Friday, April 3, 2015

Yay & nay: Bruce Lee movies on the horizon

75th anniversary of a legend
Do I even have to identify who this is?

UNBELIEVABLE and as ridiculous as it may sound, a motion picture director wants to remake the ultimate Bruce Lee classic Enter The Dragon.

Additionally, besides Dragon, Bruce Lee's daughter is shopping around the idea of biopic of the fabled martial artist. It would be the second attempt in chronicling Lee and his journey to becoming the first Asian American matinee idol. The 1993 movie starring Jason Scott Lee, was not as successful as hoped for. You could possibly duplicate Lee's moves, you could speak his words, but you can't duplicate the charisma and sex appeal that emanated from the silver screen when Lee was present.

Remaking "Enter The Dragon" is tantamount to sacrilege. How could you improve on the original? Oh, I know - make the main character - the Bruce Lee role - a white guy. Are you kidding me? No way!!!!

But that's what Rush Hour director Brett Ratner suggested. Two names he floated were Scott Adkins and ... mixed martial arts champion Rhonda Rousey.


Nothing against Adkins and Rousey, but it's not like white heroes are in short supply. Why take one of the very few Asian American heroic figures and ... oh, the horror!

There will never be another Bruce Lee. Don't even try!

Searching for heroes

Like a lot of other Asian American boys growing up in 1960s and 1970s America, Bruce Lee was an idol of mine. There's a bigger than life hero who looked a lot like me! Well, more or less. Getting Lee's fat-free physique is no easy task for someone who loves to eat.

I had been studying karate for a few years and loved going to martial arts movies. My friends and I would make the one-hour trip to San Francisco to watch samurai movies in Japantown and the kung fu movies in the old Great Star Theater in Chinatown. My world was peopled by the legendary director Akira Kurosawa and the Hong Kong producer Run Run Shaw.

Besides the costumes and complicated plot lines, those movies also provided a bevy of male role models beyond the white heroes offered by mainstream media. 

Who is that masked man? Bruce Lee as Kato.
Then came Bruce Lee - an Asian American! He was strong, handsome, principled and besides the boys needing someone they could look up to, equally important: the girls loved him.

Introduced to the American public as Kato, the Green Hornet's chauffeur and sidekick. He also demonstrated the deadly beauty of his style of fighting, jeet kune do, which he created out of a combination of different styles. Basically, he stole every scene he was  in. 

The day after the show was aired, my friends and I would talk about the episode: "Did you see what Kato did? Did you see that move?

He was so contrary to the stereotype of the emasculated Asian male - he oozed assertiveness, masculinity and sexiness - that unwittingly, he created another stereotype; that all Asians knew martial arts.

It was his off-screen heroics and persistence that made him more than just a movie idol. He knew he was bucking the odds in challenging Hollywood's perception of a leading man. So he conceived an idea so unique and unusual: A western with a Chinese monk wandering the American west.

Hollywood liked the idea - a lot - and as Hollywood tends to do, they cast a white guy in the lead role, makeup provided a heavier eyelid so that his eyes looked a little Asian and have him speak in Buddhist riddles. Ahh, Grasshopper, that's how the iconic TV show Kung Fu was born; stolen from Lee's idea.

Lee was fed up with the Hollywood system so he went to Hong Kong where he was very popular and began making his own movies. Enter The Dragon was the first of his overseas movies that Hollywood embraced and American audiences flocked to in droves. It was, in essence, an American production. Lee got American actors John Saxon and Jim Kelley, both real martial artists, to play opposite him, convinced one of his students, L.A. Laker center Kareem Abdul Jabar, to have a role. Robert Clouse directed and Lalo Schiffrin composed the music. 

Enter The Dragon was a huge commercial success and a real breakthrough for Asian Americans.  He knew he was a role model and of his impact on the Asian community. He fought for the little guy. He knew how important it would be - not just for him, personally, but for all Asians - for him to become a genuine American movie star. That film catapulted Bruce Lee into that stratosphere of celebrityhood reserved for only the exclusive few.

Most importantly to impressionable young Asian Americans searching for a role model ... he was one of us!

To learn more about Bruce Lee and activities surrounding the 75th anniversary of his birth, click here. The website includes a clip with Dan Inosante, a close friend who taught Lee and other Hollywood luminaries the Filipino martial art of escrima.

Here's a clip featuring Lee's wife Linda taken from the documentary I Am Bruce Lee.