Bruce Lee: A Life
by Matthew Polly
Simon & Schuster, 2018
Even to the uninitiated, even to the unadoring, it's virtually impossible to watch even a single protracted action sequence from a Bruce Lee movie and not see pure magic on the screen. The phenomenon goes far deeper than the pyrotechnic martial arts skill on display – indeed, it's often at its most noticeable in the moments before or after the action. There is, in almost every frame, what old-school directors called star power, an indefinable magnetism that keeps all eyes focused on that one person, even in a large crowd of flailing bodies. Long before he became a star and began headlining movies on his own, even while he was playing a TV crime-fighter's stereotypical sidekick, Lee possessed that star power in obvious abundance.
Given that star power – and Lee's tragic early death, and his outsized legacy – it's downright startling that there haven't been dozens of serious full-dress biographies since Lee died in 1973 at the age of 32. Instead, there's a singular paucity of such books, which would make Matthew Polly's Bruce Lee: A Life, new from Simon & Schuster, a welcome thing in any case. But Polly's book is far more than the mere filling-in of a lacuna; this is an intensely engrossing biography.
Polly runs a bright, fast-paced, almost chatty prose line throughout the book, filling his accounts with action and dialogue of a novelistic type that never seems to crop up in biographies of, say, Otto von Bismarck. Lee's own incandescent personality dominates the story from the beginning (he was an on-camera star for most of his life, including as, of all things, a national cha-cha paragon), and although Polly makes fascinating digressions into the man's family genealogy, his own focus never really shifts from Lee himself, who shot to international fame in the wake of movies such as Fists of Fury, Way of the Dragon, and of course Enter the Dragon and, as Polly points out, had an enormously wider effect on culture, both in China and in the United States:
Bruce was not simply an entertainer; he was an evangelist. Through the popular medium of films, he single-handedly introduced more people to Asian culture than any other person in history. Because of Bruce, millions of Westerners took up the martial arts. “Every town in America had a church and a beauty parlor,” said Fred Weintraub [of Warner Bros.]. “After Enter the Dragon, there was a church, a beauty parlor, and a karate studio with a picture of Bruce Lee.” Many devoted martial arts students went on to explore the Chinese philosophical underpinnings of their styles. Taoist terms like “yin” and “yang” entered the lexicon.
Underneath its flashy readability (a readability aided by the fact that Lee's personal life often showed distinct similarities to his movies – he's always ready to fight, physically, with co-stars, directors, purported rivals), Bruce Lee: A Life is grounded on a staggering amount of research. It seems like Polly, in addition to crawling through records and archives on two continents, has talked extensively with every single surviving person who ever knew Lee in any capacity. Every aspect of Lee's personal and professional life is laid out in such exacting detail that it scarcely seems possible the book could ever be supplanted as the definitive life. Readers who've been waiting for such a life – and readers who didn't know they were – will find Polly's book irresistible.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.