The brief, meteoric, tragic life of martial arts star Bruce Lee forms the basis of “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.” The film is an unlikely pastiche of traditional biography, Hollywood saga, chopsocky set pieces and inter-racial romance. Seemingly contrary elements and styles nonetheless mesh into an entertaining whole and the result proves extremely touching and haunting. The echoes of the more recent death of Brandon Lee also unintentionally whistle through the film, heightening the underlying sadness of the story.
The combination looks commercially potent and diverse. Not truly aimed at aficionados of the action star, it will unquestionably attract that crowd. However, at its core, it’s a romance, and tapping into that audience will determine whether the picture is a small or a big hit.
The jumping-off point of the biopic finds the teenage Lee (the not-related Jason Scott Lee) as a young man in Hong Kong. Somewhat awkward socially, he transforms into a confident human dynamo when he’s forced to fight.
Lee’s physical prowess, however, gets him into trouble with the authorities and he’s sent to San Francisco for his own safety. It also turns out that his father lives in fear of the peril to his son from both human and spiritual demons.
Initially, the young man works in menial jobs at a Chinese restaurant. This affords for another elaborately choreographed fight and leads to the owner (Nancy Kwan) — sensing a better tomorrow for him — bankrolling his college education.
The object of racial prejudice, Lee obviously holds his own against campus bullies. But the situation additionally propels him into a new career, teaching students the art of self-defense.
One student, Linda Emery (Lauren Holly), becomes the love of his life despite her mother’s fierce antipathy toward the prospect of an Asian son-in-law.
Even a brief synopsis cannot fully convey the narrative density of the undertaking. Yet the screenplay by Edward Khmara, John Raffo and debuting feature director Rob Cohen, manages to provide an organic flow that is disarming without being simplistic. It also effects the very difficult sleight-of-hand of focusing on Lee’s accomplishments rather than his early demise.
Cohen, balancing an array of disparate visual styles, basically keeps “Dragon” pretty straightforward. Lee’s metaphoric Demon, visualized as a towering, faceless samurai, avoids cuteness. Potential hokum, ranging from the spontaneous fights to the forays into “inner strength,” sidestep the high-toned silliness associated with the “Kung Fu” era. Overall, pic maintains a high technical sheen.
Jason Scott Lee carries much of the weight of the production with a devil-may-care performance that embodies more the spirit than the discipline of the title character. His absorption into the role is complete. If historically suspect, pic is certainly the way it should have been.
The supporting cast is dotted with a strong array of familiar and tyro talent. Holly brings a fresh, spunky dimension to a largely underwritten and conventionally drawn role.
The ultimate artistic success of “Dragon” is in its ability to convey what we know of the iconographic Lee in novel fashion and to see his offstage life in a manner that is logically and dramatically satisfying.