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The Shadow of the Dragon : It wasn't easy finding an actor to play martial arts god Bruce Lee, but Jason Scott Lee found the key to the man behind the flying fists

May 02, 1993|LAWRENCE CHRISTON | Lawrence Christon is a Times staff writer

Could it be that by midsummer, after "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story" has made its multiplex rounds, Jason Scott Lee will have been anointed the next great action film and martial arts hero? He has all the tools, a whippet-like frame, a face that in the genre's tradition is both wary and reposeful in its staple possession of (portentous gong sound here) Ancient Secrets of the East, and an explosive tension in which he mutates onto a fearsome plane of midair dervish violence.

Director Rob Cohen's $16-million film biography, which opens Friday, with screenplay by Cohen, Edward Khmara and Jon Raffo, takes into account elements of Bruce Lee's legendary life (he died in 1973 of an edema of the brain) that were crowded out by the body count in his movies:

His interracial marriage to Linda Emery (played by Lauren Holly), for example. His conflict with the Chinese-American community after he pried the martial art of kung fu from its cabalistic grasp and turned it out into the world in the form of his personally streamlined variant, jeet kune do. His bitter and humiliating experience in Hollywood, where as Kato in "The Green Hornet," he played the martial arts equivalent of Charlie Chan's No. 1 Son, and then allegedly had his idea for a kung fu TV series stolen from under him (close-up on Lee's incredulous face as he peers for the first time at the sodden figure of David Carradine lumbering into view before the TV title "KUNG FU").

Aside from his impressive physical attributes, Jason Scott Lee brings intelligence and charm to the role of Bruce (who is no relation). A splendid figure, it would seem, who could answer the warrior nostalgia of young men for an unconquerable manhood that doesn't need city-leveling ordnance to make its way through the world, only bare hands and feet and martial wit. After all, anyone can plow a truck through a plate-glass window.

But then there's Lee's portrayal of Avik in Vincent Ward's lyrical "Map of the Human Heart," so unlike his Bruce Lee role that you could easily think you were seeing a different person.

Lee plays 20 years in the life of an Inuit who leaves the Arctic and joins the Canadian Royal Air Force, circa World War II, in search of a childhood girlfriend (Anne Parillaud of "La Femme Nikita"). Ward, a New Zealander, is a filmmaker who works with an ethnographer's rigor, and Lee has responded with a performance thoroughly stripped of ethnic cliches--his tribal innocent, relocated among the rites and amenities of an industrialized world, is appropriately wide-eyed and alert to constant discoveries. But where another actor might stop there, Lee's Avik is clearly attaching his observations to a deeper body of knowledge, a strong and gathering inner life.

"We did a lengthy casting search for an actor to play the adult Avik," Ward says. "We looked through Canada, Alaska, Toronto, New York. We looked everywhere. The role of an Inuit easily tends to look corny, like Anthony Quinn. Finally, of all places, we found Jason in Los Angeles. I decided I wouldn't do the film without him. I told our financial people, 'Whatever happens, Jason has to play this role.'

"He felt real. You knew he believed everything he was doing. He's got an interior quality. You can hold the camera on him and not only know what he's thinking, but stay interested in what he's thinking. Lee's a very intelligent man, probably the easiest person I've ever worked with. You can point him in any direction, and whatever he does, he makes authentic."

Says "Dragon's" Rob Cohen:

"There are plenty of guys who can fight, but to play a family man, a philosopher, a teacher, that's something else. We decided not to spend a day looking for a martial arts expert. We wanted an actor first.

"Jason had auditioned for 'The Last of the Mohicans' but was turned down because he looked too Asian. Casting director Bonnie Timmerman said, 'I think I have someone for you who could do Bruce Lee. He has this body .' When he came in I looked at him and saw without a word a man with a charisma, yet gentle, silent. He had a strong, handsome face. Behind those dark eyes you could see wheels turning."

Cohen, 42, has been in the business 20 years, going back to when he was executive vice president of Motown's film division and produced "The Wiz," among others. In the interim he has overseen such films as "The Witches of Eastwick," "The Running Man," "Ironweed" and "Bird on a Wire." He has also directed episodes of "Miami Vice," "thirtysomething," "Hooperman" and "A Year in the Life." He is not, therefore, a stranger to the entertainment industry's turnstile swirl of talent. But he was taken big with Lee.

"Every movie is like Thomas Merton's seven-story mountain," Cohen says. "The screenplay is the first step. Then in this case it was finding the actor who could play a man the whole world knows and could do all the things Lee could do, plus dramatic scenes. When Jason came in I gave him the script and said, 'Read this. Let's discuss.'

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