BOOK REVIEW / A martial artist who went down fighting: 'Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit' - Bruce Thomas: Viking, 15.99 pounds

BRUCE LEE has been badly served by the film industry and by his fans. You would be wary of going out with someone who suggested a screening of Enter the Dragon as a hot night out. Nor would you be inclined to agree with someone who bemoaned Lee's early death in terms reserved for Jean Vigo or James Dean, or even Keats for that matter. While this book doesn't quite make the case for him that it would like to, it's not a bad attempt.

During his adolescence, Lee was a troublemaker, compensating, perhaps, for a sickly childhood. He loved fighting. He'd beat people up if they smiled at him. He'd beat them up if they didn't smile at him. His clothes concealed a mini-Sheffield of razor blades. He was constantly being thrown into Hong Kong jails from which his mother, keeping the secret from his father, would wearily bail him out. At 13 he was beaten up by a kung fu expert, and demanded to be taught the martial art. It's doubtful whether he lost a fight after that. He travelled to America and began to support himself by giving kung fu and dancing lessons (Bruce Thomas quotes the Celtic saying: 'Never give a sword to a man who can't dance').

Lee developed his own kind of fighting style, jeet kune do, or 'the intercepting fist style', which basically means getting your retaliation in first, a win-at-all-costs style that depends on instantaneous fluidity and nifty tricks like a punch that travels one inch but sends opponents twice Lee's weight flying across the room. (The book's most entertaining moments usually come when some beefy redneck laughs at the idea of the 130 lb Lee being able to touch him.)

A dedicated and exemplary instructor, Lee was so fast the camera had to be speeded up to record his movements at all. He died in 1973, aged 33, under mysterious, if not exactly suspicious, circumstances. He had made four films and two television series.

Kung fu means 'hard work' or 'time spent', and Bruce Thomas illustrates this by calling Shakespeare a kung fu writer. This is a pleasing analogy, but unfortunately - for all his hard work - it doesn't apply to Thomas himself. Although he's already written a novel and a book on martial arts philosophy, he's pretty much of a white belt on the word processor. But then most people who buy this book won't mind. Bruce Lee was a driven man, constantly trying to keep his temper in check, and furiously dedicated to his art. He may deserve treatment by a writer more adept at registering nuance, but it's a testament to his gifts that the book succeeds.

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