Saturday, May 22, 2010


Heading out to the flea market on 290 has been a long-time favorite weekend activity of mine. The atmosphere is infectious... literally. You've got the cool breeze carrying the stench of landfill; roasted corn and religious statues; the mariachi band tearing it up center stage; Mexican nationals eye-fucking the woman I’m with and waiting for me to say something about it so they can kick me with their super pointy boots. And then of course there's the bootlegging. Now, where the hell else am I going to find an erroneous Shawn Michaels back-pack that reads “Tombstone Pile Driver?” And who doesn’t want a last supper painting featuring Tony Montana surrounded by Al Capone and Vito Corleone? This cowboy, that's who! One thing that's been pissing me off about the flea market is the lack of Bruce Lee bootlegging going on lately. Do you know how many people would buy a huge faux fur blanket of The Dragon? Fuck man, I'd buy SIX! One for each room! When I recently inquired into the lack of Bruce Lee imagery during one of my visits I was told that his daughter has really clamped down on merchandising. Yeah, right. I call bullshit. Like that giant SELENA RUG in the corner of your booth is official licensed. Stop being pussies and start cranking out a respectable level of bootlegged Bruce Lee stuff! Honestly, while Scarface is cool, he’s not really a suitable idol for your culture. You’re sending the wrong message to your youth. Mexicans, get your shit together!

Twelve years after his death, I was just becoming aware of who Bruce Lee was thanks largely to KCOP channel 13 in Los Angeles. Channel 13 was notorious for sandwiching Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest films in between weird horror and sci-fi. If there was a singular force responsible for shaping my taste in film, it was KCOP. This was the station that would air Billy Jack, Zardoz, and everything in between during prime time hours. They exposed midnight movies to weekend daylight. And even stranger, their movie matinee bumpers featured the song “Oscillate Wildly” by The Smiths. Those must have been some bad ass dudes in that control booth.

Bruce Lee was probably at the height of his popularity at the time of his death. With the public still clamoring for more Bruce, producers weren't about to let the collapse of their gold mine get in the way of capitalizing. Soon, studios were in a mad scramble to fill the gap with a proper successor. Numerous Chinese actors were pressured into Bruce's shoes, and while none of the imitators lived up to his charisma, the reality was that these pictures were still selling. And so, companies continued to churn out Bruce-related films for almost a decade. Some of these productions even made use of stock footage from films Bruce never completed, feeding into the speculation that maybe Bruce had not in fact died. In a way, Bruce was kind of like the Tupac of Kung Fu cinema.

As a kid I would devour ANYTHING Bruce Lee-related, no matter how poor the featured imitator was. Over time, I began to recognize the impersonators and even rank them from best to worst, with Bruce Li being the best in my opinion, and Dragon Le being the worst. Today, I’m probably just as big a fan of Bruce Li as I am of the original Bruce.

My first major exposure to Bruce Li was “Bruce Lee – The Man, The Myth,” a biopic with Li in the title role. While they weren't really fooling anyone, Bruce Li was perhaps the closest thing anyone was going to get to the real deal, and he wasn't all that bad in the part. If you've ever dated a girl just because she kind of resembles another girl you are still in love with, then you understand my pain here. The real Bruce was gone. I missed him. But then I saw Bruce Li, and it made things slightly easier to deal with.

While there are many Bruce biopics floating around, this is perhaps the best of the lot, and it certainly beats the shit out of that Lifetime movie caliber bullshit “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” where Linda Lee essentially invents Jeet Kun Do.

While “Bruce Lee – The Man, The Myth” is by no means a soaring cinematic gem, it manages to win points with reverence. Whereas previous Bruce biopics took a sleazier route by doing stuff like delving into Bruce’s affair with actress Betty Ting Pei, this particular film is produced as a loving tribute to a man whom many consider to be the greatest martial artist who ever lived.

By the way, whenever you see this logo on a VHS tape, buy it, because it means that awesome shit is guaranteed to go down:

You’ve just been blessed by “Lightning Video International," or as I like to call them, “Ultimate Heterosexual Entertainment.” Almost everything this company has put out has kicked multitudes of ass, so it’s no wonder that they decided to release “Bruce Lee – The Man, The Myth.”

The movie opens with Bruce’s hectic death scene at Betty Ting Pei's apartment, as doctors dial feverishly to find a colleague that owns a stethoscope. From there, a narrator grieves over the passing of the legend and takes us into the story of Bruce’s life and career, which picks up just before he departs for America.

The plot itself provides a bare bones overview of Bruce’s career and personal life leading up to his super stardom, and he gets in a shit load of fights along the way. Some are contrived for the purposes of dramatic ass-kicking, while others actually transpired, but even the somewhat truthful stuff is wildly embellished. Bruce, who is kind of a smug asshole in the movie, pretty much kicks the shit out of everyone. He beats up the Japs. He beats up Thai boxers. He beats up the Mafia. He beats up the British Sillynannies. He even kicks the crap out of some Chinese dude just for sounding like Paul Lynde.

But like I said, this is by no means a technical masterpiece. This thing is bogged down with tons of shitty stock footage and swank jazz music, some of which is provided by the likes of Bob James. And I use the term “provided” very loosely, as I somehow doubt they got permission to use any of the featured music. During one particular scene where Bruce is fighting an electroshock machine (yes!), they totally nick the James Bond theme from the “Live and Let Die” soundtrack.

The dialog is probably the most inadvertently entertaining aspect of the movie. Bruce’s responses to questions usually make NO FUCKING SENSE. Here's a great Bruce quote from the movie:

"Next time, you listen to me! Because I’m not doing the talking! Kung fu is!"

Again, this is not what I consider fine film, but it manages charm by virtue of its sheer enthusiasm for the subject. It is redeemed by its passion. And of course, all the unintentionally hilarious parts also add up to an ultimately entertaining experience.

The film comes full circle, concluding with Bruce’s death at Betty’s apartment once again. The movie then launches into a bizarre epilogue, exploring some of the popular false rumors surrounding Bruce’s death. One particular story was that Bruce’s death was a Triad conspiracy, and his body was dumped at Betty’s place for the cover-up. The final and most outlandish of the scenarios features Bruce speaking to a spiritual advisor who tells him that his death is imminent, and in order to avoid his fate, he must renounce his family and fame, and live as a recluse for ten years. The narrator comments that his followers are currently waiting Bruce’s return in 1983. Someone should have made a movie about a Bruce cult. Get on it Golden Harvest! I know you still have money!

Of course, Ho Chung Tao, better known as Bruce Li, is the main reason why this film is so watchable. While his career definitely benefited from his term as a Bruce Lee impersonator, interviews suggested that he was rather shy about the comparisons. Serving as one of Bruce’s stunt men and also studying Jeet Kun Do under the late actor gave him slight credibility as a successor. While his resemblance to Bruce is strained but better than average, Ho Chung Tao’s skill as a mimic is what made him the best clone there was. Beyond the dead-on mannerisms, his choreography really stands out. In spite of all the film’s obvious flaws, the fight scenes are undeniably well done and feature a handful of Shaw and Golden Harvest notables. In the end, the action is what count.

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