The March 2013 issue of Muscle & Fitness magazine caught my eye recently. That is because instead of the usual hypermuscled monstrosity of a human male on its cover, it was none other than Bruce Lee.
The gist of the cover story — tied into the 40th anniversary of his “breakout year,” which would be 1973 by the magazine’s reckoning — had to do with how the late martial arts movie superstar was ahead of his time with regard to his martial arts philosophy and his training methods. (Just a quibble, but that 40th anniversary seems a bit contrived to me, since he had a career in Asia that predated 1973’s “Enter the Dragon,” not to mention U.S. TV in the 1960s with “The Green Hornet.”)
Bruce Lee could never be mistaken for a traditional bodybuilder, which is the target audience of the magazine. Maybe I’m mischaracterizing things, but the general goal of that audience would, in my estimation, be all about gaining bulk and size, about achieving the most mesomorphic physique possible. (A simple look at what gets advertised in the magazine bolsters that point of view.)
But no one could argue that Lee’s physique was a model for a bodybuilding of another sort. He was chiseled and cut, lithe like a jungle cat. He trained for agility, speed, endurance, flexibility, explosive kicks and punches, decreased body fat, increased fast-twitch muscle fiber and a strength-to-weight ratio that allowed him to perform fingertip pushups. When it came to his training regimen, Bruce Lee wasn’t trying to be the Hulk (not that he could be; it wasn’t in his genetics) — what he achieved via his training was more like Spider-Man.
So, Bruce Lee getting recognition in a magazine like Muscle & Fitness actually shows that its audience can be interested in more than just getting bulky when it comes to building muscle and gaining fitness. The article also points out that Lee was a pioneer in what is now called mixed martial arts or MMA. Once again, 40 years after his death, Bruce Lee is recognized for breaking barriers.
Reading that article and thinking about Bruce Lee, of course, of course led to thinking about his son, Brandon Lee, who died 20 years ago March 31, 1993. He was 28. Wow. Twenty years.
His death occurred on the set of “The Crow” as the movie entered its final days of shooting. In my April 14, 1993 column, I wrote:
“It was just a month ago that I wrote in this space about renting and enjoying Lee’s ‘Rapid Fire,’ which at the time was an unexpectedly popular video rental. I had hoped the movie was a sign of bigger and better things to expect. Who could have foreseen the tragic end to this young man’s life?
“When I returned home March 31, my answering machine was blinking with two messages from friends informing me of the bad news. It was unbelievable. ‘Is this some sort of perverse pre-April Fool’s Day joke to hype the movie?’ I thought to myself. I only wish it was.
“As the news progressed, it was shocking to learn that doctors extracted an actual .44 caliber slug from his body. Some called it a ‘family curse.’ Ridiculous, of course, but the parallels between the deaths of Bruce Lee and Brandon Lee seemed ironic, to say the least. Both young, both dying under unusual circumstances with a movie under way.
“It was a shame, because for a few short weeks, between the time Universal showed a sneak preview of ‘Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story’ and Brandon Lee’s death, it seemed as though closure to Bruce Lee’s legacy was made. The elder Lee’s loves, struggles and triumphs would be told to mass audiences and we could all move on, with Brandon Lee finally free to step out from his father’s shadow. The mood was not to last.
“Incidentally, I met Brandon Lee (I’m sure he wouldn’t even remember) very briefly when the Jeet Kune Do Society held a commemorative dinner for what would have been his dad’s 50th birthday in November of 1990. He seemed like a nice, down-to-earth guy, which made following his rising success more enjoyable and his death sadder.”
Regarding “Rapid Fire,” on March 17, 1993, I wrote:
“ … I watched ‘Rapid Fire,’ which stars Brandon Lee and Powers Booth. I was disappointed by Lee’s previous outing, ‘Showdown in Little Tokyo.’ But I really enjoyed this one. The plot is better than most in the genre and the action scenes are quite clever.
“Lee’s character comes dangerously close to being too much of a wise-guy, but overall, it’s fun and hopefully portends even better stuff from Brandon in the future.”
None of that was to ever be, of course. Just like in his dad’s case with “Enter the Dragon,” his greatest cinematic achievement — “The Crow” — came out after his unexpected death. Unlike his father, Brandon never did not have the chance to marry. (He was engaged to a woman named Eliza Hutton and was evidently keen on starting a family.)
What Brandon Lee would have done, would have accomplished over the past 20 years is pure speculation. His trajectory was definitely upward; “The Crow” would likely have taken him to a new level, where he would have been respected for his acting, transcending the “son of Bruce Lee” tag that opened doors but also made him a curiosity.
He probably would have co-starred in action movies with Jackie Chan and Jet Li, but would have also acted in purely dramatic roles alongside other actors who were renowned for their acting chops, not their fighting chops.
Intead of Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix” movies, it might have been Brandon. I’d go so far to say that Brandon would have even tried his hand at comedy. You can sense that he had some comic ability, even from his limited filmography.
Like Bruce, Brandon would not have put up with the usual Asian stereotypes that Hollywood was still putting out during his lifetime. I argue that had he not died, Bruce Lee would have upended so many of those stereotypes in the 1970s. Brandon’s presence would have done the same to advance the diversity of what Hollywood dished out with regard to Asians and Asian Americans, too.
Were he still with us, Brandon undoubtedly would also have become a father by now. Depending on how old he was when that happened, he might have even co-starred in a couple pics with his kids.
Alas, none of that happened. Brandon Lee, like his old man, left us too soon. We have his performances on DVDs and such, of course, and for that, we can be grateful. But I’m sure lots of folks — not just his former fiancée, his sister, Shannon and his mother, Linda — would rather have him with us.
I know I would.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2013 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)