I became obsessed with Bruce Lee when I was about thirteen. I was big into karate and martial arts. When I say “big into”, I mean more the traditions and aesthetics of them than the actual fighting. I went to a few karate classes, and later Jeet Kune Do when I found out what it was (and that there was a class available in Newbridge, Co. Kildare). I got as far as the orange belt in Karate, which as you may know, is not very far at all. I liked watching people do flying kicks, and roundhouse kicks and stuff like that, but I wasn’t too good at learning the basics. Once I’d learned how to jab properly, I didn’t want to do it a thousand times to get really good at it. I was more like, “got the jab down, now how do I fight 30 people at once using a ladder like Jackie Chan?”
I was good at knowing about marital arts and I was good at practicing on my sister (who wasn’t allowed to hit me back, she had to act like a punching bag, I must also have been good at persuading people to do insane things. I like to think my sister is a stronger person because of this activity). I loved all things oriental. Chinese and Japanese writing adorned nearly everything in my bedroom. I probably couldn’t even tell the difference between them. Although, I did end up taking some Japanese lessons. I took maybe two lessons and when I found that I couldn’t speak fluent Japanese by then, I gave it up. Anyway, I would have been very disappointed if I found myself speaking fluent Japanese when I discovered that Bruce Lee, my idol, was Chinese. I liked objects, and I surrounded myself with them. I become very fascinated with things and at that time of my life, this was my fascination. This was a time before the Internet was ubiquitous. I might have ‘surfed the net’ once or twice, but we certainly didn’t have access to it in my house.
When I discovered Bruce Lee my appetite for the legend of him was voracious. There were no Facebook pages dedicated to him. I couldn’t read his Wikipedia. I found books about him. Loads of them, and I read them and I loved them. And in keeping with the approach of my thirteen-year-old self, I have decided not to look at the Internet at all while I’m writing this. I’m going to do it from memory. Some of the ‘facts’ may be wrong, but the amount of things I remember might give you a better idea of how obsessed I was and how much material I consumed at the time.
Bruce Lee was born in 1940 in San Francisco, but he was raised in Hong Kong. His birth name was not Bruce Lee, but I believe ‘Lee’ was a part of it. His mother was an opera singer and his father worked in the film industry, which was how Bruce Lee got involved in it. Wait, maybe his dad was the opera singer… someone was an opera singer. He was a child actor, but not a martial artist at a young age. He was a cha-cha champion at some point in his youth, and he first learned martial arts by trading lessons with a master who wanted to learn to cha-cha. The martial art he learned was called, if I’m not mistaken, ‘Wing-Chun’, a form of Kung Fu. Apparently Lee gave his cha-cha tutorial to this Wing-Chun master, and then the Wing-Chun guy gave Lee a tutorial. They agreed to meet up again in a week. According to the story, Lee came to that next lesson at such an advanced stage that the Wing-Chun guy told him that he could teach him no more. This is probably a myth, or an exaggeration, or I just made it up. Either way, Bruce Lee showed an aptitude for Wing-Chun and was able to kick at an incredibly fast pace. Which is handy if you want to be a deadly fighter.
Brucey kept getting into fights in Hong Kong, probably because he could (at this time he didn’t always win), but mostly because where he grew up was quite rough and very overcrowded. There were also some issues regarding his mixed-race. His mother was half Caucasian. When he was eighteen he moved to America, basically sent by his parents. He studied something, somewhere and lived with his older sister who already lived there, in the particular part of the US that he went to. I want to say Seattle?
Here, he started to teach martial arts. And in his college he met his wife, who was called… Linda… Something. They had two children together, Brandon and Shannon Lee. Brandon also grew up to be a movie star, but he was killed in the making of his best film The Crow when seemingly one of the prop guns was loaded with real bullets as opposed to blanks. But actually I think it went down as an accident, not murder. It was some bit of stuff in the chamber of the gun, not a bullet. EMERY! Linda Emery is what her name was, I believe.
Sometime after this he was at a Karate competition somewhere, and he was ‘spotted’ by Hollywood. He had been demonstrating his ‘one-inch punch’ and something else. The one-inch punch is class. I’ll stick a video in here if I can find one.
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At some point he starred in The Green Hornet as ‘Kato’ and it was cool, but it didn’t last too long , only two seasons, I think. When that series ended, he basically invented Jeet Kune Do, which was his martial arts philosophy. It means ‘way of the intercepting fist (or foot)’ and the whole idea of it was to be non-rigid and not set in its ways, to be adaptable, and there is a great quote by him about water which applies to this, and I will find that and put it here:
You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.
Before I talk about his films. Let me begin by saying that, while I enjoyed Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story when I first saw it years ago, it is absolutely cavalier with historical detail. In that, it’s mostly nonsense. I did enjoy it at the time though.
So, he was in a lot of films due to being a child actor and all that, but when we talk about his films, really we only mean five films. The Bruce Lee films. First came The Big Boss, which was made at some time. I remember him fighting around massive blocks of ice, and jumping over a high gate, which was ridiculous, but the film is cool. The big boss had a beard. The film was made in China because the American studios were afraid to put him in a starring role because of his ethnicity. The Big Boss broke all the film records in Asia. Which was nice for Brucey. And then he immediately made Fist of Fury, which is brilliant! He fights loads of people in a big circle all at once (and wins) and I’m positive that scene inspired bits of The Matrix: Reloaded and Kill Bill. So Fist of Fury broke all the records again, which means it did better than The Big Boss and now Lee was a massive star and a force to be reckoned with.
This is why when it came to his third film, Way of the Dragon, he was given all of the power and he wrote, directed and starred in it, along with choreographing all the fight scenes. He also hired Chuck Norris as the bad guy, and eventually he kicks his ass in the Colesseum in Rome. Which is basically all my favourite things in the one place. It’s feckin’ brilliant.
Next, the now iconic Bruce Lee, started making Game of Death which might, controversially, be my favourite Bruce Lee film. Controversial not because it’s not great, but because most people say the obvious choice of Enter the Dragon and because they had to do some fancy editing stuff to finish it off. In Game of Death Lee wears the infamous yellow jump suit with the black stripe (Kill Bill again), and he fights against NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who is one of the greatest basketball players of all time and almost definitely over seven foot tall. Lee being, basically, a short-arse. Once the shit hits the fan in the movie, and the fighting begins, it’s set out like a computer game, in that it’s done in levels. He goes up and up levels in the base of the baddies, fighting tougher opponents the higher he goes. It’s absolutely brilliant and I highly recommend you grab some friends, order a pizza and stick it on your movie-viewing screen of choice.
While this film was being made, someone in Hollywood offered Brucey the starring role in Enter the Dragon, which is his most famous film. Probably because it’s the only US produced one that he starred in. Also it was huge when it came out, made large profits, but he died before it was released, which is an awful shame. The film is great. He nunchuks a very young Jackie Chan in the face during Jackie Chan’s 5 seconds in the movie (he wasn’t Jackie Chan yet, Rush Hour 3 wasn’t even the beginning of a hint of an idea of a script). This is the film with the blade claw thing and the famous image of Lee with the three blood cuts on his body in various places. So it’s great. Watch it.
A little while after this, he died. Which is shite. And this is why he couldn’t finish Game of Death and they did some fancy editing to finish the movie off, with stand-ins and everything. Oh and now that I think of it, I seem to recall that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a student of Lee’s when Lee was teaching classes in the U.S.
Like many great artists, Bruce Lee became more famous after death. That’s not to say he wasn’t famous while he was alive, he was maybe the most famous person in Asia for the three or four years before his death, and he became very well-known in the States too. But after death, that’s when he became an actual legend. All of a sudden everyone had a Bruce Lee story. Everyone challenged him to a fight, and they always lost. Since the Internet there have been all sorts of legendary things, including a video where he’s playing ping-pong with nunchuks against a ping-pong player with a bat, and winning. And then against two ping-pong players, with two balls, and Lee just with the nunchuks, and still winning. There are people who think it’s real, which is interesting. Bruce Lee was obviously incredibly skilled, mind-blowingly fast, versatile, adaptable, clever and strong. But he was probably shit at ping-pong, he spent too long doing two-finger push ups, I’d say.
He died in 1973, summer, I believe. He had a headache and took a painkiller, and it’s not absolutely clear what happened, but it seems to be some sort of allergic reaction to the specific painkiller. He had some condition where his brain expanded or something. It’s shite. I’d love to know what kind of films he’d have made when he was older. Old Bruce Lee would have been class, I reckon. He’d be kicking Bruce Willis’ ass all over the shop. Morgan Freeman would narrate the movie, and then Liam Neeson would step in to give Willis a hand, but Bruce Lee would drop both of them.
Bruce Lee was cool. This article is exactly 1973 words long, the year he died.
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