Death by Misadventure: The Mysterious Life of Bruce Lee (1993)

Posted in Reviews by - April 25, 2021
Death by Misadventure: The Mysterious Life of Bruce Lee (1993)

This ramshackle documentary by Bruce Lee anoraks George Tan and Toby Russell skirts over the more basic biographical elements in favour of detailed and fascinating talking heads, particularly focusing on Lee’s death. Don Langford was Bruce Lee’s physician when he was taken to Hong Kong Baptist Hospital in May 1973 following what appeared to be an epileptic seizure. He manages to keep Lee alive by reducing swelling on his brain, before transferring him to Saint Teresa’s Hospital and the neurosurgeon, Peter Wu. Peter seems quite convinced that it was the hashish that Lee had consumed which caused the attack, and bitter at the doctors in the USA who later told Bruce he was in perfect health and had the body of an 18 year old. Two months later, Lee is dead. Amazingly, Eugene Chu is interviewed, Betty Ting Pei’s personal physician and the first doctor to arrive in Betty’s apartment to confirm Lee’s death. Dr Langford then details the confusion that followed, resulting in Lee’s body being passed through several wards at Queen Elizabeth Hospital despite clearly having been dead for hours. Without anything more substantive, the cause of death is recorded as ‘death by misadventure’. Langford also singles out the amount of cannabis in Lee’s system at the time of his death, but is at pains to stress that he is unaware of anyone dying as a direct result of cannabis intake, and also – crucially – how a verdict of drug use would have invalidated Lee’s life insurance policy. But he doesn’t think too much of the official verdict, either: an allergic reaction to Equagesic, a commonly used painkiller. “You need to use a ouija board to come to that conclusion,” he says. Made only 20 years after Lee’s death, many of his closest buddies and fellow martial artists make appearances, including his Hong Kong Wing Chun teacher, Wong Shun-leung; his Seattle students Jesse Glover, Ed Hart and Ted Wong; his friends and fight legends like Joe Lewis, Jhoon Rhee, Jim Kelly and Ron Van Clief; and movie stars like George Lazenby. There’s a section about the subsequent Bruceploitation craze in which Bruce Li gives a wonderful interview – scenes from his films Bruce Lee: The Man, the Myth and Goodbye, Bruce Lee: His Last Game of Death are used throughout labelled as ‘reconstructions’ (ha!) – and he seems pretty pissed about the whole sorry episode. “I don’t like it when people call me Bruce Li,” he says, “I want to be myself.” Seemingly released only months after the tragic death of Brandon Lee, the final chapter is devoted to his short career, and features a long archive interview with British journalist Mariella Frostrup, recorded during the promotional tour for Rapid Fire. For a fan, this is full of wonderful insights, and definitely one for the purists.

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Editor and creator of Kung Fu Movie Guide and the host of the Kung Fu Movie Guide Podcast. I live behind a keyboard in London, UK.

1 Comment

  • I read an article by a martial artist who tried to live and train the way that Bruce Lee did over the last years of his life. He exercised like a maniac, ate Bruce’s diet and used the physical training equipment like the electric muscle manipulator.
    He got into phenomenal shape and became a real beast to spar with. But he started getting disturbing side effects like toxic dehydration and nervous breakdowns. He realized that he was playing Russian roulette with his health.
    I think it was Chuck Norris who said he thought that Bruce basically overworked himself to death. Or at least left himself vulnerable to things like bad reactions to any medication or drug he might imbibe.
    I tend to agree with this idea. Or at least find it the most plausible of the many hypothetical causes of his death. I could be wrong but there it is.

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