I Am Bruce Lee [Review]

In “I Am Bruce Lee” (2012), there is a famous interview where Bruce distinguishes his philosophy: “Empty your mind. Be formless like water… If you pour water into a cup, it becomes the cup. If you pour water into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be like water, my friend.” Bruce eloquently relates to Tao Te Ching. Amazingly, these were the words of Stirling Silliphant (“In the Heat of the Night”) from an episode of “Longstreet” back in the 1970s starring James Franciscus. Silliphant was a student of Bruce Lee, and the episode was called “Way of the Intercepting Fist” which many know is Bruce’s creation, Jeet Kune Do. I remember watching Lee in the TV series. This was before he became the martial arts icon—he was magnetic and compelling. In the interview, Bruce said he got to play himself, not some character. What struck me was that Bruce Lee was the awesomely gifted martial artist, who was also an amazing teacher. That is a rarity. I think had Bruce lived, he would have become the great martial arts teacher and transformed the distinction martial arts.

Silliphant went on to write the TV series “Kung Fu” from Bruce’s original concept. But instead of the casting Chinese Lee as the lead, Warner Brothers went with David Carradine. Lee eventually made “Enter the Dragon” for Warner Brothers, he tragically died before the release of the movie. I know this is a lot of history, and Director Pete McCormack brilliantly connects the dots in this refreshing and compelling documentary of Bruce Lee’s life and death. There is an undercurrent of racism and fighting the establishment in this story which Bruce lived with. McCormack blends a captivating mix of interviews with celebrity fans, and those close to Bruce. Kobe Bryant is captioned as NBA All-Star/ Martial Artist. I wondered what he trains in. Did not know Ed O’Neil (“Modern Family”) was a black belt in Brazilian Jujitsu—which is awesome. UFC Champion Jon Jones is very cool in his admiration of his hero Lee. However, McCormack goes sideways with some of his guys including skateboarder Paul Rodriguez and some dude from the Black Eyed Peas. Cantankerous Judo expert Gene LeBelle comes across as a weird skeptic of the Bruce Lee prowess, though it turns out Bruce trained with him.

Bruce Lee is an icon and iconoclast. Linda Lee Caldwell, Lee’s widow, amazingly tells the story of how Bruce defeated a fighter from China because Bruce chose to teach Wing Chun which he learned from the legendary Yip Man to anyone, not just Chinese. Linda tells how Lee made the fighter submit within 3 minutes. After the fight Lee lamented that he should have been able to end the fight sooner—Wing Chun alone was not it. Thus, Bruce began the evolution of Jeet Kune Do– all styles and no style. His first students Dan Inosanto and Richard Bustillio convey their love and awe for their fallen friend. Bruce Lee transcended race and even martial arts. “I Am Bruce Lee” in its own unique way captures that feeling: Everyone wanted to be Bruce Lee. Bruce taught Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Linda Lee Caldwell tells how Bruce wished Steve could be more like James and James could be more like Steve. Linda says that Bruce was her strength, but you get that she was his rock. This is particularly evident in the story surrounding Lee’s death.

Poignantly, Kobe Bryant talks about the downside of celebrity. Bruce Lee may have been seduced by fame. His friend and “Enter the Dragon” co-star Bob Wall talks about Bruce’s phenomenal prowess. But he also talks about Lee having an allergic reaction to medication, and being found in another woman’s apartment. Caldwell is gracious in that she has made peace with that, and to this day finds joy in seeing him on screen. Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee, also the movie’s Producer, fondly remembers her father and the spectacle of the funeral. Bruce was a man with an upside and a downside. Most importantly, he is still loved to this day.

The footage of the Bruce Lee movies reminds us of the icon, who was a total genius in his body. He was 5’7″ and 135 lb, and so fast and so strong. The clips of his “one-inch punch” are astounding. He was beautiful and immortal. His goddaughter Diana Lee Inosanto says, “He put balls on Chinese men.” Provocative. More to the point: Bruce had the perfect body, was charismatic, and sexy. MMA Champion Gina Carano (“Haywire”) vehemently agrees. It is interesting that there have not been any crossover Asian stars as compelling as Bruce. Then again, how often does Bruce Lee come along in a lifetime? What landed for me was Linda talking about Bruce’s legacy even today. She said she is touched by the fact that Bruce inspired generations to be great. As a kid watching his movies, he inspired me to pursue the martial arts. Now I am a Sensei, and have the opportunity to give something back to others. Bruce made us dare to be great. And that is an amazing legacy.

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The man, the legend! “I Am Bruce Lee” is an amazing documentary about the phenomenon Bruce Lee. Universally recognized as the pioneer who elevated martial arts in film to an art form, this documentary will reveal why Bruce Lee’s flame burns brighter now than the day he died over three decades ago. The greatest martial artists, athletes, actors, directors, and producers in the entertainment business today will share their feelings about the one who started it all. We will interview the people whose lives, careers, and belief systems were forever altered by the legendary “Father of Martial Arts Cinema”. Rarely seen archival footage and classic photos will punctuate the personal testimonials. Prepare to be inspired. Starring: Bruce Lee (archive footage), Daniele Bolelli, Paul Bowman, Richard Bustillo

Photo credit: Screenshot from video

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