Last month, I used my “Five Essential Movies” column to talk about Bruce Lee – and the only five “Bruce Lee movies” he made before his untimely death at age 32. This month, it’s time to follow up with the career of his son, Brandon Lee, and the only five true movies he made before his untimely death at age 28.
Legacy of Rage (1986)
After making the television film Kung Fu: The Movie (based on the show of the same name that his father supposedly created), Brandon made his first and only Cantonese feature in 1986: Legacy of Rage. Like many action films, it’s about a guy who’s falsely accused of some bad stuff and has to do some bad stuff to prove that he didn’t do the other bad stuff. There’s some wham-pow hand-to-hand combat and some bang-boom-bam guns, but no particularly special action set pieces. It does, interestingly enough, put Brandon in a movie with martial arts legend Bolo Yeung, who starred in Enter the Dragon with his father. It all comes full circle.
If you want to watch this film legally as of September 2023, you have to get the streaming service Hi-YAH, the Netflix for martial arts. If you’re still looking for “essential” entries in the genre and aren’t quite at the “deep cuts” part of your research yet, even its low price of $3.99 a month might not be worth it.
Laser Mission (1989)
While Bruce Lee’s films focused on his fists of fury, most of Brandon’s work seems to show him trying to do something different, portraying cops and secret agents who let their guns (the other kind) do the talking. There’s plenty of gunfire in Laser Mission, but there are absolutely zero lasers, which I believe is false advertising. Unlike Troll 2 (which always refers to its creatures as goblins, not trolls), they at least talk about lasers. There’s some plot about Ernest Borgnine creating these supposed lasers for the KGB, but try as it may, none of it comes close to as cool as the poster for the film, which gives us Brandon Lee dropkicking a guy in the chest (there’s your fighting), Debi Monahan doing her best Bond Girl impression while looking upset that she didn’t get the part in The Living Daylights, and Ernest Borgnine’s face stuck inside a diamond.
Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991)
Showdown in Little Tokyo is the buddy cop film you expect, with a role reversal that you don’t. Brandon teams up in this film with ’80s quasi-icon Dolph Lundgren. Dolph’s character is fluent in all things Japanese, from the language to the customs, thanks to a childhood in the Far East. Brandon, on the other hand, iss a guy who “was raised in the Valley” by a “white guy dentist” father. The life of Brandon’s character consists of “malls, MTV, (and) driving Dad’s car on Mulholland.” If it wasn’t for the fact that his mom made him study martial arts, he and Dolph would have pretty much nothing in common.
Their police work leads them to the Yazuka, who are appropriately scary, but this actioner is all about guns, boobs, and bad jokes – all jam-packed into 80 minutes! What more could you ask for? It’s really Dolph’s movie, but there’s a reason he’s an action “star.” Nick de Semlyen’s action film history book The Last Action Heroes explains that Dolph had been working with “a personal trainer, a speech coach, a drama coach, and a ‘creative advisor'” in the decade-ish since Rocky IV, and you can see here that he’s no longer the robot he was in that movie. He’s actually quite charming and convincing, with a big assist from the charming and convincing Lee.
Rapid Fire (1992)
Rapid Fire is the bridge of Brandon Lee’s career. He’s shaken off the second-billing supporting actor thing by now, trading in guns for his own fists of fury (they reference his father’s film in this one).
This is clearly something he had issues coming to terms with. Ronny Yu, the director of Legacy of Rage, said that Brandon had a serious problem with the notion of following in his father’s footsteps. Yu quotes Brandon as saying in their first meeting, “I hate martial arts. I hate it. And don’t talk, don’t even mention Bruce Lee to me!” Just a few years later, he was starring in American films (as his father aspired to do) and seen engaging in martial arts in this movie’s opening seconds. This movie also happens to be about a guy struggling to make his own life in the shadow of his dead father …
Brandon plays a college student who witnesses a mob killing and has to kick some ass to make it to the movie’s 95th minute alive. Many consider it an underrated classic, and although I can’t quite agree, you can’t deny that Brandon Lee is now fully formed.
The Crow (1994)
For a movie that’s about a resurrected corpse who enacts revenge (under the watchful eye of a menacing crow) on the criminals who raped and killed his girlfriend and tossed him to his death …
For a movie whose soundtrack features The Cure, Nine Inch Nails, and Rage Against the Machine and whose visual design looks like the music videos your parents thought those bands created …
For a movie where a guy gets stabbed through the throat before he gets stabbed in the face …
This movie is surprisingly sentimental. It has a morbid reputation, not only for its dark and grimy subject matter, but also for the controversy surrounding the untimely and unnecessary death of Brandon, who was accidentally killed during filming by a prop gun that was mistakenly loaded with real ammunition. When you actually watch the movie, you see that it’s not about death at all. In fact, it’s about the beauty of life; living it the way you want and not letting people take it away from you. Lee doesn’t play Eric Draven (Eric d raven – get it?) like a muted zombie or a demon with a Christian Bale-like Batman voice. He does it with a tear in his eye and a smile on his face. For a posthumous performance, it’s touching.