Back in my reckless, feckless youth, I made the statement, "I love kung fu movies," which is the sort of generalization that will eventually return to haunt you. For instance, you say, "I love horror movies," and well-meaning friends, stuck for a birthday present, give you a gift-wrapped copy of Scary Movie 3. The results are not pretty.
Of course, in the years since I made that statement, I have continued my education, and truly, what I really loved was the wuxia film, probably best romanized as the "knight-errant" film - give me a righteous man or woman with a sword in their hand, and I am a happy little film geek.
Therefore, a lot of the martial arts movies that have paraded themselves before me have vanished into the garbage pits of my memory. The carbon-copy "Master! They insulted our school!" offerings that flooded weekend TV in the late 70s and early 80s did little for me. It was the more baroque entries, like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (re-titled Master Killer for us bloodthirsty Americans) and Kid With the Golden Arm that gained my loyalty. The rest, as stated by Sturgeon's Law, were largely crap.
So why, one might ask, is something like The Young Bruce Lee in my collection? Its reputation could not be considered stellar in anybody's book, even if that person had only seen one martial arts movie, and that movie was The Young Bruce Lee. Truth to tell, it was a gift, as mentioned earlier. A friend gave me a Goodtimes Video 4-pack called "Kung Fu Mania", which had this disc, Bruce Lee the Invincible, Bruce the Super Hero,and Bruce Lee and Kung Fu Mania. He was, at least, not clueless. He said, "You're going to love Bruce Lee and Kung Fu Mania," and he was right. It's a trailer compilation, and I love trailer comps.
But now I have to review this part of the set. The others, at least, are an alphabet away. Maybe I'll have a garage sale. Yeah, that's it, a garage sale...
First of all, I think we can all agree that we're not going to get a truly representative Bruce Lee biography out of a movie. Even the infinitely superior Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story fudges details. About the best thing you can say about Bruce Lee bio pics is that they tend to turn Lee's life into a Bruce Lee movie, and chances are Lee would have approved of that. Dragon, for instance, was a great Bruce Lee movie. The Young Bruce Lee isn't. Its title is also a slap in the face to truth in advertising, as it winds up telling his entire life story, not just the youthful period.
If you're not paying attention too closely.
We start with Lee as a child, getting kung fu lessons from a really bad, fat instructor, and then getting his ass handed back to him when he tries to use his two freshly learned stances on a bully with a stick. (Favorite Line: "What good is your kung fu when I have this?" *whack!*) He meets a far better teacher in a park with Buddhist statuary and grows up in one dissolve. After finishing his studies, his family sends him to America for no stated purpose, where he becomes famous, apparently by winning trophies. You can always tell when he's in America, because wakka-chikka music plays. He comes back to Hong Kong to apply some tough love to a childhood friend who has lost his faith in himself, makes a movie, makes another movie, directs a movie, gets in one last fight, and dies. The end.
The first thing this movie teaches you is that it sucks to be Bruce Lee. It's like being The Fastest Gun In The West - some jerk is cropping up every five minutes to test your mettle. Admittedly, this happened in Dragon, too, but they had the decency to keep it down to every ten minutes. Neither movie makes mention of the fact that Lee made movies in HK when he was a kid - that would get in the way of the success story. If you feel a need to check out the real very young Bruce, I recall some of the footage shows up in Fist of Fear, Touch of Death, likely available in a bargain bin near you. The Young Bruce Lee also shares footage with Fist of Fear in its use of footage from Lee's actual funeral, including the fairly famous photo of the deceased star in his coffin - the only instance, outside the DVD menu, where Lee actually appears in the movie.
Speaking of his death, this movie seems to endorse the conspiracy theory, the "vibrating palm". After mopping up what should be the movie's last challenge - some guy who says his house must be the most powerful in Hong Kong, and whose henchmen all wear those brightly-colored striped shirts that it is impossible to wear and not look gay (unless one is a gondolier)... where was I? Stupid striped shirts... oh, yeah, Bruce trounces this guy, then walks over a hill and meets the guy's brother, an old man who claims he knows a few tricks that Bruce hasn't learned yet. Indeed, the old man stymies Bruce's attack and lands a telling blow on him, which could be interpreted as the vibrating palm, a blow that kills the victim days, even months later. Then the old man leaves Lee to his hatchet-weilding henchmen, who are thankfully dressed in a more macho fashion than the striped-shirt brigade.
Next scene: "What? Bruce is dead??!!"
At least we are spared the overwrought, slow motion death scene of Bruce Lee, We Miss You. Damn, I may have watched too many of these things....
Lawsuits, or the fear of them, is likely what keeps the movie from mentioning Lee's stint as Kato on The Green Hornet (or his appearances in Longstreet or Marlowe), and the movie twists itself into all sorts of shapes to avoid naming any of Lee's HK films - in fact, Raymond Chow becomes "Mr. Wang". Linda Lee is never mentioned by name, but she's in the story (and they got a darned cute actress to play her, too). Mistress Nora Miao - politely ignored (as she was in Dragon - but not in Bruce Lee the Legend, where she played herself) (yes, I suppose I have seen too many of these).
The movie does have a few things in the plus column, though. An intriguing segment where an aging kung fu master and Lee spar verbally to see whose technique is superior. The two, conversing in Chinese, shrink down to a corner of the screen, while the rest of the picture shows the participants sparring physically in slow motion (Bruce wins. Are you surprised?).
The scene where Lee is directing a movie uses a very cheap, but effective ploy - the scene he is shooting is lifted from another movie entirely, shot on different film stock. Given that this was supposed to be either Way of the Dragon or Game of Death, and how chaotic this fight scene is, Lee would probably be insulted, though. And why he's sitting outside directing when it's an interior scene is beyond me. (we'll ignore the fact that the movie footage is handheld while the directorial Bruce is sitting next to a camera on a track).
And star Bruce Li (or, as he would likely prefer to be known, Lee Shao-Lung), it has to be admitted, is in superb physical shape and by this point in his career has been doing Lee so often he has the Bruce act down.
And that's about it. The Young Bruce Lee certainly beat the hell out of 80 minutes of my life. It's one of those movies where you think, "Well, at least I'm a half-hour into this," only to find that you've only endured 15 minutes. Really, about the only thing it taught me about Bruce Lee is that I had seen far more Bruce Lee bio pics than I had ever suspected, so I guess it wasn't a total loss.
Oh, who the hell am I kidding.
Master! They insulted our genre!
- June 18, 2004