Alita: Battle Angel may take place in a 26th century dystopia, but even in the future Bruce Lee’s influence can still be felt, if only for a moment. When film protagonist Alita, an amnesiac cyborg soldier played by Rosa Salazar, awakens to her abilities as an expert in Panzer Kunst — a fictional martial art invented for the movie — she practices a kata (a physical routine) in front of her mirror.
Standing before a scenic full moon, Alita demonstrates moves in Muay Thai and kung fu — and twice, she shows off “chain punching,” a cyclic motion of jabs characteristic of the Chinese discipline, Wing Chun. Prior to innovating his own style of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do, Lee studied Wing Chun under Ip Man, himself the subject of many movies and TV shows.
Throughout her five months of grueling preparation for the role, Salazar tells Inverse she studied none other than Bruce Lee to inhabit the body and spirit of a warrior. “He was brought up a lot,” she says.
“I watched a lot of martial arts films during my training, and Bruce Lee is one of my idols. More than just his moves, his philosophies really informed me [to be] a warrior in motion and a warrior at rest.”
Adds Salazar, “He was ever present during my training.”
Until his death at the age of 32, Bruce Lee was a Hong Kong-American actor who broke racial barriers in the mid-20th century. Starting with the TV series The Green Hornet, where he played sidekick Kato to Van Williams’ titular crimefighter, Lee’s career took off in a string of hit films including The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), and Way of the Dragon (1972). After completing 1973’s Enter The Dragon, Lee was on the cusp of Hollywood stardom until an allergy to painkillers caused a cerebral edema. He was pronounced dead on arrival, in what doctors deemed “death by misadventure.”
Four decades later, Bruce Lee’s influence can be found everywhere in popular culture. From the billion-dollar enterprise that is the UFC to countless movies, TV, comic books, and video games that feature his likeness, Lee is arguably a bigger star now than when he was among the living.
The latest homage to Lee comes from Alita: Battle Angel, the new film from Robert Rodriguez and producer/writer James Cameron and based on the manga Gunnm by Yukito Kishiro. Set in a cyberpunk future, the last remnants of humanity live in Iron City, where a kind doctor (Christoph Waltz) reanimates Alita, a naive robot who slowly discovers her true identity in a terrifying world.
While Alita’s kata was arranged by the film’s choreographers, the decision to pay homage to Lee came directly from Cameron, director of hits like Terminator 2, Titanic, and Avatar.
“It was something Jim mentioned,” Robert Rodriguez tells Inverse, “He threw that in. I thought it’s kind of clever to see her do a Bruce Lee move as part of her kata. It’s set in the future. Her sensei maybe did study Bruce Lee. I thought that would be kind of cool for fans to see that 600 years in the future they would still be using that move.”
The chain punching performed by Salazar in Alita is a Wing Chun technique that demonstrates its principles, specifically in how it maximizes spatial economy. Unlike boxing, where arms over-extend and retract after a punch, Wing Chun is designed to maintain space between fighters. As the London Wing Chun Academy explains:
“In practice, the punching arm retracts, drops slightly, and is replaced by another punch … When this action is repeated it becomes a cyclone motion making it difficult for an attacker to close the distance, thereby protecting your personal space in self defence … Wing Chun is meant for close quarter combat or conversational range, as found in a street, its design is meant for this situation unlike a jab which is used to cover distance of a boxing ring as the fighter moves forward.”
To prepare for Alita, Salazar studied a number of martial arts, including kickboxing and staff work “to get my endurance to a point where I can perform” while wearing a motion capture suit. It was “backbreaking labor,” she says.
(She also learned how to rollerblade, for the movie’s breakneck motorball sequences.)
But all that training was worth it, as it allowed Salazar to be more attuned of her body, making her a better performer underneath the various motion capture gear she had to wear all throughout production.
“It frees me,” she says. “I found it liberating because that suit neutralizes you as a person and creates a blank slate to create character. One of the challenges of the suit is that you don’t have physical cues to remind you where you are in the story, to remind you of the transformation.”
Transformation is key to Alita. As a metaphor for growing into womanhood, Salazar says Alita has a visually physical story arc. When Alita begins the movie, she’s “a young girl in a body that’s not hers,” with “wide-eyed open, chest to the world vibes” and a higher voice. After an important plot point gives Alita a new body — “Which I equated to a woman going through her formative years,” Salazar says — she quite literally grows up.
“She settles into that body because it’s more her body. Her movements become more fluid and natural, catlike and confident, her voice is pitched down to where my voice naturally is.”
Rodriguez credits Salazar for grasping Alita so intuitively.
“They say that casting is half the job. Half your work is done if you cast the right person. That’s true, because she so embodied that character,” he says. “She is able to perform Alita’s many iterations — the innocent girl, the rebellious teenager, the strong warrior. She’s so unexpected from take to take and full of life. Even when she’s just standing there, she looks like the warrior at rest. Five months of training gave her that.”
Alita: Battle Angel is in theaters now.