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ON LOCATION : Re-Enter the Dragon : A film biography of kung fu king Bruce Lee, who died almost 20 years ago, weaves martial arts action with an interracial love story

October 25, 1992|DONALD CHASE | Donald Chase is a free-lance writer based in New York.

HONG KONG — In the garish, lantern-hung cha-cha palace created within Kowloon's Mongkok Neighborhood Centre, the fearful dancers have ceded the floor to five burly, brawl-hungry British sailors and their comparatively slight Asian adversary, Jason Scott Lee.

The young Asian, in the black pegged pants of a Hong Kong sharpie of 1962, begins by disabling the most belligerent Brit, boatswain Nick Brandon, with a swift kick to the groin. Then losing his shirt to reveal a rippling upper torso, Lee back-flips his way out of a potentially ugly punch-up with two others. Next, he mischievously dances--to the unrelenting recorded strains of "Moonlight Cha-Cha"--the recovered boatswain out of his white uniform jacket and puts it on himself.

Finally, having head-butted the Brit into semiconsciousness, he pulls him through his spread legs and dispatches him to a corner, and contemptuously doffs his pilfered jacket.

The speed, the improvisatory adaptability and the just-amusing-myself cockiness of the young Asian are all oddly familiar. And as, finally, he jerks himself into a heroic pose that brings his raven hair down on his forehead, the sense of deja vu is complete.

Jason Scott Lee seems a reincarnation of another, albeit unrelated Lee: Bruce.

"I cast him. I rehearsed him in the role, but even so, looking at Jason as Bruce, I still get the chills sometimes," said director Rob Cohen after calling "Cut!" on this scene from "Dragon: A Life of Bruce Lee."

The biographical drama, which producer Raffaella De Laurentiis said is budgeted at "around $14 million," was shooting in Hong Kong and Macao locations before moving on to San Franciscoand Los Angeles-area shooting sites and Valencia Studios. Release is scheduled by Universal for next year, before the 20th anniversary of Bruce Lee's death on July 20, 1973, at age 32.

In addition to the Asian-American Jason Scott Lee, "Dragon" stars Lauren Holly as Bruce's Anglo wife, Linda, and Robert Wagner as a TV executive modeled after William Dozier, producer of Bruce's "Green Hornet" series. The easefully courtly Wagner was also on the sidelines marveling at the resemblance between Jason and Bruce Lee, whom he had met through their mutual friend Steve McQueen. No matter that at 5 feet, 11 inches tall and 155 pounds, Jason is about three inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than Bruce.

"I was a fan of Bruce Lee," said De Laurentiis, "and I knew that despite a very few films, he is, like James Dean, a kind of mythic figure." In addition to the Dean-like early death and limited filmic output--of which the $100-million-plus worldwide grosser "Enter the Dragon," released three weeks after his death, is the only first-class production--Lee did much to popularize martial arts in the West. "What I didn't know," she added, "is that he had a life story that could be the basis of an interesting movie."

Then she read "The Bruce Lee Story," the 1983 biography-memoir by his widow, Linda Emery Lee, which was a major source of the movie's script by Ed Khmara, John Raffo and director Cohen. (Other sources include "Bruce Lee," a book by "Enter the Dragon" director Robert Clouse, and original research by Khmara.) Linda Lee's book tells of the San Francisco-born, Hong Kong-raised actor's unruly adolescence (which included a passion for the cha-cha and incidents of public brawling). It records his struggles as an Asian actor in the Hollywood of the '60s, particularly the bitterly disappointing loss, post-"Green Hornet," of the lead in the "Kung Fu" series to the white David Carradine. This loss prompted Lee's return to Hong Kong, where he quickly achieved film fame.

Finally, the book deals with the familial and cultural conflicts unleashed by the love and marriage of Bruce and Linda.

"It seemed to me that we had the opportunity here to do two films--a kung fu movie and an interracial love story," Cohen said.

Cohen decided that the kung fu aspect of "Dragon" would show, over the course of "five dramatically motivated fight sequences," the development of Lee's style of kung fu. Jeet kune do, or "the way of the intercepting fist," is Lee's streamlining of the ancient, formalized art of kung fu into a system of scientific street fighting for the 20th Century. To perform all but the most acrobatic elements of the film's fights, Jason Scott Lee, who had no martial arts background but is a natural athlete, trained for four months with former Bruce Lee student Jerry Poteet.

"I trained Jason the way I was trained by Bruce," Poteet said. That means rigorously. Jason was trained not only in jeet kune do's blocks, punches and kicks but also in the system's Bruce Lee-formulated philosophical underpinnings.

Bruce Lee, a philosophy major at the University of Washington when he met Linda, insisted that "emotion" (or being emotionally at one with your physical moves), "no-mindedness" (or clarity of focus) and "no-way-as-way" (or infinite adaptability) were key to jeet kune do's effectiveness.

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