Saturday, December 31, 2016

New Year’s Binge Viewing ’16: Legend of Bruce Lee, Vol. One

There was a time when Ip Man movies were the closest the Bruce Lee family and estate would let filmmakers get to the icon. That is why there was such a bumper crop of films on the grandmaster. Ironically, Master Ip has probably been better served by Wong Kar Wai, Wilson Yip, and Herman Yau than various portrayals treated the Jeet Kune Do popularizer himself. The 50-episode Mainland CCTV series is a case in point. The ratings were sky high, but it takes its sweet time getting to the heart of the story, which will vex fans hoping to binge The Legend of Bruce Lee, Volume One, executive produced by his daughter Shannon Lee, now available on DVD from Well Go USA.

Lee always had good footwork, going back to his days as a teenage cha cha champion. That is where director Li Wen Qi and screenwriters Qian Linsen and Zhang Jianguang pick up the Lee tory, skipping over his childhood star turn in The Kid. That is about all they leave out of this conspicuously padded epic. Most of Vol. One dramatizes Lee’s high school years in Hong Kong and his college days in Seattle, culminating with the establishment of his first Kung Fu school (technically, we don’t quite make it to opening day, but at least we see Lee unpacking the wooden practice dummy).

Back in Hong Kong, Lee was initially bullied by entitled English snob Blair Lewis (played by a surprisingly good Ted Duran), until he learns boxing and trains under Master Ye (a.k.a. Ip Man). After ringing Lewis’s bell to become the school boxing champ, Lee’s former nemesis volunteers to coach the future legend when he squares off against David Koffer, the dreaded Hong Kong prep school boxing champ. This pattern will repeat throughout the series.

When Lee starts believing his own hype, he takes on the protection gang led by Wang Li Chao—pretty successfully all things considered, but his family still finds it prudent to ship him off to Uncle Shao (portrayed with real dignity and pathos by Wang Luoyong, who also appeared in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) in Seattle, where evidently the clothes and cars always looked like the mid-2000s. There he meets his first student, Jesse Glover, wins over former karate master Taky Kimura the hard way, and starts romancing his future wife Linda. We finally start to get someplace when the Karate association recruits master Yamamoto (that would be Mark Dacascos), but episode ten ends before they can properly settle things.

Frankly, the opening credits are a bit of a bait and switch, promising Gary Daniels and Michael [Jai] White, as well as Dacascos, even though they never appear in Vol. 1. Previously, the entire series was cobbled together into a three-hour feature, which sounds like a harsh edit, but seems reasonable after watching the first ten episodes. It is draggy at times (episode eight is especially uneventful), but the biggest problem is the hardcoded English dubbing. Well Go USA usually does a first-rate job with their releases, but this time they do not allow consumers the option of the original Mandarin soundtrack with subtitles. Even the English-speaking characters are overdubbed. As a result, those disembodied voices make everyone sound like they are possessed by demons.

Baby-faced Danny Chan Kwok-kwan really is a dead ringer for Bruce Lee. He has the Kung Fu moves, but he sure seems awkward in romantic scenes. There are some decent martial arts scenes, but both Rob Cohen’s 1992 bio-pic and any and all Ip Man films are vastly superior.

The first ten episodes are entertaining in patches, but they are way more frustrating than they ought to be. Yet, if given an opportunity, we would probably keep going to see how they cover all those classic films, like Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon. It is also rather bizarre to hear Lee talking about the “Chinese people” in stilted, Mainland propagandistic terms, when he was about as Hong Kong as you could get, at a time when Hong Kongers were speaking Cantonese and pretending 1999 would never come. Regardless, as fans, we have to hope it builds in later episodes. For now, The Bruce Lee Story, Volume One is quite a mixed bag, now available on DVD, from Well Go USA.