[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a bi-weekly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
With no real themes coming to mind this month, I figured I would finish off the remaining films from Bruce Lee’s filmography for this column. I sort of did the previous three in a strange order, but it’s mostly because Lee’s finished films are… strange. For a man so well-known and ubiquitous with the very idea of Kung Fu films, a few of his films aren’t exactly great. Case in point: The Way of the Dragon.
Now, don’t take this as me shitting on the film or even purposely nitpicking aspects of the film to find fault. When it comes to Bruce Lee, you have to remember that he was a trailblazer. You can find other examples of similar movies to his before he did them, but he did them with a style, flair, and quality that was unseen at the time. He laid the groundwork for stars such as Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Donnie Yen to follow. It just sucks that his life was cut short because his small body of work doesn’t truly reflect the talent he had.
Anyway, The Way of the Dragon was released just nine months after Fist of Fury in 1972 and it went on to set records for Golden Harvest. In the run-up to its release in Taiwan, the film’s budget of $130,000 USD was covered by pre-release ticket sales. When opening in the Hong Kong market, the film broke the box-office records of both The Big Boss and Fist of Fury and would go on to be the highest-grossing film of 1972 in the region. To say Lee fever was in full swing is understating it.
At the time in the HK film industry, there wasn’t what you’d call a Kung Fu comedy. Some directors had tried integrating jokes into their scripts and there was obviously humor in Shaw Brothers’ films, but nothing that was straight up a comedy. You wouldn’t think it from Lee’s last two movies, but his real-life persona was more personable. He still had that same charisma that just bleeds onto the screen, but he was also more light-hearted and humorous. Being that this was the first time Lee would be directing himself, he figured he would imbue some comedy into the proceedings to break up the pacing a bit.
It’s… mostly successful? I say that as a question because, in the beginning, the movie really drags. Cold opening at an airport, we get an extended take on Lee’s face as people walk by. Having landed in Italy, Lee obviously can’t communicate with anyone, so he’s oblivious to why his old lady is staring at him. At the same time, his stomach starts acting up and he attempts to hide it. Eventually, she leaves and Lee tries to steal food from a kid. I… don’t know why, but it’s a thing that happens.
Taking into account what was happening with Kung Fu films at the time, I can definitely see how this was refreshing. Instead of ultra-serious Chang Cheh-style manly movies, we have Lee shedding the persona of an unstoppable powerhouse to joke around a bit. It’s chuckle-worthy, though not exactly awe-inspiring. Thankfully, the fight scenes that come later on are.
Another noteworthy contribution The Way of the Dragon makes to HK films is its setting. I’m not talking specifically being modern-day, but the fact that it was filmed almost entirely on location in Rome, Italy. Trying to mimic the Hollywood films he so idolized, Lee demanded that the cast and crew head to Italy to get the specific scenes he wanted. Obviously, interiors were done back in China and there are even a few instances during the finale that are on a sound stage, but the majority of this movie is shot overseas. It lends a majestic quality to the story.
I’m not really going to discuss the plot in The Way of the Dragon because it doesn’t amount to much. Lee’s character, Tang Lung, gets sent to Italy to help his uncle’s family defend themselves from a gang. While he does learn a bit about not acting so stiff all the time, there isn’t what you’d call character development. There is something going on between him and Chen Ching-Hua (Nora Miao), but that also doesn’t go anywhere. The film is ambitious, but not entirely fleshed out.
After the sluggish opener, however, The Way of the Dragon doesn’t really slow down. It’s not always a knock-out, but as I said, the action sequences continue Lee’s evolution in front of the camera. Even more so than his last movie, The Way of the Dragon has some energetic and magnetizing choreography. Those first-person camera angles where Lee kicks at the camera are in full swing as is a back-alley brawl where Lee whips out two pairs of nunchucks and cleans house. You might be scratching your head at the comedy and plot, but your jaw will likely be on the floor when Lee roundhouse kicks four people in a row.
That follows into this film’s big set-piece: the battle between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. Even if you’ve never seen The Way of the Dragon, you more than likely have witnessed this battle. Staged at the Roman Colosseum, Lee knew exactly how he wanted everything to play out. Utilizing dramatic low angles, specific lighting, and wide-angle long takes, this fight transforms two martial arts experts into gods. It might seem rather bizarre that Lee even knew Norris, but he specifically selected him because he was the American Karate champion at the time. Norris stars alongside Robert Wall and Hwang In-Shik, two other Karate experts. If nothing else, Lee’s statement here is that his style was better than others.
You get some of that philosophy in The Way of the Dragon. With no director or middle man to go through, Lee was able to put his teachings front and center. One of the subplots during the film is that of restaurant workers practicing Karate and Lee demonstrating his fancy fists. At one point, he performs a side kick that throws a man across the stage and into some boxes. While this shot would be repeated in Enter the Dragon, you can’t deny how fantastic it looks. To generate that much power in such a short distance is magnificent and is exactly why Lee became the icon he is.
Moreso than actions, Lee speaks specifically about how he moves. During his first encounter with the restaurant workers, he says something to the tune of, “You generate power from the waist and into your arms.” It’s the exact opposite of conventional Chinese martial arts wisdom but is how Lee was able to develop his own style. These discussions diminish as the film goes on, but by that point, you understand why his character is such strong.
The last shot worth discussing is during a raid at the main villain’s compound. Lee and his comrades are surrounded and while they are taking a beating, Lee proceeds to dominate. At one point, an attacker is hesitating with his choices and Lee does a flying kick to break a ceiling lamp. This was taken directly from Marlowe, one of Lee’s first acting gigs in Hollywood. That particular film isn’t exactly memorable, but Lee repurposing a dynamic display of agility can be interpreted as him regaining control over his image.
I might be rushing through my discussion here, but there is a lot to enjoy in The Way of the Dragon. I just wouldn’t go in expecting some unparalleled display of mastery. The few films we got of Lee’s are more a snapshot of his life before he was able to truly blossom as a film star. While he was a trendsetter and certainly changed the Hong Kong film industry for the better, he never had the chance to grow beyond what we got.
The Big Boss is a solid beginning but is ultimately flawed due to no one having a true idea of how to stage certain scenes. Fist of Fury is an exceptional film and one of my personal favorites, but even that has these out-of-place elements that try to inject comedy where it shouldn’t be. The Way of the Dragon is very ambitious and features impressive choreography, but then has awkward comedy and a lack of real development. Enter the Dragon, as well, drags in spots and doesn’t give enough of a spotlight to Lee as Hollywood wasn’t sure an Asian could carry a film.
For a man that’s so much larger than life, Lee really did get a raw deal. What makes it even worse is that his final film, Game of Death (which I’ll be discussing next time) is probably the worst thing to include footage of him. We’ll save that talk for next time, though.
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