“Every piece of film fight choreography has been influenced by Bruce Lee, whether the people involved know it or not.”
So muses author Paul Bowman in a new film about the martial-arts phenomenon that explores Lee’s great influence on the culture – and his own, sometimes surprising, influences.
In I Am Bruce Lee, which has its world premiere in Vancouver on Wednesday, local documentary maker Pete McCormack ( Facing Ali) lines up a star-studded list of acolytes to reflect on how Lee’s influence – whether in acting (Mickey Rourke, Ed O’Neill), basketball (Kobe Bryant), dance (Jose Ruiz) or, not surprisingly, mixed martial arts (UFC world champion Jon Jones).
“Always bring it says Black Eyed Peas rapper Taboo. “That’s the vibe that Bruce Lee taught me.”
Even for those who have never seen one of his films, Lee is a familiar name, synonymous with the martial-arts movie. But his personal influences were wide – and sometimes contradictory.
Lee was born in 1940, in San Francisco to a Chinese father and a half-Chinese/half-Caucasian mother. Months later, his family moved to Hong Kong. There, he was exposed to war and conflict, and, later, British control. The overriding result was a feeling that others were dictating his future. He learned early the importance of self-defence and independence.
He also got an early start on screen. Beginning as a baby – and long before he discovered martial arts – Lee appeared in Hong Kong-produced films became a prolific child star (in the documentary, historian David Tadman compares him to Macaulay Culkin).
Another surprise influence? Dance: Lee was the 1957 Hong Kong cha-cha champion. “People don’t know that about him,” says Bryant, in the film. “His footwork was impeccable.”
He has said that it was insecurity that drew him to martial arts. But Lee was also a fighter on the streets of Hong Kong and got into some trouble – with both police and gangs. Those conflicts ultimately led to his return, at age 18, to the United States. And there, beginning in Seattle, he found a new influence – a country in an era of liberation.
“He’s sort of a product of the sixties in a way ... of civil rights, of women’s lib coming into its own, even gay rights,” McCormack said recently. “He’s a product of that, but also a pioneer inside of that.”
In the U.S., Lee eventually landed a role as Kato on TV’s The Green Hornet in 1966. And although he tells Pierre Berton he “did a terrible job,” he later graduated to film.
Work in Hollywood was drying up, however, so Lee went back to Hong Kong. There, he found the film projects that would make him a star – Fists of Fury and Way of the Dragon. Eventually it was Hollywood who came calling with Enter The Dragon.
What’s remarkable is how influential Lee remains, almost 40 years after his sudden and mysterious death in Hong Kong, shortly before the world premiere of his seminal Enter the Dragon.
“Bruce really brought kung fu to film. And now you can’t really watch a movie without the guy spinning and kicking and that kind of stuff, whether it’s The Bourne Identity or The Matrix,” says McCormack, who – along with Vancouver-based Network Productions – won the co-operation of Lee’s wife, Linda Lee Cadwell, and daughter, Shannon Lee (who serves as executive producer), largely on the strength of their previous joint venture, Facing Ali, which was in the running for an Academy Award in 2010.
“Bruce Lee completely changed the way action scenes look today in cinema,” author and martial artist Daniele Bolelli says in the documentary. “It’s about making violence look beautiful.”
Lee’s influence goes beyond film. He pioneered the belief that the martial arts should not be practised in silos, but combined for maximum impact. All these years later, that philosophy helps guide what has become a huge movement.
“Bruce Lee is 100 per cent the father of mixed martial arts,” Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, says in the film.
Lee was a stylish paradox: a mix of two cultures who called both America and Hong Kong home. He explored Zen Buddhism but fought for a living. He hated the idea of superstardom, but embraced what it brought: the ability to make films. He practised and taught martial arts at university with a deep-thinking passion, but always ran home to catch General Hospital.
He is many things to many people: a fighter, a charmer, a rare Asian Hollywood leading man. And this is where McCormack found his title, I Am Bruce Lee.
“When someone is so charismatic and crosses so many boundaries, we start to project ourselves onto those people and we become them. We are Bruce Lee. Whatever Bruce Lee has offers you such strength that we tend to take it on,” McCormack says.
“I like Bruce Lee for the philosophy. Kids at school getting bullied like Bruce Lee ’cause he beat up people in those movies, which they dream of doing. People in martial arts like him because he’s so fluid and beautiful to watch. Other people like him because he’s sexy. More than most icons, we take him on for different reasons.”
I Am Bruce Lee has its world premiere in Vancouver on Wednesday, followed by screenings in select U.S. cities Feb. 9 and 15 and then at select Cineplex theatres across Canada March 8 and 17.
Editor's Note: Bruce Lee and his family moved to Hong Kong in early 1941, before it was occupied by Japan. This article has been updated.