Film: Young Bruce Lee ***
Release date: 30th May 2011
Running time: 90 mins
Director: Raymond Yip & Manfred Wong
Starring: Tony Leung Ka Fai, Christy Chung, Aarif Rahman, Jennifer Tse, Michelle Ye
Reviewer: Daryl Wing
Bruce Lee is regarded by many as the greatest martial arts legend who ever lived. Produced by Robert Lee, his younger brother, and based on his own first-hand experience, Young Bruce Lee pays homage to the man who, uniquely, brought the power and majesty of Chinese Kung Fu to millions around the world. Directed by Raymond Yip and Manfred Wong, it arrives from the studio that brought you Jet Li's Warlords and the acclaimed Infernal Affairs Trilogy.
Almost named Push Lee by a confused father, Bruce (Aarif Rahman) was born in the year of the dragon and raised into a large family, spending most of his childhood swearing, fighting and performing in various movies, following in the footsteps of his pop, Cantonese opera artist Lee Hoi Chuen (Tony Leung).
Academically though, Lee is struggling, preferring to hang out with a close group of friends as they, quite literally, dance the nights away in clubs. Cocky but good-looking, Lee is inevitably caught up in a love triangle, and decides to distance himself, concentrating on his passion for boxing. A chance encounter with Charlie Owen (Alex Yen), the British boxing champion, results in a dream boxing bout.
With Owen demanding a rematch, the group of friends slowly part, following their own paths to happiness. And yet they must join forces one last time to help one of their own – one of Lee’s closest friends, Lau-lin Kong, who is throwing his future away thanks to a hellish drug addiction...
Young Bruce Lee is a two-hour drama with very little of the essential ingredient. On paper it’s big on ideas but, disappointingly, thin on conflict – a flimsy love triangle with Lee torn between two beautiful sweethearts, a boxing champ looking for revenge tagged on at the end, a family coping with the fall of Hong Kong, a young man battling his drug addiction, and Lee embarking on a movie career that will inevitably lead to stardom suggests great things. It doesn’t deliver. The real distinction of the film is that it crumbles under the weight of expectancy, with the final act the only thing that will please fans of Bruce Lee, the legend, rather than Phoenix Lee, the ordinary kid whose years growing up were at the very best, dull.
Yip and Wong sidestep the meatier aspects of Lee’s life, instead creating a dreamy atmosphere that tries to piece together several key moments, managing to conjure up a disappointing opening two acts in which very little actually happens. Skipping many years in the process, ditching action sequences just as the audience shift forward onto the edge of their seats, the two auteurs replace friction with birthday buns, a game of marbles and dancing the cha cha. Until the last half hour, the latter is easily the most exciting scene, choreographed and filmed in a surprisingly breathtaking manner.
But is this what the audience want to see? Bruce Lee’s brother, producer Robert Lee, clearly thinks so, and although discovering that the legend couldn’t ride a bike, swore like a trooper when he was barely old enough to walk, was pretty hopeless with girls and could put Patrick Swayze in the corner is fairly interesting, it doesn’t really justify a lengthy running time that sugarcoats his family before bombarding us with some sensational action sequences that somehow sit out of place. This, coming from a Bruce Lee movie, is astonishing.
Nevertheless, they are undeniably welcome – reward for observing such a damp squid of a film. With the help of slick cinematography, the scenes have a sleek, shadowy look that owes as much to Lee’s famous flicks from yesteryear as much to Stallone’s Rocky franchise. A strange score during the frantic no-holds-barred rematch between Lee and Owen is slightly distracting, but this is the best moment of the film, with the drug house rooftop climax a close second, and oddly, the cha cha competition in which Lee performs with his younger brother, more thrilling than you could probably imagine.
With its decent location and believable setting, one of the other notable pleasures is the performances. The characterizations may be pretty standard, they all emerge as too similar, but the casting is spot-on, even if Rahman’s Lee is at times too cocky, a bit smug, and less likeable because of it. The true winner in this movie, however, is the traitor who invades their home when Lee is barely old enough to walk, and who then appears at various points in an all too brief but brilliantly sleazy turn as the cartoonish villain of the piece, pushing the film towards it more satisfying action-packed conclusion.
Young Bruce Lee indulges in a bizarre tonal shift from dire drama to an action-packed finale bordering on thrilling. It’s hard work getting there, and fans of Lee will hate how such an icon has been made to look so ordinary, but skip to the end and enjoy some truly entertaining set-pieces that question the matter-of-factness of its opening two acts.