Bruce Lee was arguably, the first mainstream martial arts star and to this day remains a favorite of fans of the genre and a screen presence that many martial artists aspire to. His early tragic death in the 1973 cemented his mystique and unfortunately opened a floodgate of exploitation films aptly given the subgenre heading of "Bruceploitation." These films were almost always shoddy and either piggybacked on Lee's name through the use of actors of vague appearance and vague names like Bruce Le, Bruce Li, Dragon Lee, etc., or by claiming to portray the events of Bruce's life. No portrayal of Lee's life was accurate, every film instead felt audiences needed to think Lee was always getting into fights, whether it be on film sets, in restaurants, or even in airports. While it was true, Lee was often challenged on set by nobodies hoping to make themselves famous, his life was far greater than his films. He revolutionized martial arts and was an astute philosopher. To date only one film, 1993's "Dragon: The Bruce Lee" story has come close to capturing the essence of Lee, and even then it borrowed elements of Bruceploitation by adding random fight scenes and most notably, fictionalizing the cause of Lee's famous back injury.
I first heard of the Chinese TV series, "The Legend of Bruce Lee" about a year ago. Running for a total of 50, 45-minute episodes, I was extremely intrigued about such an expansive dramatization of the life of Lee from the country he grew up in. Unfortunately (in hindsight, I actually do consider myself lucky), the series still remains MIA in either an English subtitled or dubbed format. Instead, Lionsgate has released a 183-minute, feature film edited from the complete series. The result is the most shameless and outright unentertaining piece of Bruceploitation, I've ever seen. Taking a completely serious, but horribly executed tone, the movie was painful to sit through. I could easily turn this review into a humorous dissection of where things went wrong, but I won't give this cinematic trash that much thought. Instead, I'll afford it a luxury it didn't afford me, and get to the point, short and sweet.
First up, I'll give you the good news. The film features Kwok-Kwan Chan as Lee; martial arts fans may remember him as the Bruce Lee impersonating goalie in Stephen Chow's "Shaolin Soccer" and/or as the leader of the Axe Gang in Chow's brilliant kung-fu, live-action cartoon, "Kung Fu Hustle." Chan does a great job physically inhabiting Lee's shoes. He's no slouch when it comes to the many fight scenes he's thrown in. The creators of this series do earn some points for at least getting a convincing substitute for a man of Lee's legend. Unfortunately, I can speak anything regarding the quality of Chan's actual spoken performance as the series is dubbed, which I will address in a minute.
The other area that made the movie a tiny bit tolerable is the fight scenes. Every Bruceploitation film had many of them and they were generally awful. Here the opposite is true. The scenes are well choreographed and quite engaging, which surprised me given the origin of the series. They are all feature film quality and get better with each successive battle. The creators wisely enlisted some notable faces for Chan to face including Gary Daniels (fighting one-armed) and Ray Park, who I've seen listed online as a representing Chuck Norris, but is referred to in the film as Rolex, and given his treatment at the hand of Lee, I really hope he wasn't supposed to be the Bearded One. For those wanting to just check out the fight scenes, I'm almost tempted to offer a minor rental recommendation, but be warned, some included some wire work and physics defying moves, a subtle testament to the thoughtless nature of the production.
Now, onto the bad, which is pretty much everything else. The film is offered in either the original language, Mandarin or an English dub option. Subtitles for the Mandarin version follow the English dub to a tee, so I fear a little bit of the awfulness stems from a lazy translation job. However, even the original Mandarin language track is a dub. That's right, either way you chose to watch this film, you're getting a lousy dub that is devoid of any emotion and immediately pulls you out of the feature. I watched a third of the film with the Mandarin track before switching to the English dub, since at least then I didn't have to try and make sense of the brain dead dialogue I was being forced to read.
The storyline is very loosely based around Lee's life, beginning somewhere in the middle, taking a page from "Dragon: The Bruce Lee" story and once again showing Lee's near paralyzing injury stemming from a fight, rather than lifting weights. At least "Dragon" had the courtesy to have Lee's opponent kick him in the back; here Lee's opponent cheap shots him following defeat and proceeds to batter his back with a giant log. Yes, you read that right, a GIANT LOG. From there, Lee flashes back to his early days as a rowdy youth and his eventual training under Yip Man, who looks more like Pai Mei, than the bald clean shaven man he was in real life. The buildup to Lee's martial arts training is where the dialogue hits its lowest points. Lee is constantly whining about racism, which was a real problem he faced, but it's hard to take anyone seriously when the phrase "Dirty Asian" is incessantly thrown around and appears to be the only slur he ever encounters.
Believe it or not, but Lee's training scenes actually manage to make you hate the guy, who's portrayed as a whiny crybaby who lacks a real dedication to martial art. It takes some wishy-washy philosophizing from a friend and teacher to make Lee see the error of his ways and do a magical 180, buying into Yip Man's, knockoff, Mr. Miyagi-like training methods. From there we are thrown back to America as Lee encounters opposition from other martial arts practitioners and sets out to develop his own way of fighting by challenging various masters, beating them and learning an important lesson. In these sequences the film's roots as television series are crystal clear. He defeats a Karate master, Kung Fu master, and Jiu-Jitsu master, before showing the world his new method, Jeet Kune Do, by competing for the AMERICA KARATE CHAMPIONSHIP. Bet you didn't know that Bruce Lee was the Karate Champion of America? Well, neither did I, and neither did Bruce, who is most assuredly rolling in his grave if only for the trivializing the complex nature of his struggles in a bigoted society.
The film wraps things up with a brief look at Lee's Hollywood career, which at least delivers a number of good fight scenes, but nothing more. The entire show runs out of steam by the 140-minute mark or so and coasts on fumes to the final showdown between Lee and Yellowskin, the boyhood rival who followed Lee across the world and was responsible for the brutal GIANT LOG BEATDOWN. Lee defeats evil and then promptly dies, three-hours behind schedule. Oh, the film is at least competently shot and the production design did have some effort put into it; wait, come to think of it, an establishing shot of 1960s San Francisco did feature modern cars and a trolley with an ad for John Woo's "Stranglehold." Speaking of John Woo, I really wish I was watching one of his lesser films right now instead of this, but I digress.
"The Legend of Bruce Lee" is a modern day Bruceploitation disasterpiece (I'm so clever) that tries to trick unsuspecting viewers with hopes of an earnest Bruce Lee biopic. Lionsgate stoops as low as to slap the name of Michael Jai White on the cover, despite his brief appearance towards the latter part of the film; keep in mind he's dubbed by some nameless studio actor so anything he might have added to the proceedings is instantly nullified. The movie is pure garbage and only earns it's meager star out of pity towards Kwok-Kwan Chan who is a fine actor deserving of better treatment and genuinely exciting fight scenes. Everything else isn't worth your time, and if you want Bruceploitation at it's finest, seek out a copy of "The Dragon Lives Again" which teams "Bruce Lee" up with "James Bond," "Zatoichi," "Popeye," and "Clint Eastwood," in an epic battle against zombies, mummies, and "Dracula." It's trash and a train wreck, but aspires to levels of absurdity that Tommy Wisseau would approve of.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer sport sharp color reproduction and decent contrast, with a minimal amount of grain. Detail is a middle of the road affair, with close-ups looking much sharper than medium and wide shots. No edge enhancement was detected, nor compression troubles which tend to be an issue with films entering the three-hour range. It's definitely big step up from what I've seen in previous Chinese television productions; money was definitely spent to make this TV series look like a feature film.
The audio options consist of the two lousy dubs, Mandarin or English, both Dolby Digital 5.1. The dialogue is mixed above other effects and score and has a lightly hollow sound to it which really makes it hard to take anything seriously in the first place, never mind the laughable translations.. The sound design isn't terrible in terms of effects, although the action oriented scenes lack the same kick that other martial arts films bring to the table. English and Spanish subtitles are included.
A three-hour movie cobbled from a TV series, "The Legend of Bruce Lee" is just that, myth. There's a minimal amount of truth clearly presented, but mostly, Lee's life is used as the backbone for the biggest budget Bruceploitation film to date. The exciting action sequences are the only, nearly redeeming factor, but even they aren't plentiful enough to make the THREE-HOUR runtime tolerable. I guess I should be thankful Lionsgate created this edit and didn't unleash all 50 episodes on us. Skip It.