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Tuesday, 6 January 2015

REVIEW - WAY OF THE DRAGON (1972)

Directed by: Bruce Lee
Written by: Bruce Lee
Starring: Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, Chuck Norris
Music by: Joseph Koo
Release date: 30 December 1972


Way of the Dragon (or Return of the Dragon, if you're one of those 'Muricans) is probably one of my favourite martial arts movies of all time. Is a fairly sizeable part of that due to this being the movie in which Bruce Lee fights and kills indestructible meme godfather Chuck Norris? Possibly, but nevertheless this culture clash action-comedy is a special entry into Lee's unjustly short filmography, as this is the only one that he starred in, singlehandedly wrote and directed, not including from his unfinished final work, Game of Death.

Chen Ching-hua (Nora Miao) and her family members are being harassed by an unnamed local mafia boss (John T. Benn) who wants their restaurant property in Rome. Chen refuses to sell, and the boss sends a group of gangsters to discourage customers from visiting the restaurant and ruin their business. Chen receives help in the form of Tang Lung (Lee), a martial artist. When Lung proves to be a huge threat to the gang, a feud erupts between the two sides and reinforcements are sent in to dispose of him.


Way of the Dragon was never intended to be distributed internationally (that worked out well). This is definitely the most light-hearted in Lee's filmography: between the slightly exaggerated performances and Lung constantly asking where he can find the "shitter", it's full of strange and sometimes childish humour. Most of it works, although at certain times you might be laughing at how unusual the jokes are, as opposed their actual comedic effectiveness (Lee had no plans to release this movie to the West as he believed that they would miss some of the jokes specifically targeted to Asian audiences. Admittedly, some do make more sense after a bit of research). Nevertheless there's some amusing dialogue - although I'm sure that different subtitle tracks vary as to what the Asian cast is actually saying - and Paul Wei is hilarious as Ho, an outrageously gay interpreter for the gang. The action scenes in Way of the Dragon are actually quite few and far between, but every one of them is remarkable and the wait makes not only the fights, but also the entire movie all the more satisfying. Plus, during the period in which this movie was released, martial arts outings were largely stern and straight-faced, so it's refreshing to see something that actually wants you to crack a smile every now and then. Jackie Chan, eat your heart out.

While the quality of the cast's performances vary - John T. Benn is asleep through the whole thing but Miao and Wei, both usual stars in Lee's films, are solid - everyone unsurprisingly pales in comparison to the main attraction. Bruce Lee is an absolutely magnetic screen presence when he gets the fists flying and the chicken noises going, knocking down every line of opponents like dominos. He's so commanding and intense that there may as well be nobody else onscreen, and he also displays some great comedic timing along with some competent directorial skills, which undoubtedly would've grown even stronger overtime if not given the obvious circumstances. His character Lung is an unusual fella, a manchild from Hong Kong with a love for his native land and a serious lack of knowledge regarding basic human psyche. But never mind his various quirks and abnormal toilet habits, the guy can kick some serious ass.


When it comes to Way of the Dragon nobody ever seems to mention Joseph Koo's score. Perhaps understandably, as it is somewhat typical of your average 70s martial arts movie, but certain pieces are just pleasant to listen to, especially one slightly overused yet amusingly juvenile-sounding track with its vintage and sometimes jazzy qualities. Lee himself also collaborated by playing percussion on certain tracks.

Despite a surprising yet unnecessary twist towards the end that doesn't really amount to anything, the plot is very simple and barely ever progresses throughout its 99 minute runtime. Regardless, its relative playfulness and accessibility ensure that it remains enjoyable throughout. Besides, if you're here for filmmaking prowess instead of Bruce Lee laying down the hurt, you're clearly in the wrong place. Speaking of which...


Chuck Norris (in his feature-film debut, save one very minor uncredited role) only actually comes in during the last 25-or-so minutes of the movie, when he, along with a Japanese martial artist, is brought in by the mob to take down Lung. I'm not sure why the guy's so incredibly hairy - maybe it was fashionable at the time - but the fight between him and Lee has to be one of the greatest, and certainly today, one of the most iconic fights in martial arts history. Aided by a brief yet entertaining warm-up sequence, where Lee gets to show off his astounding ability to transform his scapula bones into something resembling camel humps, the fight is incredibly tense and sophisticated with an enormous amount of energy emitted from the two fighters, and some inspired choreography, particularly on Lee's side. It may not be as stylish as many fights showcased today, but this showdown is the culmination of Lee's extensive martial arts wisdom and unparalleled dedication that made him a legend, and there are no wires or artificial acrobatics. This is the real deal.

Way of the Dragon is a simple and entertaining ride sprinkled with displays of extreme fighting virtuosity throughout. It's one of Lee's finest works and is worth a watch just for his immeasurable charisma and the final battle. One could only imagine where he would be now. Whether he'd still be displaying his practically superhuman abilities by performing moves too fast to be caught on camera or taking a more restrained position in a director's chair, it's very clear that we lost someone special. Such an assertion is somewhat eerily acknowledged in Way of the Dragon's coincidentally fitting final line: "wherever he goes in this dog-eat-dog world... he will be admired by all".