Brandon Lee was born in February of 1965 in the shadow of greatness. The only son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee and his wife Linda Lee Caldwell, Brandon also had a younger sister named Shannon. Linda met Bruce when she was still a teenager and the martial arts instructor gave a demonstration at her high school. She eventually became one of his kung fu students herself.
By the time Brandon was born his father was already an international movie star. Brandon trained with his dad when he was young, learning the rudiments of Bruce Lee’s signature Jeet Kune Do style of fighting. Some theorize that it was Jeet Kune Do, the art of “fighting without fighting,” that led to today’s Mixed Martial Arts. However, when Brandon was eight his father died unexpectedly.
The untimely death of Bruce Lee has been surrounded by controversy and intrigue. Lee was utterly dedicated to his profession, even going so far as to have the sweat glands in his armpits surgically removed so as to make himself more photogenic on set. A compulsive professional-grade athlete, Lee pushed his body to remarkable limits.
In May of 1973, Bruce Lee was admitted to a Hong Kong hospital with a headache and seizures. He was found to have cerebral edema that was successfully treated with mannitol. Lee recovered, but the following month took a preparation called Equagesic for a headache while reviewing a movie script with colleagues. Equagesic is a proprietary combination of aspirin and the painkiller meprobamate. Lee retired for a nap but never regained consciousness. He was 32 at the time of his death. His son Brandon was 8.
The cause of Bruce Lee’s death was determined to have been a reaction to the meprobamate in the Equagesic. Conspiracy theorists have attributed the man’s demise to Triad gangsters or a family curse. Medical specialists have suspected that regular steroid use for a back injury as well as chronic overheating during workouts likely contributed as well.
Like Father, Like Son
Though Bruce Lee died when Brandon was young, the child had already logged a fair amount of time on movie sets and developed a taste for the craft. After his dad died Brandon continued his martial arts training underneath the tutelage of Dan Inosanto, his father’s senior student. Though he walked away from the martial arts during a rebellious period in his teen years, Brandon eventually returned to the pursuit and became quite accomplished in his own right.
Brandon Lee always aspired to serious dramatic roles. He trained in acting at Emerson College and the Lee Strasburg Theatre and Film Institute. Like most burgeoning actors, however, Brandon willingly pursued low hanging fruit early in his career.
Brandon parlayed his family reputation into a supporting role in Kung Fu: The Movie, a made-for-TV film with David Carradine. He later played the lead in the subsequent TV movie Kung Fu: The Next Generation. These roles led to several low-budget action flicks including one 1989 classic titled Laser Mission. Laser Mission was a ludicrous action-adventure direct-to-video effort that featured an aging Ernest Borgnine as a laser specialist and an evil Russian officer named, interestingly enough, Colonel Kalishnakov. Despite the catchy title, the movie included surprisingly few lasers, but it did turn a modest profit.
All this ultimately led to Brandon’s breakout role as Eric Draven in the comic book-inspired superhero movie The Crow in 1992. The Crow was a dark and nihilistic tale that orbited around a murdered rock musician who is resurrected by a spectral crow to avenge the rape and murder of his fiancé. The Crow inspired a vigorous cult following and spawned three sequels as well as a TV show of its own.
With most of the movie in the can and only three days of filming remaining on the schedule, Lee was set to shoot an early scene in the narrative. In this sequence, Lee’s character stumbles in on a group of thugs ravaging his girlfriend and is shot with a revolver. A negligent preparation of the big bore handgun used in the scene resulted in the discharge of a live round that killed the up and coming actor at age 28.
The .44 Magnum revolver that was used to kill Brandon Lee had been employed for closeup scenes earlier in the day. The detail of the shots necessitated the use of dummy rounds so that the chambers would appear to be filled with live cartridges. .44 Magnum dummy rounds were not available, so the prop crew had taken live .44 cartridges, pulled the projectiles, discarded the powder, and replaced the bullets. Without thinking they left the primers intact, however.
At some point during the course of filming one of these empty cartridges was fired. The force of the primer alone was adequate to drive the bullet into the bore but not expel it from the gun. This created a classic squib load. The occluded bore was overlooked by the film crew, and the gun was loaded with theatrical blanks for the subsequent scene.
During the final filming, the handgun was discharged on set at a range of about fifteen feet. The force of the blank round expelled the bullet remaining in the bore from the previous misadventure. This bullet struck Lee in the abdomen with nearly the same energy as a live round. An explosive squib hidden inside a bag of groceries he was carrying went off as planned, masking his true injury. Brandon underwent six hours of emergency surgery but ultimately succumbed to his wound after purportedly receiving sixty units of blood in the operating theater.
Introduced in 1978, the Smith and Wesson Model 629 was the stainless steel version of the previous Model 29 .44 Magnum. The Model 29 was first developed as the S&W N-frame in 1955 and featured seven different barrel lengths. The Model 29 designation was standardized in 1957.
The .44 Magnum round was the brainchild of ballistic legend Elmer Keith. Keith had been experimenting with the .44 Special cartridge in an effort at creating a platform for handgun hunters wanting to pursue dangerous game. At the time of its introduction, the Model 29 was indeed the most powerful production handgun in the world.
The Model 29 amassed a modest following among hunters and a few Law Enforcement Officers. In 1971 the movie Dirty Harry hit the big screen, and gun shops could not keep the massive pistols in stock. A fun fact is that Clint Eastwood only got this iconic role after John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, and Steve McQueen passed on it.
My Model 29 features a 6.5-inch barrel like the original Dirty Harry gun. When loaded with full-power .44 Magnum loads I don’t much care for it. The gun is more than adequately powerful to drop a whitetail or any two-legged miscreant but does sport some prodigious recoil. When stoked with lower-powered .44 Special rounds, however, the Model 29 is a joy on the range. The Model 29 is a legendarily accurate wheelgun.
The untimely deaths of Bruce and Brandon Lee formed the basis for one of the most curious family legends in Hollywood history. While Laser Mission will not win an Academy Award any time soon, The Crow, though remarkably dark, was a solid action flick. Brandon Lee had the potential to become a remarkably successful movie star in his own right.
When reviewing The Crow in anticipation of this project I was struck by the similarities between Brandon Lee’s character and Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Both men were exceptional actors who brought remarkable depth to these two complicated parts. That they both died unexpectedly at age 28 was just strange.
The producers of The Crow originally planned to scrap the project after its star’s untimely death. However, with the permission and encouragement of Lee’s surviving family members, they shot the final scenes using Lee’s stunt double and early CGI technology. The movie cost $23 million to produce and ultimately grossed more than twice that.
Brandon Lee was engaged to Eliza Hutton at the time of his death. They had planned to be married on April 17, 1993, some two weeks after he was unexpectedly killed. Lee placed the following passage from Paul Bowles’ book The Sheltering Sky on his wedding invitations–
“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless…”
Brandon Lee was buried alongside his father at the Lake View Cemetery in Seattle, Washington. This passage from Bowles’ book was engraved on his tombstone.