Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lee, or Li?

A recent and fun post by Pop Culture Nerd, included a passing reference to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), and it made me think of someone I've long admired (and still think about from time to time). The original and iconic Bruce Lee. Then, I thought of the more recent martial arts movie hero, Jet Li. Both are favorites in my martial arts movie collection. Similar in some ways, and very different in others. Jet, as a youth, once performed a demonstration for President Nixon during a tour of the Beijing Wushu Team. This was at a time when Bruce was trying to make his mark in Hollywood and the realm of martial arts in general. Both made their careers, and mark, in their own (very different) times and became action icons of the screen. Who would you choose then as the best between them? For me...

It's Bruce, easy

Having a childhood that stretched through the 60's, I don't think I could have avoided not being exposed to this man's talent and drive while growing up. Ask anyone near my age when they first noticed this charismatic and mesmerizing figure, and dollars to donuts they'd mention it was when they watched The Green Hornet on television. And as good as the lead masked crime fighter was (as a character), everybody's favorite from the show was

Kato (The Green Hornet)Image via Wikipedia

Kato (as portrayed by Lee). I have no doubt that he picked up fans after his death when they watched the syndicated repeats of the show. Kids, my age, would talk amongst ourselves after every show, in awe. Granted this was decades before any internet access and its speed of light news or rumor capability, but the talk (and whispers) were always flying around and about Bruce Lee. And it didn't matter who you were. He attracted the attention of everyone. He cut across all ethnic lines at a time when cultural barriers were only beginning to be breached.

The fact that Bruce was, above all else, a martial artist, inspired many my age. People of small stature with the ability to kick butt has the tendency to grab your attention (whether you're big or small). That certainly came across when you watched Kato on TV. So when he talked, people listened. His personality was infectious, and his drive to succeed was only slightly higher than his willingness to share his knowledge and teachings (this at a time his own community's martial art establishment did not do those things, and mainstream America was in the midst of its own historic change). Regardless, his dynamism and persona was going to get heard, one way or another. His presence and impact on that short-lived weekly show may have been the vehicle that started it all (for a sadly a too short career), but it's had lasting reverberations.

Fist of LegendImage via Wikipedia

Still, this is not to slight Jet Li's career or popularity in any way. There are films of his that I'd pick over a couple of Bruce's. Breaking into the Hollywood (Western) film-making mainstream has not normally been via a China or Hong Kong route. Unless I'm reading it wrong, back then being Asian in Hollywood meant swimming against many currents, and the thinking behind it. Perhaps, it's better now (I don't walk in either's shoes to be a good judge). All the same, Jet's body of film work is gargantuan ("You know, I've always liked that word... ”gargantuan"... so rarely have an opportunity to use it in a sentence.") compared to Bruce's, though. Most of it in the Eastern film market (which is growing in scale and importance compared to others). And, Jet Li's following is worldwide (and deserved). But, so is Bruce Lee's, and his was acquired more so across the decades starting right after his death. Plus, he was a pioneer in the truest sense of the word. Without him arriving on the scene when he did, the latter martial arts action stars would have been delayed (not prevented, they would have arrived anyway, just later). I believe Jet Li followed a path clear cut by someone who was a human buzz-saw of an individual.

Not that it's a bad thing (okay... it is, somewhat), but today's action stars reek of corporate, and their handlers, in their career management, touring, and publicity. I don't believe one could ever have said that about Bruce Lee [at least, not without King Kong having their back ;-)]. And why did I think of Bruce when UFC was mentioned in PCN's post? Given his martial arts skills and philosophy, he believed and espoused a mixed martial art (MMA) discipline way, way before it was ever popular to promote it in fighting systems (and their schools) or corporate boardrooms. IMO, the seeds behind the MMA/UFC craze of late were those planted by Bruce and the likes of a Hélio Gracie, along with a host of others. But, they were key and are who I think of when I see UFC advertised on pay-per-view commercials, cable shows, or write-ups in the sports pages. They just didn't get any of the profits or options from it, and certainly not enough of the credit for making MMA as popular as it's become. But, such is life. Both Bruce Lee and Jet Li are worthy of all the acclaim that comes their way. But, for my money, it's all pushed back without Bruce's arrival. Not that I consider him a god or anything worthy of worship, though. I just think his accomplishments and their effects, on a human scale, merit well deserved admiration.

Okay, it's clear that I believe impact and legacy thumb the scale in Bruce Lee's favor, big-time. But, if I'd break it down further between them, this is what I think:
  • better actor: okay, we're not talking about Russel Crowe vs. Tom Hanks here, but given his larger filmography, it's Jet; he just had a longer career to practice this art (though, if he'd have lived as long, IMO, Bruce would have overtaken him in this category)
  • better loved by the camera: both are exciting people to watch, but it's easily Bruce; look at the interviews below, and this clip, for proof
  • better fighter on camera: close, but it's Jet; again because of a longer career, plus, the benefit of working with latter day Asian choreographers (like Yuen Wo-Ping) who spent years continuing development of fight stage craft - although, you could say Bruce's impact on Hong Kong martial art films in the early 70's contributed to this, as well
  • better fighter, period: Bruce; I don't think there is any question here due to his pioneering in physical fitness/nutrition, and mixed martial arts, in general, and his own fighting art, in particular. Plus, just like a the fastest gun was always tested in the western, Bruce had to and did fight off all comers in real life (check out his fight history). Many established martial artists (and even professional boxers) say Bruce was the best there ever was.

Bruce Lee Interview (Part 1)

Bruce Lee Interview (Part 2)

Powered by ScribeFire.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]


  1. I was always partial to Sonny Chiba myself. THE STREET FIGHTER is such a bad-ass martial arts flick as is pointed out in TRUE ROMANCE, Sonny's character is just paid to mess guys up.

    If I had to choose between Bruce Lee and Jet Li, hands down, I'd go with Bruce. He's THE man. ENTER THE DRAGON is an incredible film, one that has lost none of its power.

    What do you think of his son, Brandon and the few films he did?

  2. I remember THE STREET FIGHTER fondly. Sonny Chiba was a fantastic martial arts performer. Another one with great presence on the screen - and he did so many films! I have TSF and a few of his samurai films in the collection. Did you see BULLET TRAIN (which is supposedly the basis of Speed)? I'm trying to catch up with that one. Nice touch to include him by QT in Kill Bill Vol. 1.

    I very much appreciated and miss Brandon Lee. He seemed more actor than a martial artist doing films. But, you could clearly tell those BL genes were there! And as he was really beginning to break out and make a name for himself, he was sadly cut down by a screw up on set. That family was so cursed.

    Thanks very much, J.D., for your thoughts on this.

  3. Have not seen BULLET TRAIN. I believe there is a box set somewhere out there with it on it which I must get. I have seen GOLGO 13 which is pretty cool. And yeah, I thoroughly enjoyed Sonny's role in KB V1.

    I certainly agree with your thoughts on Brandon Lee. Every time I watch THE CROW it makes a little wistful at what could have been. It really is kinda spooky how much bad luck his family has had.

  4. Oh, wow, fun article (and thank you for the link!). For me, it's gotta be Bruce. I remember exactly where and how old I was when I heard of his death and how it devastated me. It was the same thing when I heard of Brandon's death many years later.

    I'd give Bruce the edge because back then, he didn't have the benefit of working with wires. I could be wrong but I think everything you see is all him. As amazing as Jet is, he has a little help.

  5. You bring up a great point, PCN. July 20, 1973 was a date I recall vividly... sitting outside a friend's home in the evening having a heartfelt talk about what just happened [a death of (John Lennon, Elvis, etc.) moment]. Same with his son.

    You're right, too, that what's on film for Bruce, is all him. Wire-fu (the extensive stuff, not the just the big jumps) was down the line. And yes, Jet certainly benefited from it. Thanks very much, PCN, for your comment. I knew you'd bring up some very good thoughts.

  6. I gotta agree with you... I'm a Lee fan. I think the first time I saw somebody perform Martial Arts on TV was in the repetitons of The Green Hornet. I just love Kato.

    'Though it's funny. I once dressed as Kato for Halloween and little people got my costume... (also, there was a small tear falling from one of my eyes when I went to see Kill Bill, Vol. 1).

    Great post, cousin!

  7. Poncho, you had a Kato costume? I'm jealous... as a kid I would have loved one of those. Tarantino's tribute to Bruce in Kill Bill by having the THE BRIDE wear the yellow/black stripe jumpsuit from Game of Death was just perfect. Thanks very much, cousin.

  8. I am a big time sucker for Jet Li, even wrote a poem about him once, a sonnet that someone used in a newsletter to discuss sonnets. LOL. But I'd probably concede it's Bruce as well. I say so b/c he was the trailblazer. :-)

  9. Nordette, can you post the link to the sonnet? I'm curious. I've always appreciated your verse and poety. Thanks very much for your comment.