SANTA MONICA, California — Since his premature death, he has become idolized to the point where he's mentioned in the same breath as cinematic icons like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.
His name has become shorthand for athletic prowess, self-discipline and the always-desirable quality of being, quite simply, a bad ass. He is Bruce Lee, and filmmaker Justin Lin is determined to see him rise again — sort of.
The 33-year-old Sundance sensation-turned-"The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" hitmaker is lifting the veil on a previously top-secret project that could be described as an unofficial sequel to a disrespectful film that bombed nearly 28 years ago. If that doesn't already sound like one of the most bizarre follow-ups in movie history, get this: It's a comedy.
"It's called 'Finishing the Game,' " Lin said of the flick, which he'll begin filming next month. "It's actually a comedy about denial, more than anything."
Professing his idolatry of the martial artist/actor, the Asian-American filmmaker said that his own identification with Lee's Hollywood struggles have served as his "Game" muse. "The whole story is that Bruce Lee, when he actually came here and tried to make it, he came up with the idea for [the TV classic] 'Kung-Fu,' but they really ripped him off and gave it to David Carradine," Lin explained. "After his whole struggle here, he finally gave up and went back to Hong Kong, and there he made a couple of films for a Hong Kong company, and he became a huge Asian star.
"With that clout, he was able to start his passion project, and it was called 'Game of Death,' " the writer/director continued. "That movie was going to incorporate all of his philosophies. While he was shooting, [Lee filmed] a famous sequence in a yellow jumpsuit [in which he battled] Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. He shot, like, 12 minutes of fight footage. Then he gets a call from Warner Bros., and they say, 'We want you to do "Enter the Dragon." ' "
Putting "Game" on hold, Lee flew back to Hollywood and filmed the 1973 classic film that would make him a hot commodity when it premiered — just three weeks after his death.
" 'Enter the Dragon' comes out, it becomes an international hit, he becomes a superstar, and the studio is sitting there saying, 'Oh, we have 12 minutes of him fighting here,' " Lin remembered, shaking his head in disapproval. "So what they did was, they ended up writing their own script called 'Game of Death,' and basically, they have this fake Bruce Lee walking around for 70 minutes, just so that they could use the 12 minutes of footage of the real Bruce Lee fighting."
With that criminal example of Hollywood exploitation in mind — released in 1978, "Death" even includes a scene with Lee's face stuck on a mirror so when the actor faking Lee's parts looks into it, he sees Lee's reflection — Lin devised the concept for "Finishing the Game."
"My movie is about the making of it, the casting of who is going to become that fake Bruce Lee," Lin said with a smirk. "It's a comedy, it's a period piece. It takes place in the '70s, and a lot of the actors I worked with before, I'm bringing them all back. It'll be a nice little reunion, but it's about actors in the '70s trying to make it in Hollywood."
Adding that the script is based on his own comedic embellishment of the Hollywood horror story ("It doesn't explain anything, actually," he laughed. "I made it all up"), Lin is insistent that he doesn't repeat the mistake of using posthumous Bruce Lee footage, himself. "His presence is better felt by not addressing it directly, because ... it's really a comment on being Asian-American, you know: The best you can do is being able to just stand in." Lin has said that his "Fast and the Furious" also explores the idea of being an outsider and breaking down barriers (see " 'The Fast And The Furious' — Now With Brains Under The Hood").
Over the last four years, Lin has gone from film-festival prodigy ("Better Luck Tomorrow") to Disney hired gun ("Annapolis") to summer-blockbuster helmer ("Tokyo Drift"). It's no surprise, then, that he has plenty of loyal friends eager to help out as he goes indie again. "I collect them as I go," he laughed, naming his actors. "From the 'Better Luck Tomorrow' crew, we'll have Roger Fan, Sung Kang, John Cho, Jason Tobin and Parry Shen. From 'Annapolis,' I've got McCaleb Burnett and Vicellous Reon Shannon. From 'Fast and the Furious,' we've got Leonardo Nam and Brian Tee. I'm sure Brian Goodman, Donnie Wahlberg and some other guys will sneak in there, too.
"I'm prepping right now [for 'Game'], which is my no-budget movie," Lin revealed. "I'm shooting in six weeks. I want to just explore a lot of different things. Going through action films was fun, but I'm doing a comedy on this one. It's scary, but I'm excited."
Ultimately, Lin hopes his "Game" will simultaneously make people laugh, tear down some still-standing obstacles for Asians in Hollywood and remind a younger generation that nobody was badder than Bruce Lee.
"He transcends time and age," the filmmaker beamed. "It doesn't really matter if you're a 10-year-old now, or were in the '70s. He had a presence. People like that, they're special ... he will always live on, and that's why I want to make this movie."
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