Home Video Hovel: Return of the Dragon, by Dayne Linford
There’s little left to be said regarding The Way of the Dragon (released in the U.S. as Return of the Dragon), the only film written and directed by Bruce Lee, as well as featuring him as its star. However, for me, as only a passing martial arts film fan, and a newcomer to Lee’s legacy, it was an engaging and excellent entrance into this nearly cultic world of film-fan obsession. When it’s this fun and this well constructed, who can blame a certain obsessiveness? I just finally got around to this one, and I’m ready to mainline the rest in one go.
It’s doubly unfortunate that this was the only film Lee was able to helm before his untimely death a year later, in that this was clearly the work of a film auteur. Lee was not quite as masterful in film work as in martial arts but this is a clear indication of what could follow from the most forceful and singular voice to come out of martial arts filmmaking, at least in his era. It would especially have been interesting to see what an aging Lee would have done with his filmic descendants, how his comedic sensibility would engage with Jackie Chan’s, or his skill with timing and pace around Jet Li. In all, these comparisons unfortunately reflect on what a loss Lee’s early death was for film, given his capacity to reflect both these later masters and much more in his performance, and how well he directs around that performance to enhance his mystique and his presence. Most director-turned-actors lack that capacity of modulating a great performance, recognizing its place among a great film, not in front of it, though perhaps it helps that Lee understood so well what the goods on sale were, and knew best how to deliver them.
His method of delivery is particularly clever for the kind of filmmaking he clearly emulates, borrowing from the likes of Robert Wise’s West Side Story via Roger Corman via Sergio Leone in a kind of operatic bookend, the medicine that makes the sugar in the middle seem downright godly. Corman’s famous dictum of demanding tits or blood every three pages in a script absolutely applies here, not because Lee followed it but because Lee specifically subverted it. Comfortable enough in his stardom by this time, he delays action until nearly 30 minutes into the film, a discipline neither Wise in West Side nor Leone, in his famous Dollars trilogy, personally displayed. Instead, he diverts us with some light comedy, a little sight-seeing around Rome, and an opportune display of the afore-mentioned torso, as an Italian beauty attempts to seduce Lee’s alter ego, here Tang Lung. Even in the display, to egg us on just a little more, he’s making a sly comment – having labored under the still-common notion that Southeast Asian men were basically sexless or perverted, he has Lung propositioned directly by an incredibly attractive woman, only to reject her. Lung is neither sexless, nor perverted, but basically good, enough so that we get to enjoy him pummel a bunch of basically bad people.
The makeup of this cast is particularly interesting, though I suppose a little plot will help here. Lung is in Rome to help a local restaurant owner, Chen Ching-hua (Nora Miao), stave off the attempts of a local gangster/businessman (Jon T. Benn) to take over her business. Since they’ve been getting more violent lately, Lung is there to solve the problem likewise. Of course, there’s a small gang of waiters, who’ve been practicing karate in their off hours, to help him out, and all the bad thugs are reputed martial arts enthusiasts. It’s a plot straight out of West Side Story, and cast similarly, in one of the more interesting filmmaking twists. Though Lung is technically in Rome, the people in Rome seem like New Yorkers, down to the fact that they all speak English (in the original soundtrack released in China), that they’re a pretty good mix of Caucasians and Africans, with the odd bad Asian, and that they’re obsessed with karate. This obsession extends to Lung’s ultimate opponent in the famous fight between him and Chuck Norris (then, as the opening credits tell us, five time world karate champion). Not only does Lee stage many fights where he clearly kicks the trash out of diverse American types, he fights the American type, complete with nearly worshipful dialogue as the bad guys discuss hiring, the “greatest American martial artist” to defeat their increasingly worrisome opponent. Add to that the setting for the big fight – the Coliseum – and you’ve got about the clearest statement of film art and Western imperialism you can get out of a movie where characters say things like, “What I want, I get – and I want that restaurant!”
As an auteur, Way of the Dragon is Bruce Lee claiming film for himself and for Asian filmmakers. It’s a stake in the ground against the fact that someone like Norris was the world champion in karate. He broke all the rules of “B” filmmaking and made a great hit; he subverted every dictum surrounding “A” filmmaking and made great art. Though we don’t have Lee himself any longer, at least we have his legacy, responsible for both the Jackie Chans and the Wong Kar-Wais that have immeasurably enriched cinema all around the world.