Bruce Lee became a legend the old-fashioned way — by dying young — but his on-screen magic was timeless. In Enter the Dragon, the 1973 martial-arts thriller that made him an international cult star, he appears sporting his trademark look: face a-glower, body stripped to the waist, his lithe torso set off by jet-black pants and a matching shag of hair. You’re shocked, at first, by the speed and ferocity — the instantaneous violence — of his movements. Yet Lee is actually at his most mesmeric when he’s not moving. Having delivered a lethal punch, he’ll stand there, palms stretched out and quivering, mouth forming a predatory O; he’s like a human lightning rod struggling to conduct forces beyond his own body. Then, of course, there’s that sound — the high, quavery whine he emitted, like radar, while sizing up his opponents. There was something a little freakish about Bruce Lee, and that oddball quality was at the center of his hellcat charisma. Even after Norris, Seagal, Van Damme, he remains the one action superstar who could stage a martial-arts contest not simply to dazzle, to incite fantasies of quick-cut mayhem, but to dramatize the eccentric hum of his own personality.
That personality gets a lively workout in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (PG- 13), the engaging pop-cartoon biography that has been fashioned from bits and pieces of Lee’s life. Dragon isn’t a very accomplished movie — it’s more a string of TV-style episodes — yet it recalls rock bios like The Buddy Holly Story in the way that it taps into the chewy center of an icon’s allure. As played by the feisty, magnetic Jason Scott Lee (no relation), Bruce emerges from Hong Kong a cocky rebel whose liquid fighting style seems as dynamic an explosion of temperament as, say, Jimi Hendrix’s guitar licks. Though the events of his life aren’t explored in any depth, the whole trajectory of his story — that of a Chinese outsider transforming the exotic kung fu culture into part of the American pop landscape — has a built-in appeal. Dragon gives us a Bruce Lee biography that’s part fact, part mythmaking hokum, and the pleasure of watching it is that you feel no great need to separate the two.
Early on, we see the teenage Lee enter the Lantern Festival, a young people’s dance party in ’50s Hong Kong, where he challenges some bullying sailors to a fight. They have no idea this polite guy in the Clark Kent glasses is about to turn into Superman. Moments later, he’s in a full combat lather, whirling around, doing flips, his white shirt torn off his body as if by magic. What’s funny and outrageous about this scene is that it’s so brazenly unrealistic: It’s right out of a Bruce Lee film.
If the movie had stayed on this level of ecstatic action, it might have been a trash classic. Instead, director Rob Cohen lets the story drift into formulaic, rise-of-a-superstar conventions. Moving to San Francisco, Bruce keeps encountering racist pests but remains committed to the high road, attending college and inventing a quicker, more modernized form of kung fu known as Jeet Kune Do, which he helps popularize by opening his own studio. Finally, after marrying a beautiful American student (Lauren Holly), he is discovered by the entertainment industry and, in a memorable scene, makes his TV debut as Kato, the karate-chopping chauffeur on the ’60s series The Green Hornet.
Even if you accept that Dragon is true to the essential, striving spirit of Bruce Lee’s story, the filmmakers make no real attempt to explore his interior life. This Bruce has no dark side, no conflict. The best the movie can come up with is to give him nightmares about an ancient family demon, which is rendered in such a literal-minded way, as a knight in clunky armor, that it comes off as the worst sort of mystical-Asian cliché. And since part of the intrinsic thrill of show-biz bios is experiencing the great leap to celebrity from the star’s point of view, the cruel irony of Lee’s career — he died, at 32 (under mysterious circumstances), shortly before the release of Enter the Dragon — denies us that charge.
If anything holds Dragon together, it’s Jason Scott Lee’s intensely likable performance. Lee is built a little bigger than Bruce was, yet he has the same feral animal sleekness. A hospital scene, in which Bruce lies paralyzed after receiving a blow from an unscrupulous foe, gives us a glimpse of his rage, pride, and thwarted ambition. For most of the movie, though, we see his smiling, almost gentle spirit, and that makes his eruptions into combat all the more thrilling. What Jason Scott Lee captures is the way that Lee’s fighting ”fury” wasn’t about forced vengeance but about something essential and human. Through the poetry of his moves, he revealed the kinetic beast within. B-