I Am Bruce Lee (Blu-ray Review)

I Am Bruce Lee is the amazing story of one of the greatest icons ever to enter the public consciousness, the first film to truly tell the Bruce Lee story in his own words and actions, as well as through the eyes of the many international stars from the worlds of film, television, music and sports. Featuring original interviews with UFC Preisdent Dana White, NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, actor Mickey Rourke, the Black Eyed Peas’ Taboo, legendary martial artists Dan Inosanto, Richard Bustillo, Bob Wall (Enter the Dragon) and Gene LeBell, and unprecedented conversations with Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee and wife Linda Lee Cadwell, plus the best of Bruce Lee’s ground-breaking martial arts action films and rare archival footage, I Am Bruce Lee is the definitive story of a man whose legacy will endure forever.


Bruce Lee is a lot like Elvis Presley. When you behold a reproduced image of either (I’m seeing lots of Bruce Lrr on muscle-and-fitness magazines of late, whereas the Presley portrait adorns new brands of coffee and popcorn), you’re seeing the triumph of marketing and showbiz. It’s mega-kitsch, to be sure, and the slightly creepy notion of a long-dead guy whose super-lawyers and Graceland estate-handlers nonetheless guarantee that he makes more money posthumously in royalties and licensing in one week than a lot of you working folks with heartbeats do toiling away in your entire lifetimes.

And yet…that shouldn’t take away from the fact that both of these men, Bruce Lee and Elvis Presley, were singular innovators who changed the cultural landscape forever, in never-before-never-again fashion. Yes, for all the tabloid headlines and the parodies, they were exceptional people, and there is substance worth exploring and, yes, even hyping, beneath all the schlock value.

The family of martial-arts and cinematic-action legend Bruce Lee produce I Am Bruce Lee, which claims to be “the first film to truly tell Bruce Lee’s story in his own words.” Well, yes, unless one counts previous features, such the documentaries Bruce Lee – The Legend and Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey, not to mention the Universal Pictures biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and a Hong Kong dramatization from 2010 called The Legend of Bruce Lee, produced by daughter Shannon Lee. Translation: don’t be too caught off guard if future decades see the release of I Am REALLY Bruce Lee: The Second Film To Truly Tell Bruce Lee’s Story in MORE Words That He Used. I’m just saying…

Even so, I Am Bruce Lee is as slick and enjoyable finesse of mythmaking and as sincere authorized-bio appreciation as one might reasonably ask. It includes an eclectic selection of Bruce Lee insiders/admirers – daughter Shannon, actor Mickey Rourke, fighters Ray Mancini, Gina Carano (recently a turned actress with her starring role in Steve Soderbergh’s Haywire) and Gene LeBell…and sitcom regular Ed O’Neill. Yes, the guy from Modern Family and Married…With Children earned a Black Belt. He explains it sort of comes with the territory when you grow up in Youngstown, Ohio.

This cheering section expounds at great length upon Bruce Lee’s career and appeal, whether he deserves the honor of having `invented’ MMA combat (spoiler alert: no, on a technicality; another guy did a karate-vs.-boxing exhibition match in the mid-1960s, here’s the footage), and why Bruce Lee became a cross-cultural, pan-disciplinary icon, on par with Muhammed Ali. Aggrieved 1970s blacks, especially, jammed to Lee’s ethnic-outsider status.

Yes, Lee’s own voice is heard at length, courtesy a famous interview the star did for Hong Kong TV, and director Pete McCormack’s mythologized approach illustrates Lee’s own life, point-by-point, borrowing his clips from his movie and TV roles, lifting from The Green Hornet and Longstreet as well as Lee’s handful of Cantonese chopsocky quickies that would be endlessly revived and re-released.

The upshot of this is that there is deliberate blurring of the line between celluloid hero/Cato and real man (for a short, funny documentary on a very different Hollywood icon who gets laid out on a framework of his own clips, check out the Ed Wood chronicle Look Back in Angora). Still nice to see an appreciation of The Chinese Connection (AKA Fists of Fury) for anti-Japanese, anti-collaborationist political content that escaped most western audiences caught up in the fight scenes.

But the major asset of I Am Bruce Lee is Lee’s elegant widow Linda – she virtually seems to have grown into the persona Lauren Holly adopted to depicted her in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. Much as she’s probably telling stories she’s had to re-live endless tims before, she is a dignfied lady and torch-upholder, denying any conspiracies or kung-fu mumbo jumbo in her husband’s sudden, shocking 1973 death at age 32, a month before the hit Enter the Dragon would premier.

And it is a kick in the head to realize that the documentary speaks the truth when it points out that no Asian-American performer has ever been as popular – not before Bruce Lee, not since. Yes, maybe for some cynics I Am Bruce Lee seems like just another attempt to Shanghai the fallen star’s name into a filmography, but for viewers who need one, this makes a solid affirmation as to Why Bruce Lee Matters.


The big question is how the documentary cleans up the cheapo production values of the old Shaw Brothers Hong Kong pictures (Return of the Dragon, The Big Boss, The Chinese Connection etc.) that helped make Lee’s name.  They look okay in the 1.78:1 aspect-ration picture, but the real mystery is why so few excerpts from the spectacularly big-budget Enter the Dragon? DVD and Blu-ray versions are sold separately, with the Blu-Ray in 1080p HD native.


The Blu-ray version kicks, uh, ears in Dolby TrueHD 5.1.  It’s a documentary.  What more do you want?


Extras include expanded talking points over Lee’s famous private martial arts lessons (with a clientele of James Coburn and Steve McQueen) and black-and-white audition footage from Bruce Lee’s early forays into Hollywood. Much of this already appears in the main body of the feature, in slightly altered contexts.


The family probably gets this a lot but…too bad the title Bruce Almighty was already taken.


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