Recently, Spike TV rolled out its two-hour “I Am Bruce Lee” documentary special (with more than passing references to the Ultimate Fighting Championship stable) earlier this month. It made me think back to the original and iconic Bruce Lee, someone I’ve long admired (and still ponder about from time to time). Then, I thought of the more recent martial arts movie hero (even though he’s pretty much kicking back from big screen martial arts film these days), Jet Li. Both are favorites in my martial arts movie collection (of which my wife complains on storage grounds). 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 in one of his first China visits in the early 70s. Near and around that, Bruce was trying to make his mark in Hollywood and the realm of martial arts in general. Both made their careers, and stamp, in their own (very different) times and became action icons of the movie 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 (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 among ourselves after every show, in awe. Granted this was decades before any internet access and its speed of light news or rumor ability, 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 your physique). 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 such 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 too short career), but it’s had lasting reverberations.
Still, this is not to slight Jet Li’s career or popularity in any way, shape, or form. There are films of his that I’d pick over a couple of Bruce’s on watchability alone. Breaking into the Hollywood (Western) film-making mainstream has not normally been via a China or Hong Kong route. Back in 60s/70s, 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, deservedly. But, so was 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 for me today’s action stars reek of corporate, public relations management and their handlers, in their career branding, 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 decades 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 Bruce Lee’s impact and legacy thumb the scale in his favor, big-time. Granted, your mileage may vary, but if I’d break it down further (using criteria I alone may believe in), between them, this is my opinion on their skills and careers:
- better actor: okay, we’re not talking about Lawrence Olivier vs. Marlon Brando or Russell 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 could have overtaken him in this category)
- better loved by the camera: both are exciting people to watch, but it’s easily Bruce; look at his screen presence in the video 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 inventive 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: it’s Bruce; I don’t think there is any question here due to his pioneering in physical fitness, nutrition, and the progenitor of mixed martial arts, in general, and his own fighting art, in particular. Plus, just like 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.