''Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story'': Double tribute -- Brandon Lee's death turns the film about his father into a poignant double memorial

When Bruce Lee died three weeks before the premiere of his 1973 martial-arts classic, Enter the Dragon, one Hollywood producer enthused, ”His death was like a $2 million publicity campaign!” Such tasteless ghoulishness can repeat itself. When Lee’s 28-year-old son, Brandon, was killed in an accidental shooting on the set of The Crow just a month before the premiere of Universal’s Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, a rival studio marketing executive said, ”I’d kill for a break like that.”

But Dragon‘s cowriter-director Rob Cohen did not feel fortunate. After four years spent working with Linda Lee Cadwell, Bruce Lee’s widow and Brandon’s mother, to film the biography of the action-film legend, he felt devastated. ”This thing with Brandon — it would have completely destroyed me, but she has this strength. I love Linda,” says Cohen. Although the director says Cadwell had no veto power over Dragon‘s marketing or release, he says he called her soon after Brandon died and placed the film’s fate in her hands. Universal had been holding test screenings of Dragon, which stars newcomer Jason Scott Lee (no relation) and Lauren Holly of Picket Fences, since February, but Cohen says he was willing to risk the studio’s wrath if Cadwell wanted him to alter the film or delay its May 7 release.

”I asked her, ‘Do you want me to cancel the premiere [or] get Universal to change the movie? I’ll do my best,”’ says Cohen. Cadwell, who had just buried her son next to his father in their hometown of Seattle, asked for a day or two to think it over. ”It’s all so horribly fresh,” she told him. Cohen gave her time, still assuming that she might want to cancel not only the premiere but also her promotional appearances, including the dedication of Bruce Lee’s posthumous star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame.

Instead, Cadwell asked that the release of Dragon go forward as planned, with the now-painful scenes of Brandon as a baby kept intact throughout the film. She requested only one change: an end title dedicating Dragon to Brandon Bruce Lee, with an appropriate quote. Recalls Cohen, ”I said, ‘How about the Saint Augustine quote I had on the frontispiece of the original script: ”The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.” It applies to Brandon as much as it does to Bruce.’ She said, ‘Oh, that’s perfect.”’

Actually, Dragon was lucky to get made at all. Back in August 1991, Universal took a look at an early script, based on Cadwell’s 1975 book about her husband, Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew, but the studio eventually rejected its strange mix of martial-arts action and woman’s-eye-view romance. When Cohen later sold another screenplay to Universal, MCA Motion Picture Group chairman Thomas Pollock and vice president of production Nina Jacobson suggested he take a crack at rewriting Dragon. The project then came alive, but a problem-plagued shoot in Hong Kong and Macao last year almost sank the $13.7 million movie.

Even before cameras rolled, there were setbacks: Cohen had a heart attack on Feb. 6, 1992, and filming was delayed for one month while the then-43-year-old director recuperated. ”Rob was a changed man afterward,” says Jacobson. ”He cut his cholesterol in half [and] became a die-hard vegetarian.” But other woes followed. Like Brandon Lee’s The Crow, Dragon lost time and money to storms. Monsoons and mishaps cost Cohen his entire $1.3 million contingency fund (a safety cushion for such emergencies), swelling the budget to $15 million. Cohen then had to face the fearsome Completion Bond Company, which monitors films’ expenditures and can assume control of productions that go over budget. ”They set a date for pulling the plug,” he says. ”They wanted Dragon done and their money back ASAP.”

Cohen edited Dragon in six weeks, four fewer than the directors’ union minimum. When Universal saw the first cut, the studio repaid the bondsmen and ponied up $1 million more for Dragon‘s Dolby digital fight-scene sound effects, as well as a lush symphonic score by Randy Edelman.

The investment in a romantic soundtrack was appropriate. Dragon‘s love story between Linda and Bruce Lee, with its exploration of interracial love between a Caucasian and an Asian, is even more central to Dragon than its eight fight scenes are. All along, the filmmakers made a conscious attempt to create a movie that would appeal to both men and women. ”Ordinarily, action is skewed to men,” says Jacobson, a veteran of Joel Silver’s action-movie company. ”You figure, well, maybe a few of them will drag their dates to see it.” But Cohen deliberately infused Dragon with scenes of courtship and longing. ”I think those moments really mean something for women,” he says. ”And this is not a difficult guy to watch with his shirt off.”

Despite the stunning blow of Brandon Lee’s death, Cohen and Universal maintain that no eleventh-hour changes were made in Dragon‘s advertising campaign. ”Brandon’s death was never part of the marketing,” insists Cohen. Even the decision to change the poster to emphasize the love story, he says, was made before Brandon’s death. ”If it were a chopsocky picture, you could just use a poster with Jason Scott Lee jumping across the sun,” says Cohen. ”But I asked them to ghost in an image of Bruce kissing Linda above that.”

Inevitably, the sad, unsought publicity surrounding Brandon Lee’s death has put Dragon in the spotlight, and given its climactic scene, a dream sequence in which Bruce Lee saves his young son from a demonic apparition, an emotional force it would otherwise lack. Ironically, the sequence was one of those that could have fallen victim to the belt-tightening when Dragon ran over budget; now Cohen is especially glad he was able to film it.

”It was always a touching scene,” the director says. ”Now it’s touching and chilling.”