Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey has been called the definitive documentary on Bruce Lee, and it is a description I find it hard to argue with. From his street-fighting Hong Kong beginnings and to his final vision for his uncompleted fifth movie, Game of Death, this documentary takes us through most of Bruce Lee’s life, career, martial arts history and legacy. It recounts his early TV show appearances, his difficulties in convincing Hollywood to give a Chinese man a leading role in a movie, and his eventual turning to the Hong Kong film industry in order to achieve enough success independently from Hollywood to enter the Western film industry by a “side door”. Lee’s first two Hong Kong produced movies, The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972), became the highest-grossing movies of all time in China, positioning Lee perfectly for Hollywood entry. Enter the Dragon (1973) was the first-ever movie to be jointly produced by Warner Bros. and Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest Company. Tragically, his blossoming career was then cut short by his early death that same year, caused almost certainly by over-exertion in training.
Even before his first feature movie, Bruce Lee became an immense celebrity in the martial arts world. He was sought out by elite sportsmen to help them improve their ability, and he was the coach behind the early championships of names like Joe Lewis and Chuck Norris.
There has never been a martial artist like Bruce Lee before, and there probably will never be anyone like him again. With fierce intelligence he grasped both the physiological and philosophical aspects of martial arts, and he was a tireless student of all forms of fighting, synthesizing them all into a fluid and personal non-system. He broke the rules, but was only able to do so because he knew them all. At the same time, he had all the acumen of a showbiz personality, all the technical skill of a movie director and producer, and enough humility and tolerance not to blame others for their initial lack of faith in him. He knew it was up to him to prove himself, and he had all the focus and ambition required to pull it through.
His final and never properly completed movie, Game of Death, was initiated before the deal to film Enter the Dragon was made. He therefore halted work on Game of Death in order to do Enter the Dragon, and one result was that his early footage for Game of Death got lost. After his death, a rather poor version of Game of Death was made, using stand-ins and even cardboard cut-outs of his face (!) to make up for Lee’s absence. The story, too, was chopped to pieces.
Rather miraculously, the lost Game of Death footage was unearthed in 1994 and the half-hour’s worth of pure quality fighting – the climactic scenes of the movie, which Lee had made sure to film first – is included in this documentary, along with details about what the original story was supposed to have been. Plotwise, it is no masterpiece, but the philosophical point was interesting: fighting his way up several levels of a Chinese tower, Lee would encounter and defeat the various particular systems of martial arts, ending up at the topmost level fighting someone on his own level, using an unknown style that transcended the established styles. All part of Lee’s ambitious mission to innovate and reinvent martial arts as something much less bound by tradition and authoritative discipline. And a point that seems to have gotten thoroughly lost in the rather terrible version of Game of Death that was released five years after his death.
A Warrior’s Journey is a valuable Bruce Lee resource for all fans and students of martial arts. It succeeds in conveying the wonder of this singular individual and how he has been, and will continue to be, an inspiration to people across the world.
The DVD screener has no subtitles or special features other than scene selections, but is still a good package.
Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey is released on DVD 12th March 2012.
Director: John Little
Cast: Bruce Lee, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Linda Lee Caldwell, Dan Inosanto, Chuck Norris and others.
Runtime: 95 min.