Forty years after his death, the late Chinese-American martial artist and filmmaker Bruce Lee has been digitally reincarnated to sell something he abstained from — alcohol. While the ad itself is a creative masterpiece, its message has angered some Lee fans, who feel it tarnishes his legacy.
The 90-second television commercial for Johnnie Walker Blue Label, which first aired in China on July 7, shows a realistic-looking Lee standing on the rooftop of a building overlooking Hong Kong while waxing philosophical in Mandarin: “Follow your instincts. It’s the most honest path,” the computer-generated Lee says at one point in the clip.
The ad is based on one of the most famous Bruce Lee quotes, which he dispensed on the short-lived television series Longstreet in 1971: “Empty your mind, be formless, like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or creep or drip or crash. Be water, my friend.”
Ad agency BBH China hired Hong Kong actor Danny Chan to play Lee in the commercial and digitally altered his face to look like Lee’s. “We made about 250 different expressions, and expressions in between expressions. That’s important, you can’t just go from a neutral to a smile, you have to go everywhere in between as well,” said Sam Driscoll, the lead 3D artist on the ad in a behind-the-scenes video.
Although Lee’s daughter Shannon was consulted for the commercial, it has provoked controversy because the late martial artist was a health nut who stayed away from alcohol. He was quoted in the book Bruce Lee: The Incomparable Fighter saying: “No, I don’t drink coffee or alcohol… They’re bad for my body.” One YouTube user, Ahmed Tharik, commented online: “Why use the legend of fitness for a whisky commercial… disrespectful surely.”
This isn’t the first time a celebrity has been resurrected to sell a product. A movie scene of Fred Astaire vacuuming appeared in a commercial for the Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner, and a cartoon version of Frank Sinatra was used to push Lipton “Brisk” iced tea.
Lee is best known for his personal brand of martial arts and philosophy Jeet Kune Do, and for the movies he wrote and directed: Big Boss, Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon (1972). He died in Hong Kong at the age of 32 from cerebral edema. Next Saturday is the 40th anniversary of his death.