The Way of the Dragon (1972)

wayofthedragon_1The Way of the Dragon [猛龍過江] (1972)
AKA Return of the Dragon, Revenge of the Dragon, Fury of the Dragon

Starring Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, Ngai Ping-Ngo, Wong Chung-Shun, Gam Dai, Unicorn Chan, Lau Wing, Jon T. Benn, Chuck Norris, Whang In-Shik, Robert Wall, Malisa Longo, Robert Chan Law-Bat, Chen Fu-Ching

Directed by Bruce Lee

Expectations: High, it’s Bruce Lee!

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With The Way of the Dragon, Bruce Lee stepped into the role of writer/director along with the acting and choreography roles he had inhabited on his previous two Hong Kong films. As a result, The Way of the Dragon is much more reflective of Bruce Lee’s personality than his films under Lo Wei. Depending on your viewpoint, this could be a good or bad thing. For me (someone who enjoys the work of Lo Wei far more than other kung fu fans seem to), it was somewhere in the middle. I have always thought this was the least of Bruce’s films, and today’s viewing only solidified that for me. But this time, I think I understood why I’ve always been somewhat disinterested with the film.

Taking this film as evidence, it would seem that Bruce Lee’s relationship with Lo Wei was somewhat similar to Lo’s later relationship with Jackie Chan. Both stars wished to express themselves through more than just the traditional notes of what a martial arts film was at the time. Both stars immediately integrated comedy and martial arts in their films away from Lo. Jackie was obviously the more successful in doing so — does anyone know Bruce for his comedy? — but both stars clearly wanted to push the genre beyond what their initial director wanted to let them.

wayofthedragon_2This is admirable, and a lot of the comedy in The Way of the Dragon still works fairly well, but (for me) it’s only when the film breaks free of this and gets serious that it truly shines. Unfortunately, that’s basically just the end fight with Chuck Norris… so it’s best to accept that it’s a light, by-the-numbers kung fu movie set in Italy and just have fun with it. I’ll probably do just that and enjoy it a lot more when I inevitably re-watch it, but this time was my first viewing in probably 10–15 years so I didn’t remember a lot going in.

When I call The Way of the Dragon “by the numbers,” I really mean it. The story of the restaurant under siege by thugs who want the owner to sign the business over to their boss is second only in kung fu films to the tale of the student who must avenge the death of his master. Having the film set in Italy is a wonderful choice, but ultimately it’s just “same shit, different country.” Bruce Lee the writer/director takes his time introducing the elements of this bare-bones story, but once everything is on the table pretty much every scene after that is a rehash of the thugs trying to take the restaurant and Bruce kicking their ass. The thugs just sequentially grow in number or in skill level with each scene (and the fight settings change, too), culminating in the aforementioned battle with the legitimate and not-just-an-Internet-meme badass, Chuck Norris.

But there’s one part of that repeating formula that basically makes it all OK. Need a hint? It’s the part where Bruce kicks all their asses. Over and over, and over again. With fists, with feet, with staff and nunchaku, Bruce Lee is an incredible force of martial prowess and watching him do his thing simply never gets old. I do think the choreography was a little better in Fist of Fury, and I don’t think the fights here — other than the exciting and iconic final battle, and the double nunchaku scene — are all that memorable. But like I said… Bruce is Bruce, and Bruce is always bad-fucking-ass. He even rips out a tuft of Norris’s chest hair! End of discussion!

wayofthedragon_3The Way of the Dragon also features Ngai Ping-Ngo turning in a hilarious performance as the Big Boss’s lead henchman. Even if you’re lukewarm to Bruce Lee (yes, these people exist), Ngai’s flamboyant wardrobe choices are reason enough to watch the film. He’s like a Chinese Mr. Furley, and he brightens every scene he enters. He must have taken notes from all the modern-day films that David Chiang and Ti Lung made with Chang Cheh over at Shaw Brothers.

Also, I want to say that I’m fairly positive this is the earliest film I’ve seen that cites the real-world accomplishments of the film’s martial artists alongside their names in the opening titles. Y’know, like they used to do in all the shitty American martial arts movies of the ’80s and ’90s. What I’m thinking is that it all springs from this movie! If anyone has information otherwise, please let me know, but I like to think that it was Bruce’s influence that started one of my favorite things about dumb American martial arts films. … Well, I just watched the intro to the US release version (now streaming on Netflix) and the opening titles are completely different and do not feature the credits I just spent a paragraph talking about. So there goes my theory!

The Way of the Dragon may be my least favorite of Bruce’s four starring-role movies, but it’s still very entertaining and fun to watch. If you’re new to Bruce, start somewhere else, but definitely don’t neglect The Way of the Dragon.

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog: I’m going all the way back to 1966 as I mop up a few films that have become available since I started this thing. First up is Peter Pan Lei’s Downhill They Ride! See ya then! (Hopefully sooner rather than later.)

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