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‘Be Water’ Review: Bruce Lee Doc Charts A Warrior’s Journey

ESPN film doesn’t go deep, but gives an engaging bird’s-eye view of the martial arts legend’s life

The new 30 for 30 documentary Be Water opens up with a black-and-white screen test of its subject, martial arts legend Bruce Lee, from the mid-Sixties. Lee silently follows instructions to turn his head to different angles, before the off-screen director says, “Now the camera will pull back,” and invites his subject to demonstrate some kung-fu moves with a member of the crew as his theoretical target. Lee is utterly relaxed, putting his audience at ease with a joke about how accidents can happen even in an exhibition like this. He casually shifts into his stance, and suddenly his right arm is exploding towards his fake sparring partner with speed that seems superhuman. He does it several times, just as insanely fast, before the director asks him to pause and reposition himself so the camera can better capture his incredible moves.

Director Bao Nguyen likely chose to start Be Water with that footage as an efficient, attention-getting way to demonstrate the magic and charisma the Enter the Dragon star brought to his brief but groundbreaking careers as both martial artist and actor. It also functions as something of a harbinger for how the rest of the film will operate. Much of it is a fairly by-the-numbers, if engaging, chronicle of Lee’s life story, but every now and then it strikes so quickly, and with such force, that it will leave you wondering where that sudden power came from.

After that teaser, the movie jumps ahead to 1971, when Lee returned to Hong Kong (where he spent most of his childhood) to seek the movie stardom that had eluded him in the United States. As we hear voiceover from Lee’s daughter Shannon (who reads aloud from her father’s letters elsewhere in the film), his widow Linda Lee Cadwell, and various experts on the movies and sociology of the era, it seems for a few minutes that Be Water will, like many of the best 30 for 30 films, be focusing on a compact period of its subject’s life. Instead, it’s just the familiar biopic device(*) of starting near the end before, like the director of Lee’s screen test, pulling back to take a much wider view.

(*) Famously parodied in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, where one character explains early on, “Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays.”

The title comes from Lee’s realization as a young man that water can be soft, impossible to grab hold of, but also powerful enough under the right circumstances to penetrate the strongest rock on the planet. Many of his archival comments throughout the film reference water, including the idea of the ripples caused from dropping a pebble into a pool. Be Water wants to show the whole pool, and all the ripples, going back not only to Lee’s infancy in San Francisco, where his father was traveling as an acclaimed Cantonese opera performer, but to the long and extremely uneasy relationship the American entertainment industry has had with actors of Asian descent, and to mistreatment of Japanese-Americans during and after World War II, among many other heady subjects.

The scope is admirable, and in many ways necessary to fully capture the context of Lee’s growing celebrity throughout the Sixties, his difficulty breaking through in America, and the transformative impact of the handful of films he shot in the years leading up to his shocking 1973 death at the age of 32. We need, for instance, to see clips of white actors being cast in Asian roles (John Wayne as Genghis Khan, Mickey Rooney as Audrey Hepburn’s bucktoothed Breakfast at Tiffany’s neighbor) to appreciate not only how the odds were stacked against Lee, but the attitudes in place that led to Warner Bros. casting white actor David Carradine to play the Chinese-American hero of the Seventies TV drama Kung Fu, which was a project Lee had conceived as a vehicle for himself. A former Warner exec unapologetically explains, “The bottom line was, Bruce’s accent was gonna be a little tough on the American television audience,” and states that the show never would have been made with him as Kwai Chang Caine(*).

(*) At one point, we see photos of various screenplays Lee couldn’t get produced in America, one titled Ah Sahm. Decades after his death, Shannon Lee would finally get a version of Kung Fu made as Cinemax’s Warrior, an action epic where the Chinese characters are all played by Asian actors, including Andrew Koji as a hero named, finally, Ah Sahm.  

In trying to show all the ripples associated with Lee’s too-brief life, though, Be Water often lives up to the more diffuse aspects of its titular substance. There’s so much Nguyen and his many interviewees want to talk about here, and many of them feel covered in too cursory a fashion to truly do them justice. The film doesn’t even attempt exploring the life of Ip Man (also known as Yip Man) outside of his role as Lee’s tutor in the art of Wing Chun. In that case, perhaps Nguyen recognized the series of beloved films starring Donnie Yen as Ip Man already covered that subject thoroughly, but it’s not as if Lee’s biography has gone unchronicled in either dramatized or documentary form. (The screen-test footage that opens Be Water previously appeared in 2012’s I Am Bruce Lee.)

The film features an impressive array of voices from throughout Lee’s life, including NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabar, who trained under Lee while a student at UCLA, and played one of his opponents in the uncompleted movie Game of Death. All are kept off-screen until the end, when Nguyen finds the most poignant way to properly introduce them and their relationships with Lee. As thoughtful as many of the interview subjects are when we hear them speak — of Lee’s role as superhero sidekick Kato in ABC’s short-lived Green Hornet series, historian and critic Jeff Chang convincingly insists, “His very presence onscreen is a protest in and of itself” — Be Water is at its most potent when it makes its arguments visually. The footage gathered is remarkable, not only famous moments like Lee and ex-pupil Chuck Norris limbering up before their climactic fight in The Way of the Dragon, but home movies, family photos, and clips from his less-celebrated career as a child film star in Hong Kong. (He appeared in 20 movies there before his parents sent him to America to keep him away from gang trouble.) Every time we watch footage of Lee in action, it becomes more exasperating that the only person who seemed to know how to use him on camera was Lee himself.

Throughout, Lee is presented as a man who broke down barriers, between forms of martial arts as much as between races. “Because of style,” he explains at one point, “people are separate.” His signature form, Jeet Kune Do, borrowed elements of multiple disciplines, and he became one of the first kung-fu masters in America to take on non-Chinese students. Two of them — one African-American, one Latino — became close friends with their young sensei, and on nights out, Lee and his pals would be on the arms of one another’s girlfriends, just to show bystanders a glimpse of a postracial world. That he married a white woman was, Linda says, “a reflection of how he felt about America,” even though the country was often far less generous to him due to his ethnicity.

Because Lee is so fascinating, Be Water is never less than watchable. It provides a solid overview of Lee’s life and legacy, particularly for the uninitiated who may have only seen Lee’s face on T-shirts, or one of the many films influenced by his work — say, Uma Thurman battling dozens of fighters in Kill Bill while wearing a track suit inspired by Lee’s from Game of Death — or a fictionalized Lee making a fool of himself with Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Both of those Quentin Tarantino movies are clearly influenced by Lee without necessarily doing him a kindness. (Kill Bill even gives David Carradine one more chance to feign at being a martial-arts master.) Be Water offers a much more complete picture of Lee — there’s even a brief segment about him training the cast of The Wrecking Crew, the Sharon Tate movie that figured so memorably into Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — even if it only occasionally matches his amazing gifts.

Be Water premieres June 7th on ESPN.