There’s nothing wrong with loving Bruce Lee. There have been better pure martial artists before and since Lee, and better action-movie stars, too. But Lee came along at exactly the right time in popular culture, when audiences were ready for both the philosophical underpinnings of his craft and the intensity of his performances. He became so popular that even today people with little interest in kung fu know Lee’s name and are aware of his movies—and that understandably irritates some connoisseurs, who hate that “Bruce Lee” has become a generic representative of the genre they love. But that’s no strike against Lee himself, who had such poise and charisma that he converted skeptics and won new enthusiasts. Even if he hadn’t become an icon, Bruce Lee would be amazing.
That’s why he deserves a better documentary than Pete McCormack’s I Am Bruce Lee. McCormack delivers a fairly comprehensive biography of Lee, but complicates it with an excess of style and needless digressions. His wealth of interview subjects—including Lee’s wife, Linda, and daughter Shannon—and rare archival clips are all chopped together into a hash of short sound bites and fragments, often overlaid with superfluous text. I Am Bruce Lee is best when it delves into how Lee built his legend in California, before he got into TV and before he became a star in Hong Kong. McCormack also deserves credit for including a lot of sincere critical appreciation of how Lee combined multiple forms and philosophies into something that was easy for westerners to understand. But whenever I Am Bruce Lee detours into a discussion of the history of competitive MMA, or has Kobe Bryant and Mickey Rourke expounding at length about how fame changes people, the subject of the documentary gets lost. Still, the raw material in the movie remains exciting. Even shortened up and talked over, a young Lee wowing crowds by doing one-thumb push-ups is thrilling to watch.
After Lee died, Hong Kong producers and international distributors tried to capitalize on a general lack of knowledge about Lee’s life—and about martial-arts cinema in general—and instigated the late-’70s “Bruceploitation” wave, in which they changed movie titles and even stars’ names in an attempt to dupe audiences into thinking that Lee had made dozens of unreleased films before he died—or, at the least, that a new star had emerged to rival the late Lee. Jackie Chan was one of those “new Bruce Lees” for a time, even starring in an unofficial sequel to Lee’s classic Fist Of Fury. By the end of the ’70s, Chan had developed his own screen personality and style, built around comical panic, crazy stunts, and a clever use of props, and he’d go on to became a legitimate star. Yet even after he’d become “Jackie Chan,” he still sometimes made movies out of his comfort zone.
Shout! Factory has now packaged two of those off-model Chan films onto one Blu-ray disc. In 1985, B-movie writer-director James Glickenhaus tried to help Chan crack the elusive American market with The Protector, starring Chan as a New York cop who travels to Hong Kong with his partner, Danny Aiello, to solve a kidnapping case. The Shout! Factory Blu-ray contains Chan’s re-edited Hong Kong version of the film, which tones down the R-rated material and adds more martial arts; but frankly, the HK Protector just plays like a clunkier, less funny version of a standard Jackie Chan picture. The original Protector is far more entertaining, if only because it’s so incredibly of its time. The bandana-clad street punks, the bullets that send bad guys flying through windows, the way that Chan’s colleagues slow-clap for him when he disobeys orders to chase down a villain… it’s all pricelessly clichéd, almost like a Simpsons parody. Chan does get to show off some of his acrobatic stunts, but more than anything, The Protector is illustrative of why Chan was never going to be a Hollywood star in the ’80s.
After The Protector failed to break him wider, Chan plowed straight into his Hong Kong action-comedy golden age, starring in such enduring classics as Police Story and Drunken Master II. But in the middle of that era, Chan attempted to depart from his usual style in 1993’s Crime Story, a grittier shoot-’em-up that saw Chan trying to compete with the hyperbolic actioners of director John Woo by playing a moody police detective who’s beaten down by the pervasive violence of his war against the Triads. Chan doesn’t really do “dour” convincingly, but Crime Story is still a solid HK thriller, from one of the industry’s peak creative stretches. There are Chan-like setpieces strewn throughout—including one stunner in which the star bounces and swings from cloths suspended from bamboo rafters—and there’s an exciting bigness to the production overall, as scores of extras chase each other through the streets. They’re misshapen pieces of the overall Chan puzzle, but if nothing else, The Protector and Crime Story are examples of what happens to action stars who have the kind of long careers that Bruce Lee didn’t. Sooner or later, they’re going to make a few movies that defy their own iconography.
Key features: On I Am Bruce Lee, some more of the home-movie footage that’s excerpted throughout the film; on The Protector, an interview with James Glickenhaus and the alternate cut; and an interview with Kirk Wong and deleted scenes on Crime Story.
I Am Bruce Lee: C+
The Protector: B-
Crime Story: B