Spirited celebration of the life of “the Patron Saint of Kung Fu,” a stalwart of pop culture whose career is due for a revival.
Growing up in Hong Kong, Bruce Lee (1940-1973) wasn’t much of a student. As Polly (Tapped Out: Rear Naked Chokes, the Octagon, and the Last Emperor: An Odyssey in Mixed Martial Arts, 2011, etc.) writes, he was good in English and pretty poor in everything else; he was held back a couple of grades and known as a schoolyard bully—though the kind that “was a gang leader, offering protection to those willing to follow him.” He would go on to battle a string of sadists and miscreants in films that would become standards of early-1970s popular culture. First, however, he had to set up shop as a martial arts master with a burning mission to spread Wing Chun and other forms of Chinese fighting arts to America, always with his own stamp on them, always willing to fight to establish his credentials. “I would like to let everybody know,” Lee announced in 1963, “that any time my Chinatown brothers want to research my Wing Chun, they are welcome to find me at my school in Oakland.” Meaning, Polly speculates, that Lee was willing to take on all of San Francisco's Chinatown and its myriad masters to make his mark. His martyrdom was assured by dying young just before his signature film, Enter the Dragon, entered the market in 1973, but even before then, the charismatic Lee had a huge following. Polly recounts a trip to Goa with Green Hornet star James Coburn in which everyone knew who Lee was, but not Coburn, and later moments in which he outshone even the great Steve McQueen—which is exactly as Lee swore it would be. Enter the Dragon also fulfilled Lee’s other promise: that he would become, as the author writes in rather outdated language, “the first and highest paid Oriental superstar in the United States.”
Students of martial arts, film history, and the 1970s alike will find much to enjoy in Polly’s homage.