Remembering Brandon Lee (1965-1993)

Thirty years ago today, an unspeakable tragedy took place on the set of The Crow where a terrible accident claimed the life of young Brandon Lee. He was twenty-eight years old at the time and in the eyes of many, he was on the precipice of stardom. We will never know how his life would have shaped up had he not been taken away from us prematurely. All we can do is speculate and ponder about alleged supernatural forces and a family curse, as almost exactly two decades earlier, in 1973, his father died under equally mysterious circumstances.  

However, on a day like this we should not dwell on the circumstances of Brandon’s passing or the eerie symmetry between what happened to him and what happened to his father, or even that what happened to him mirrors somewhat what happened to Bruce Lee’s character in the posthumously released Game of Death. It doesn’t matter. What does matter, on the other hand, is the idea of preserving his memory and that even in the short span of time he had on this Earth he may have accomplished something special. 

Ever since his childhood, Brandon had to navigate the treacherous waters of inadvertent celebrity, a circumstance imposed upon him by the icon that his father was. Despite the fact he was an adept martial artist, he actively avoided setting out on a path that would lead him to live in Bruce Lee’s shadow. And perhaps this initial drive to make it on his own is what ultimately brought him onto a trajectory that can only be described as unique. Nevertheless, it was almost as though the universe tried to impose on him a life of symmetry by presenting young Brandon with an early opportunity to play a role in a resurrected TV 1986 movie Kung Fu, which served as a post-script to the long-dormant TV series, which if you were to believe Hollywood legends, was at least partly conceived with Bruce Lee’s involvement. In a way, the universe was orchestrating a passing of the baton for him where he would play a villain in a TV movie based on a TV show whose genesis traces back to his father.  

To avoid being pigeonholed at the very beginning of his career – and if there was anything Brandon wanted most in life, it was to become an actor – he moved out to Hong Kong to star in the Ronnie Yu-directed Legacy of Rage. In there, he actively refused and avoided at all costs participating in any extended martial arts scenes, to separate his own path from the one of his dad’s… even though he effectively went to start his career in a place where his father came from. Also, he managed to share a scene with one Bolo Yeung – and kick his behind – who was one of the main antagonists in the last officially completed Bruce Lee movie, Enter the Dragon.  

It is a matter of record that Brandon didn’t want to become a martial artist-turned-actor, but rather an actor appreciated for his dramatic range, because he feared he would always be asked about his legacy, his father’s influence and thus his own agency would have been taken away from him. Even when promoting Rapid Fire, his penultimate movie, he was constantly quizzed about his father. The more he tried to step outside of this shadow, the more this shadow seemed to grow. And this strangely ironic dynamic shaped Brandon Lee’s tragically short-lived acting career to become an indispensable link in the evolution of the action hero archetype.  

By the late 1980s, it was obvious to just about everyone that the muscular action man wasn’t selling anywhere near as many tickets as before. The invincibility of the characters portrayed by Schwarzenegger, Stallone, or Chuck Norris was becoming a meme and it was no longer a bankable idea to hire athletes with stunning physiques and give them enough coaching to get them through their sparse lines without keeling over. With the arrival of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, together with a few earlier examples in Beverly Hills Cop and others, the everyman became a desirable incarnation of the action man. Mister Mom was about to become Batman in 1989. A sitcom star could don a wifebeater and run around barefoot, and he looked like a badass. Mel Gibson’s tortured look was both cute and masculine. Hollywood was thus undergoing a shift from relying on athletes who needed acting lessons towards what became a staple in the late 90s – action heroes who were trained actors that needed to be sent to boot camps and crash courses in karate to make them look the part in high-profile blockbusters. Think Matt Damon as Jason Bourne. Think Keanu Reeves as Neo.  

Brandon Lee was both. He was a trained martial artist thanks to his father. And he was a driven actor thanks to the fact he didn’t want to be like his father, because he actively did not want to rely on his athleticism to secure his acting career. As a result, he was an evolutionary missing link. He was a Jackie Chan with an impeccable comedic timing. He was Van Damme with an acting range. And if we were to project into the future, he would have been a prime candidate to become Jason Bourne or Neo. In fact, he would have been Neo who already knew kung fu. He would have likely been Jack Traven in Speed. Had he lived to this day, you would most likely be going to the cinema right now to see him as John Wick, without a shadow of a doubt.  

However, he didn’t live to become Neo, Jason Bourne, or John Wick. He was right on the cusp of becoming the action hero of the 90s capable of reframing the narrative around action filmmaking, perhaps forever more when his life was cut short. But even with just a handful of movies to his name – Legacy of Rage, Laser Mission, Showdown in Little Tokyo, Rapid Fire and The Crow – he proved himself as a formidable presence in the shifting landscape of genre cinema. And he did that because he was both his father’s son and a man going his own way.  

I think he perhaps understood it by the time he got to make Rapid Fire, an action movie in which he made stunning use of his karate chops and his acting chops where the main character is also a young man attempting to evade his father’s iconic shadow. It’s all too eerie but it’s true. By 1992, Brandon knew that to unlock his inner potential he needed to reconcile his pursuit of agency with the legacy he desperately wanted to shed. He embraced his father’s spirit and became the hybrid action-everyman whose prowess we only witnessed briefly – in Rapid Fire and The Crow.  

Therefore, I believe we owe it to him – especially on the thirtieth anniversary of his passing – to remind the world that a man named Brandon Lee once existed and that he made a mark on the world of cinema. Please, go on and celebrate his memory. Watch one of his movies and notice that he was in fact an evolutionary hybrid between a muscle man of the 80s and a self-aware-yet-brooding agent of dramatic exhilaration. He was Jackie Chan, Mel Gibson and Keanu Reeves all rolled into one, a man who was about to go supernova, if he had not been whisked away by the forces beyond our control or understanding.  

To borrow the final lines from his last movie, The Crow: “If the people we love are stolen from us, the way to have them live on is to never stop loving them. Buildings burn, people die, but real love is forever.”  

Brandon Lee lives in the hearts of those who remember. We only truly die whenever the last person on the planet forgets we existed. So, let us not forget. 


One thought on “Remembering Brandon Lee (1965-1993)

  1. Pingback: Uncut Gems Podcast (March 2023 Round-Up) | Flasz On Film

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