Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Brandon Lee: A Birthday Tribute. Part Two: The Movies

In part of one this two part tribute I focused on the man that was Brandon Lee.  Very little is talked about in regard to how he lived; what we know of him we know from interviews from friends and family.  The practical joker, the hellion with a wild streak, the highly intelligent thinker, and the man who was tamed by an amazing woman.  One very big thing that we do know that was given not by others, but Brandon directly, was his acting talent.  To go through his projects is to get a picture of what he was and what he would have become if he had lived passed the young age of 28.

The conclusion of my Happy Birthday memorial will focus on some of his more well known movie roles.

Showdown In Little Tokyo was a buddy-cop action movie released in August 1991.  It was the typical format that you would see in most action or cop movies:  motivated by a need for revenge against the man that murdered his family, the lead character, Detective Kenner, leads himself and his partner into one dangerous situation after another as he takes on the Japanese mafia.  What helped the movie was that while it stayed in the range of A-typical of its genre, the action kept the pace that the plot lagged on in places.  The plot had a point, even though it didn’t always flow.  Like I said, A-typical.  The action and levity helped greatly, however.  Brandon’s character, Johnny handled his share of the action just fine, but this movie was his chance to flex his comedic muscles in my opinion.  Longtime family friend Diana Lee Inosanto once said in an interview that if Brandon hadn’t wanted to be a martial artist or an actor that he could have easily been a comedian; he was just that quick-witted and funny.  This movie definitely confirmed that statement.  His character of Johnny played a Eurasian who grew up in the whitest of the white communities of California with all the “Dudes,” “Brahs,” and “Groms,” rather than with his Japanese brothers and sisters.  When his partner criticizes him for this lack of cultural knowledge, he quickly points out, “MY culture?  Listen champ, I was raised in the valley.  My Dad’s a white guy who’s a dentist.  I know about Malls, MTV, driving Dad’s car on Mulholland…”  The only thing he got from his background (thanks to his Asian mother) was his martial arts training, which Brandon colorfully adds to the scenes. 

The movie is a highlight for anyone who grew up with many of the classic moneymakers of the 80’s and 90’s, because while a typical action flick it is a powerhouse of our favorite geekdom/pop culture actors from those decades.  Dolph Lundgren plays the lead (Rocky, Expendables,) with Tia Carrere as his girlfriend (Wayne’s World 1/2.)  Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa plays Yoshida, the horrid mafia leader and main antagonist (Mortal Kombat’s Shang Tsung,) and Toshishiro Obata plays his right hand man Sato (Master Tatsu of Teenager Mutant Ninja Turtles fame.)

If that isn’t enough to entice you, Brandon’s hilarious one-liners should be:

Kenner:  How long did you study?
Johnny:  Since I was four.
Kenner:  You should’ve started earlier.  It would’ve helped your form.
Jonny:  I WAS FOUR!  *pause…pouts.*  There’s nothing wrong with my form…

*After seeing a sushi bar where they eat the food off of naked women.*
Johnny:  We’re gonna get this guy.  And when we’re done….WE’RE GONNA GO EAT FISH OFF THOSE NAKED CHICKS!

*When Kenner pulls his gun on several Yakuza, after telling Johnny to be respectful.*
Johnny *pulling his badge and speaking slowly*:  COP.  POLICE MAN.  You understand?  It’s… BAD… to… shoot… me.  He’s… a… cop… too.  It’s… BAD… to… shoot… HIM. 

*When the above doesn’t work.*
Johnny to Kenner:  You don’t like this guy?  I understand you don’t like this guy.  But you shoot him and you’re scum.  This is not the way.  You give up everything you are, Champ.  All your Japanese warrior bull#%#$........ and you get ME killed too…

*In the big mafia/cop showdown at Kenner’s home just after Kenner and his girlfriend stole away in private for some “private time.”*
Johnny:  Just in case we get killed…I wanted to tell you…you have the biggest dick I’ve seen on a man.
Kenner:  Thanks!  I don’t know what to say.
Johnny:  How about “Don’t get killed?”
Kenner:  Don’t get killed.
Johnny:  You too.

If funnies like that don’t make you want to watch a beat em’ up, blow stuff up movie, you’re hopelessly lost.

In the summer of 1991, just after the release of Showdown, Brandon started filming the movie that was his first major Hollywood leading role.  Before the start of his 1991 Hollywood ride he had secured a spot with the William Morris talent agency…something that was unheard of in Hollywood for a young actor without a background or a few celluloid notches already under his belt.  Brandon already had some film roles, but those were in Hong Kong/Australia cinema and made for TV productions, however Showdown was his first Hollywood big screen debut, and only as a co-star.  It was an impressive feat and one that paid off as Rapid Fire turned out to be worth every minute.

Rapid Fire was not only Brandon’s chance to shine as the leading man, but his chance to take the reins in the fight choreography as well.  He brought his own personal camera and, using people on set, would film how real life fights should and do normally go.  He would invite those people to his home and film them as well in his backyard during this production as well, and these videos would be shown to the Rapid Fire crew to give them a better idea of combat realism.  You can watch this raw footage and see that several of Brandon’s test scenes were actually choreographed and used in the final film, including a major fight scene in the mob bosses’ bar and grill.

The movie was all action and all aggressive.  The main character, Jake Lo (played by Brandon) was an art student in a Chicago college.  An angry and embittered man who had lost his military father in the skirmish in Tiananmen Square in China.  When a date leads to the accidental witnessing of a mob hit, this angry kid finds himself not only the unwilling participant of the Witness Protection Program, but a pawn being tossed back and forth between the Chicago mob, corrupt Feds, good Chicago cops, and Asian drug lords. 

Where Showdown lagged in moments with plot and consistency of pace, Rapid Fire made up for it.  The plot flowed from beginning to end without missing a beat and filled in every moment with purpose of who/what/where/when/why.  You were never unsure of why anyone was there or what their purpose was, and the movie flushed out everyone’s back story.  Even the smallest minor character had a purpose for why they crossed Jake’s path; it was never an accident.  For an action movie, this kind of attention to detail is rare.  The action sequences come off much more realistic thanks to Brandon’s attention to their set-up.  With the help of his longtime friend Jeff Imada (who followed him from his training days and from film to film as stunt choreographer) the realism in most fight sequences were kicked up to such a notch that for those of us from that same world, it touched us in a very happy place. 

Get your head out of the gutter.  Geez…one sentence and you get “that way.”  You’re sick freaks.  All of you.

Brandon learned the meaning of the phrase “suffer for your art” when both preparing for Rapid Fire and while filming it.  Brandon felt that emotionally, this was a very angry kid who took his aggression out at the gym, trying to find healthy ways to escape the loss of his father.  As a result, Brandon lowered his cardio regimen and concentrated on heavy strength training, buffing up significantly for the role.  Emotionally, he prepared himself by reading his father’s book, Tao of Jeet Kune Do, to prepare himself on the days of shooting the scenes where his character had to watch his own father being killed.  During filming he broke a toe as well, which delayed filming for two weeks.  He paid the price for the film physically and emotionally, but it paid off.  The final production is freaking awesome and one of the more well-rounded action films that I have seen because not only are the fight scenes realistic, but the main character is as well.  Brandon plays the character as humanly as I’ve ever seen.  This kid has never killed before; he’s an art student.  You see him react in horror and shame for half the movie over the things he’s exposed to and the people he is forced to kill in self-defense.  You see the changes he is forced to go through and you see him morph into a killing machine, but you see him be unhappy about the change and his anger of his father’s loss redirected at this change the people that caused it.  You see the fact that he’s visibly shaken in a physical sense by the damage inflicted upon him rather than the stereotypical action scenes in which a bullet doesn’t faze a man, a stab wound is nothing but a flesh wound, etc.  He gets beat to death in every manner on every level and Brandon makes sure that you see it in his character.  Jake Lo is a character for the 90’s.  This was by far and away my favorite of Brandon’s projects and of his characters.

When Brandon first got his hands on a copy of a script for The Crow in the summer of 1992, his response to his manager was simple:
“You have to get me this part.”

The character and his love driven quest for justice appealed to Brandon, even pointing out to the story’s creator, James O’Barr, how much it resonated with him as his current girlfriend (whom Brandon proposed to during the 1992 publicity tour for Rapid Fire) had changed his entire world and would be the person he would attempt to defy death for.  Did this resonate with the creator, as he created this comic in memoriam to the fiancé’ he lost to a drunk driver?  More than likely.  Did it lead to Brandon getting the role to show, beating out the likes of Christian Slater for the part?  We might never know. But one thing is for certain.  The world is forever glad that he did.

If you have never saw The Crow or read the comic/graphic novel…then what are you doing reading this blog?  Seriously…what part of pop culture do you fit in, man?  Come on, you’re missing out.  A hard core rock guitarist from a prominent band is murdered on the eve of his wedding, his fiancé’ raped and murdered by the same people that took him out.  Justice had other plans for them, however, as the rocker, Eric Draven, is brought back from the dead (with the guidance of a talking Crow…who doesn’t talk in the movie, strangely,) to exact revenge on the murderers in exchange for the promise that he will be able to join his fiancé Shelly in a better place at the end of his mission.

I must warn you, if the dark and macabre are not for you, than this movie is not your cup of tea.  There are less than a handful of daylight scenes (one that occurs outside and I think two that occur inside, so you can’t really appreciate the sunshine.)  The movie is dark and dingy, gritty and serious.  It is not so much action as it is thriller/horror genre, although there are tons of gun fights and explosions to come along.  This movie has a very serious plot device and isn’t to be taken lightly as a boom-boom action flick. 

One thing that Brandon loved about the movie was the fact that the character’s loss and what he had gone through with being brought back from the dead had driven him to moments of extreme insanity, which you see perfectly in action and in word.  Brandon flexes his dramatic chops so well that it gets rather creepy and at times uncomfortable to watch in the most delightful way in this film.  The rage, the large eyes as he loses control, the scary patience in his eyes, and then the sincere caring that comes along for those he left behind…he burns both ends of the emotional candle in this film to the point that emotionally alone, I don’t see how Brandon wasn’t exhausted.  If that wasn’t enough the near negative degree temperatures made it a point for alcohol to have to be poured into the puddles of water on the street sets to keep them from freezing…water that Brandon had to walk through in bare feet during filming when he was “freshly resurrected,” with no shirt on.  To prepare for the role he dropped strength training entirely and focused only on cardio to look as frail as possible, like a punk rocker, but one who had been dead for a year.  To figure out the question “What must it feel like to live in the cold ground for a year?” he strapped ice packs to his chest one day.  This decision got him severely admonished by crew for the movie.  His preparation and dedication to the film stunned some of the actors on the film who were veterans to the acting craft, such as Ernie Hudson, who admired his dedication and constant ability to “work his butt off.”  

Shooting began on Brandon’s birthday, February 1st.  With only a few days left to shoot on the film and a wedding to prepare for the following month, Brandon reported to work on March 30th.  That’s when everything went wrong.  In one more day an unexpected accident, a gunshot wound, would cut his life short. 

The set was already plagued with several unfortunate incidences.  A winter storm blew through and destroyed several sets.  A disgruntled employee drove his truck through the plaster shop.  Another employee accidentally electrocuted himself, while another accidentally drove a screwdriver through his hand while working on set.  The Hudsucker Proxy, a film that was in production next door in the same studio, had begun taking bets on when the next accident would happen on the set of The Crow.  I sincerely hope that they at least felt some remorse for their bad taste when the next accident did in fact occur. 

The scene in question was the death of Brandon’s character, Eric.  Eric was to come in carrying a bag of groceries, only to find his fiancé being attacked, and then be shot and killed himself.  Less than half the required distance for firing a prop gun was used (fifteen feet instead of thirty.)  The gun was aimed directly at Brandon instead of off to the side, despite directions otherwise.  And then there was the matter of the projectile.  Budget cuts had caused a shortage in the amount of dummy bullets (bullets with no gunpowder and popped primers) and blanks (no slugs, but wads of wax or paper in the casing, with the gunpowder and un-popped primer.  This is what is fired so that you hear the pop/crack on screen when a gun goes off and see the ignition discharge from the barrel.)  To save money, real .44 bullets were purchased and converted into dummies and blanks…however one primer was not popped in the dummy bullet batch.  This was loaded into the gun and when the hammer snapped, the primer was popped, causing the lead slug to be dislodged from the casing and became stuck inside the barrel.  It wasn't until after his death that it was recalled that the sound of the primer popping was ever possibly heard during the filming of a previous scene two weeks prior, however the gun was left unchecked and uncleaned for two weeks, not used again until that night.  The converted blank was loaded, the safety restrictions were off slightly, and when the gun was fired, Brandon fell backwards and hit the baring wall against the exit door, staring off into space blankly, instead of hitting his knees and falling face first as the scene required.  After a moment of in-character response the scene was cut and everyone clapped, thinking that it was Brandon improvising or just playing a practical joke as he was prone to do.  When he didn’t move, however, people began to suspect a problem.

The blood squib in the grocery bag had discharged, making such a mess between fake blood and grocery bag contents that it was hard to determine if Brandon had been hit by something or not.  After an emergency on-set tracheotomy revealed nothing, they soon saw that his stomach was swelling; this suggested internal bleeding.  With the ambulance already on route, Brandon was soon rushed to New Hanover Medical Center in Wilmington, North Carolina.  The cast and crew rushed to the hospital while Jeff Imada, Brandon’s longtime friend, called his fiancé to alert her.  They found the bullet fragment, which had lodged against his spine, severing the intersection of two major ateries that give blood to the legs.  It is suspected that he might not have even been able to walk again if he had survived, but surviving proved to be impossible.  At approximately 1:04 PM on March 31, 1993, Brandon Lee was pronounced dead at the age of 28, just weeks shy of his wedding.  He was buried in his wedding tux with his fiancé wearing her wedding dress to the memorial service in honor of him, with the likes of Steven Segal, Melissa Etheridge, David Hasselhoff, Keifer Sutherland, and many others, present to pay respect to a fallen talent, fallen comrade, family member, and friend.  Brandon’s family, fiancé, and the rest of the cast and crew came together and decided that, despite initial reactions from the studio, it was only fitting to finish the movie and release it.  It meant more to Brandon than any project he’d ever done.  It deserved to be out there.

The Crow reached a cult status that was unheard of, becoming Miramax top grossing movie in years.  Because of his previous film and tv exposure the press had already starting following Brandon, his work gaining him attention and his interviews showing his intelligence, friendly demeanor, and bright presence.  So it was already obvious that it was his talent and that of the well-formed cast and crew that made this movie shine, not the tragedy that loomed ahead at the end of its shooting.  The movie is dark, disturbing, yet beautiful in its plot and purpose that someone could love a person so much that even death won’t stop them from taking care of you.  The plot does not lapse, the action keeps pace and has genuine purpose, and the characters have layers that explain them.  It is one of the best movies out there.

For Brandon, this was the end of his career, his future here on earth, and what we hoped to see from an obviously bright light.  The sad fact was that not many outside of friends and family know about how he lived; all who loved him, however, live with how he died.  Until now, that is.  This is the surprise that I wanted to tell you all about.  With the help of The Brandon Lee Movement- quite possibly the largest and most dedicated Brandon Lee fan group out there- the group of Indie film makers Orion Studios, the group responsible for the Metal Gear movie, are making a feature film biopic about the life and Brandon Lee.  With the consulting of a Lee family friend for authenticity and the assistance of Oscar nominated script writer Zach Sklar (writer of the movie JFK,) they have the clout to make it great and have already started preparations.  You can donate to their paypal on their site if you want to help out production and/or check out their progress on their Facebook page.  The links to web site and Facebook pages are here:

Brandon Lee Movie Facebook Group 

Orion Studios Brandon Lee Movie Main Site  

So, as Brandon’s character said in Showdown In Little Tokyo, “There you have it.”  He would have been fifty-one this year, but an awesome fifty-one.  To see him slowing down would have been impossible.  I like to see him in so many varying roles and picture in my head what lengths he would have gone to and what acting muscles he would have flexed next.  Rumors swirled that he was up for Broken Arrow, The Matrix, and Johnny Mnemonic, all of which were rumors that never had ground and have not been proven.  But imagine if they had been true?  Imagine him in those roles and how different the movies would have been.  Now go re-watch the movies on this list and if you haven’t seen them yet, go watch them for the first time.  You’ll see what I mean when I tell you that Brandon Lee was a personality that just lit up a room when he was around and a Hollywood treasure gone all too soon.

Christina Sizemore is trained in only four things:  writing, fighting, paranormal investigating, and being a mom.  At this point in her life she truly feels that she is not qualified to attempt to learn any new field.  A twenty year martial artist, mother of three, and writer who is working on the publication of her first book titled “Finding Your Way: A Guide To Your Path In The Martial Arts,” she spends her days working out, writing, making fanvids, going to DragonCon, and playing board games/video games/out in the yard with her kids and husband who are just as geeky as she is.  She is convinced that one day her skills will be of assistance in the Zombie Apocalypse and that while she is of no use in the kitchen, she can Buffy that zombie for ya or teach you the best way to get the blood stains out of your clothes (Psst…the secret is mixing Crown Cleaner and Shout.  Just sayin’.)

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