The opening scenes of The Clones of Bruce Lee dramatize the attempts of medical staff in casualty to revive a dying Bruce Lee. The story swiftly moves onto showing us how a secret service agency appropriates samples from Lee’s body in order to clone him. “Professor he’s all yours now. I only hope that what we attempt will work.”
A classy film, The Clones of Bruce Lee is not. Obviously made to cash in on dead Bruce Lee’s fame, it is extraordinary just how closely the incidents in the film’s plot cleave to the capitalistic motives of its producers. It’s not that I am surprised at this and, indeed, this blog will be stating the bleeding obvious to many familiar to the film. But it is still gobsmacking to witness. Did the producers not expect Lee’s fans to find this a wee bit disrespectful? There is something a tad psychopathic in the way the filmmakers have ruthlessly appropriated someone else’s life and career to fill their own pockets. This determination to turn human beings, their bodies, talents, and creative legacies, into a money making asset is reflected in the film’s characters and the things that happen to them. The Clones of Bruce Lee can be seen as a catalogue of blatant attempts to treat human beings as commodities.
The most obvious example of this is the fact that the film’s story revolves around the doings of the three clones themselves. The cloning process is fudged over but it is clear that the clones are somehow based on samples of organic matter taken from the original Bruce Lee’s body, which seems to suggest that the poor man was something that could somehow be reassembled at will and churned out in duplicate.
There are scenes showing the freshly minted clones brushing up their martial arts skills*. In these scenes what struck me was how biddable and docile the clones were. Somehow this doesn’t square with my idea of who Bruce Lee was both on and off screen. Admittedly, I am not a diehard fan of Bruce and so do not have a nuanced appreciation of his celebrity persona, but biddable and docile is not how I would describe him.
Perhaps part of the problem here is that the three poor performers who are playing the clones have a pretty thankless task. They spend an inordinate amount of their screen time shirtless so that their toned torsos can reference that of the real life Bruce in many of his movies and posters. There are many shots of them wearing sun glasses and angling their faces just-so, so that their superficial resemblance to Lee is driven home. They also manfully attempt the Bruce Lee glower and screech. But this is not acting, it’s aping someone else’s mannerisms. I can’t imagine that there was much room here for these performers to inject much of their own personalities or creativity into their performances**. Perhaps my perception of docility arises from the fact that these performers are being creatively docile: these are very much tame performers in the service of a profit making exercise.
There is one scene that I find completely bizarre*** as it has no bearing on or reference to the rest of the plot whatsoever. A bunch of completely naked women come running out of the sea, dance on the beach to pop music, smear baby oil all over their breasts (this bit takes some time and many nipply close ups) and then swarm onto a passing bloke. The only reason for including these women, who are never seen or referred to again in the film, is to show some full frontal nudity and nudge the film towards soft porn territory for a couple of minutes. It is completely gratuitous and these women are literally being used as sex objects. Sorry to sound like a stodgy old femo Nazi, but this is a straight up and down example of human bodies being used as commodities.
If these ladies are sex objects, perhaps the Bruce Lee clones can be seen as violence objects? And alongside the clones, another set of fighters are used as tools of violence. Two of the clones are sent to track down a mad scientist in his secret laboratory in Northern Thailand. Not content with creating drugs to sell (a practice that shows the dark underbelly of capitalism if ever I saw one), the scientist has come up with a plan to turn men into bronze metal fighting people by injecting, um, something into them (The Clones of Bruce Lee is not red hot when it comes to explaining scientific procedure). This is a very strange thing to put into a plot of even a kung fu movie and is another unsubtle example of using the human body as a commodity. A this stage of the movie you have clones, made from someone else’s synthesised body tissues, fighting men that have been dehumanised so that they shine yellow and clang when they are hit.
A word on the fighting in this martial arts movie: it’s not bad. The choreography is reasonably interesting and the performers, especially the clones, execute it nicely. Ironically, having someone clumsily presented as a clone of Bruce, i.e. NOT the REAL Bruce, is a great way to force you to compare the clones to the original and I can’t imagine that big fans of Bruce will find much joy in watching these fight scenes – I assume that they will constantly be reminded of what they are missing. But still, the fight scenes are the best part of the film and quite OK to watch.
And yet… for all the physical and choreographic skill on offer they lack something. Great kung fu films showcase choreography and physical performance that is not only highly entertaining to watch as a standalone set piece but also which supports themes, narrative and characterisation and helps the films to hang together as a satisfyingly cohesive whole****. Obviously, the makers of The Clones of Bruce Lee had not set out to make a classic, but still in dehumanising their characters they have perhaps robbed the film of its one point of creative impact. The lack of emotional life of the characters and the silly cartoon plot they inhabit leaves the choreography with no work to do in terms of establishing character or heightening atmosphere. Despite the outlandish storyline, metal men and a glimpse of muff and nipple on the beach, this is a flat film that leaves its choreography nowhere to go and nothing to say. There are stacks of fights at the end of the film – to be truthful, I didn’t understand why some of them were happening. And instead of functioning as a climax, as the culminating action of a carefully built up film that layers fight choreography, good performances, good plot and direction, these scene just came across as time fillers.
I am not a fan of Bruce Lee. His talent, skills and charisma are obvious and, from reading various articles and watching documentaries, I am aware of his intelligence and his importance to the kung fu movie genre and martial arts as an innovator. But his gimlet eyed, cat wailing brand of hyper-machismo is not attractive to me and, therefore, I find his films a little tedious. But his fans are legion and to them he is important. Fan or not, I can appreciate that the man was certainly an original. I guess that’s why I find the filmmaker’s obsession with commodifying the human body and controlling and taming Lee’s image to be so peculiar. By making a joke and a commodity out of someone who was very much his own man and artist they have defeated their own ends as makers of entertainment.
NOTE: If you would like a detailed summary of the plot and a review of this film, check out Uncle Jasper’s review here at the Silver Emulsion website.
*Accompanied, at one point, by the Rocky soundtrack. The grand old kung fu movie tradition of ripping off hit movie soundtracks is being continued here, and is another small example of commodifying someone else’s stuff.
**And I don’t care what anyone says – real acting DOES happen in kung fu and wuxia films.
***Obviously this film wasn’t made for middle aged heterosexual ladies like me.
****Think of Ip Man, or Yuen Wu Ping’s Tai Chi Master, or Lau Kar Leung’s The Spiritual Boxer, or Sammo Hung’s The Magnificent Butcher.