Obituary: Brandon Lee

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The Independent Online
Brandon Bruce Lee, actor: born Oakland, California February 1965; died Wilmington, North Carolina 31 March 1993.

THERE WAS a high degree of resistance to the late Bruce Lee and his movie ideas in the Hollywood of the 1960s. The only real break that Lee got during all his years in California was a tailor-made cameo as a heavy in the Raymond Chandler update Marlowe (1969). He demolishes Philip Marlowe's office in a series of lightning blows, kicks and leaps and then, enraged by Marlowe's suggestion that he is gay, inadvertently aims himself off the balcony and plunges to his death. A year later Lee got tired of waiting for other offers, went back to Hong Kong (where he had been a successful child actor in left-wing movies) and became an international star in martial-arts movies.

Brandon Lee, the only son of Bruce Lee and his American wife Linda Emery, faced rather different problems when he tried to break into films in the 1980s. Thanks in large part to his father's efforts, it was no longer necessary to persuade Hollywood of the box-office potential of martial-arts movies. On the contrary, the studios are crowded with young hopefuls from the dojos of North America and macho action movies are a key part of the film industry's economic base. Bruce Lee (the son of a Chinese father and a Eurasian mother) looked Chinese, and was an undoubted victim of Hollywood's anti-Asian prejudices in the 1960s; his son looked more Caucasian than Chinese, which meant that it was hard for him to capitalise on his famous parentage when he tried to stand out from the crowd.

As a result, Brandon Lee followed his father's footsteps to Hong Kong and signed a contract with the would- be major D & B Films. The company starred him in an action thriller called Legacy of Rage (1986) and promoted him heavily under his Chinese name, Lee Kwok-Ho. But the film did no better than average business, and the contract was dissolved amid Lee's public expression of dissatisfaction with the creative standards and conditions of production in the Hong Kong film industry.

Back in California, he faced the further challenge that martial-arts skills are no longer considered enough for an action hero. Fashions have moved on in the action genre: real-life martial-arts champions like Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris and Jean- Claude Van Damme nowadays spend more time firing ever larger weapons than they do flailing their limbs, and stunt choreographers are kept busier desigining the pirouettes of mown- down victims than the sophisticated moves of the heroes. Brandon Lee's persistence eventually won him a supporting role in a Dolph Lundgren vehicle called Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991), and then a three-picture contract with Twentieth Century-Fox.

Although they allowed him to choreograph his own fight scenes, Fox clearly had confused ideas about the way they should present Lee on screen. In his American starring debut, Rapid Fire (1992), he was cast as an American-Chinese student ('Jake Lo') who impersonates a Chinese laundry worker; the plot, a routine thrash involving drug barons and bent cops, is set in motion by his father's death in the Tiananmen Square massacre. Despite these laboured Chinese connections, the movie went down in the usual blaze of fire-power. Ironically, it appears that it was a pyrotechnic accident that killed Lee during production of his second Fox movie, The Crow: he died from a gunshot wound after another actor fired a blank pistol during filming in North Carolina. Lee was carrying a grocery bag containing a small explosive charge to simulate the gunfire. The Crow was seemingly intended to relaunch Lee's bid for stardom, this time without the Chinese trappings. He was playing a murdered rock star who returns from the dead to wreak vengeance, quoting Edgar Allan Poe as he goes. It is unclear whether the film can be completed without him.

The Crow sounds like an attempt to market a young actor who may or may not have had the talent to succeed in his own right. Brandon Lee's fundamental problem was the shadow of his father. It was hardly coincidence that the writers of both Legacy of Rage and Rapid Fire came up with roles for him in which he struggles to fill the shoes of a father he has lost.

(Photograph omitted)