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Book review - Bruce Lee: A Life

A mesmerizing read, this book succeeds in transfixing the reader as it tells the tale of the legendary megastar.

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Shake Up And Excite San Francisco. Tiny Phoenix. Little Dragon Lee. Never Sits Still.

A man can have many names during the course of his life. But while Lee Jun Fan, a troblemaking and rambunctious child actor from Hong Kong was known as a brother, son and friend to many, his ferocious fighting style led to him being remembered as Bruce Lee.

It seems almost inconceivable, but a man as extraordinary as Lee never had a proper biography written about him. Thanks to author Matthew Polly (author of Tapped Out and American Shaolin), we finally have a definitive story of the life and times of one of the men — if not the man — that changed the course of martial arts and action cinema forever. Thanks to Polly, we now have Bruce Lee: A Life (Simon and Schuster, 2018). And it’s a great thing that he did, because it’s a tremendous ride.

Just don’t expect everything to turn up roses.

This is a tale of mishaps. This is a story of misadventures and repeated failures. Of broken friendships and shattered dreams, aspirations that were attainable suddenly snatched away until dumb luck and almost miraculous timing changed everything.

Nor is this the story of a pristine hero, an incorruptible paladin that would never be susceptible to the temptations of the everyman. It is a story of grief, love, forgiveness, perseverance and unexpected successes. This is not an authorized biography (although his widow and daughter were kind enough to participate and contribute), which means that there is never any attempt at whitewashing history whatsoever.

The book begins not with Lee himself, but the origins of his family. All of this begins with his father, a man born into abject poverty that ends up with the good fortune to end up as part of a Chinese theater ensemble. His mother, a part Dutch-Jewish woman of polite society. It all plays a role in the relationships he would forge later in life, and how he came to view the world as a result of his formative years. His mishaps in Hong Kong, his training in Wing Chun, and the incidents that eventually led to leaving his homeland for the U.S.

From there, Seattle. Los Angeles. India. Rome. The rivalries and friendships, bonds and burnt bridges, a complicated life is on full display. His friendships are explored, as well as his methodology and approach to martial arts - joined at the hip with his philosophy of life. Not only is it a riveting read because of the events that take place, but the accounts given by many of the parties involved - especially decades after the fact - contain true gems.

It’s easy in this day in age to think that Lee was just ahead of his time. From all accounts, he wasn’t just an innovator, he was a true physical specimen that was able to challenge martial artists of all stripes and disciplines. The book also does an excellent job of dispelling a lot of the myths and misconceptions spread and popularized through TV and film about his life, such as his infamous battle against Wong Jack Man, or being challenged by stuntmen that thought Kung Fu was just superstitious nonsense. The behind-the-scenes antics and anecdotes from Van Williams (The Green Hornet), MMA pioneer Judo Gene Lebell, Bob Wall, prized student Dan Inosanto (and even his very first student, Jesse Glover), set the record straight about so many stories and previously unknown facts.

Yet there’s one thing I personally can’t shake after reading this book: the struggles of being an immigrant that was never seen as American enough in the U.S., yet not Chinese enough in Hong Kong. As the son of immigrants, this was particularly of interest to me. Lee’s situation directly influenced a lot of the treatment he received on both sides of the Pacific, and attempted to carry it all with grace in a delicate cultural tightrope walk.

The book is a compelling read, and it was difficult to put down. Almost every chapter begins with a photo related to the portion of his life that is being addressed, and there’s a lovely full-color photo section in the middle of the book ranging from the sunrise to sunset of his life. The book goes well beyond his last days as it deals with the aftermath of his untimely death, as well as the personal ramifications for his family. Letters to friends and acquaintances, personal notes, and even abandoned screenplays are presented throughout, including his favorite dance moves from his other obsession aside from combat - the cha-cha.

What? You didn’t know he was a Hong Kong cha-cha champion? You do now. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. It’s essential reading for any fan of Lee or martial arts cinema. The 600+ pages feel like a breeze.

Bruce Lee: A Life is available now wherever books are sold. It will absorb your free time and change the way you view the man and his legacy.

Note: Review was done from a review copy provided by Simon and Schuster.