts movie star Gina Carano distinguish I Am. Nearly all of Lee’s films are discussed in length, but clips of Lee’s epic battle with Norris in the Roman Coliseum take pride of place.

While celebrating Lee’s mystique, I Am tries to put to rest many of the rumors surrounding his life, particularly notions that an ancient curse or the triads were responsible for his untimely death. It also attempts to minimize the non-dogmatic approach of Lee’s Jeet Kune Do as a forerunner to mixed martial arts, but apparently UFC founder Dana White did not get that memo.

Nonetheless, it certainly seems Lee inspired most of his fighters, including Cung Le, who also appears in the film. Yet, perhaps the best advertisement for Lee’s Jeet Kune Do and related philosophy would be his friend and fellow teacher, seventy-something Dan Inosanto (the weapons master in Game of Death) who looks like he could be at least two decades younger in his I Am interview segments.

Built around Lee’s super cool “be like water” interview, I Am moves along at a quick pace, while emphasizing the spiritual aspects of his story. Just about every surviving figure in his life is heard from, except Norris. Granted, Lee fans have seen documentaries like this before, but we really cannot get enough of the icon. It might be hagiography, but it’s entertaining and appropriate. After all, this is Bruce Lee we are talking about. Proper respect must be paid. Recommended as a communal experience for fans (and isn’t that everyone?), I Am Bruce Lee screens this Thursday (2/9) and next Wednesday (2/15) nationwide, including the AMC Empire in New York and the AMC Metreon and 4 Star Theatre in San Francisco.