NEW YORK — NEAR the beginning of "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story," someone makes an offhand reference to Fred Astaire, the great Hollywood musical star.
It seems like a throwaway moment. But if you followed the real-life career of action-movie star Bruce Lee in the early 1970s, you may remember that he was compared to Astaire in some contemporary reviews.
On the surface, this was an odd connection to draw since Astaire danced his way through light-hearted romantic entertainments, and Lee made his name in violent kung-fu melodramas. What inspired the comparison was the extraordinary gracefulness, suppleness, and inventiveness of Lee's performances.
The genre he specialized in, often called "chop-socky" by skeptical critics, was a minor and dubious one. If it accomplished nothing else, however, it produced one memorable star whose career might have branched out in different directions had he not died in 1973 in his early 30s.
The film traces Lee's ups and downs in the two worlds he knows best - martial arts and show business - without neglecting the challenges he faced as an Asian-American in a white-dominated society.
Much of the story has obviously been tailored for slick entertainment purposes rather than fidelity to Lee's actual life, and a disclaimer in the final credits indicates that one of the movie's key episodes is pretty much a fiction dreamed up by the filmmakers. Still, the picture has important things to say about subjects as different as interracial romance and the importance of education, and it makes its statements with enough wit and energy to make "Dragon" an engaging diversion, if a hokey and predic table one.
The movie gets under way in Hong Kong, with a fight scene that's so stagey and gratuitous that I expected the rest of the picture to be a total loss. This episode paves the way for a much better portion of the story, however, in which Lee learns that he was born in the United States and that he'd better return there soon, since his life may now be in jeopardy. We follow him to California where he works as a dishwasher, realizes that college is the path to a better life, and sets up as a martial-arts inst ructor to pay his bills.
Conflicts arise when white bigots mock his ethnicity and his Anglo girlfriend's mother objects to their marriage, despite their obvious devotion to each other. Dissatisfied with the traditions of martial-arts training in the Chinese-American community, Lee also stirs up big trouble there: by teaching ancient Asian secrets to non-Asian students, and by developing his own self-defense system in opposition to the strict heritage of conventional disciplines.
The most enjoyable parts of the movie are in the last portion, as Lee moves to Hollywood and becomes a supporting actor on "The Green Hornet" television show, where he plays Cato, the hero's chauffeur. Bolstered by this small success, he throws himself into developing the "Kung Fu" series as an "Eastern western" with the potential for huge popularity - only to find himself replaced by a non-Asian star, David Carradine, before the first episode is filmed.
Disgusted with Hollywood, he takes his family to Hong Kong, where he finds that "The Green Hornet" is known as "The Cato Show" and has earned him a devoted following. He parlays this into stardom in kung-fu movies shot in Asia and then breaks into the domain of the white-controlled Hollywood studios. His death occurs as he awaits the premiere of his first big-budget American production.
"Dragon" would be a better film if it didn't rely so frequently on the action-movie formulas that made Lee's own pictures less worthwhile than they should have been, given the vigor of his performances. Jason Scott Lee does an uncanny job of recreating Lee's style and personality, though. It's a busy time for him, since he's also in "Map of the Human Heart" this season. The supporting cast includes Lauren Holly and Nancy Kawn, among other likable performers.
The story moves at a rapid clip, thanks to director Rob Cohen.
* "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story" has a PG-13 rating. It contains a great deal of violence and sexual suggestiveness in some scenes.