Bruce Lee: A Life
(Simon & Schuster, $35)
Bruce Lee’s life story is “certainly the stuff of legend,” said Yunte Huang in the San Francisco Chronicle. A Hong Kong street thug who by force of will turned himself into a global star and then died at 32 at the peak of his fame, Lee practically wrote his own script for a dizzying martial-arts epic. But it’s a richer story than that outline suggests, and we’re fortunate that Matthew Polly is here to tell it, because Lee “could not have found a better Boswell.” Polly, a former Rhodes scholar and true martial-arts devotee, has delivered a “thoroughly enjoyable” tale that’s also “a deeply humanizing portrait of a complicated character.”
“Fascinating narrative threads proliferate,” said Ben Dickinson in The New York Times. Born in San Francisco to parents touring with a Hong Kong opera troupe, Lee became a child star in Hong Kong before emerging in his teens as a gang leader, a championship cha-cha dancer, and a kung fu prodigy. At 18, having exhausted the patience of his wealthy Eurasian family, Lee was sent back to the U.S. to pursue a medical degree. Instead, he finished school, founded a kung fu club, wound up teaching Steve McQueen, and caught a break when he was cast in TV’s short-lived Green Hornet. But Lee had no luck landing movie work—one producer labeled him “too authentic”—so he returned to Hong Kong to try his luck there. A string of wildly successful action flicks followed. As Polly writes, Lee “single-handedly introduced more people to Asian culture than any other person in history.”
Fortunately, Polly is “as keen to unpick myths as make them,” said Victoria Segal in The Times (U.K.). A late chapter looks at the day Lee died, just before the release of the 1973 blockbuster Enter the Dragon. His body was found in his mistress’s bedroom, and an inquest blamed an allergic reaction to painkillers. But there were whispers of murder too. Polly arrives at a more mundane yet convincing theory: heat stroke, worsened by Lee’s having recently elected to have his underarm sweat glands surgically removed. However he died, this “roundhouse kick of a biography” won’t let any reader forget him.