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Saturday, 14 June 2008

Way of the Dragon (1972)

If The Big Boss introduced the world to who Bruce Lee really was and Fist of Fury showed us what he could do, Way of the Dragon shows us what he wanted to do. He isn't just the star, he's the action instructor, he's the writer and the director, and his influence is all over the film even before it begins. The credits include the level of achievement in martial arts some of the actors had, whether as world champions or just belt grades. Then we begin and find that this is a comedy with Lee playing Tang Lung, who has just arrived in Rome from Hong Kong to help out at a restaurant his family own that is being threatened by a local gang.

I found this one painful for a little while as I realised that this was a comedy film and had to make a serious adjustment. Fist of Fury gave us a Bruce Lee role that Jackie Chan failed utterly to copy. Way of the Dragon sees Bruce Lee trying to be Jackie Chan, albeit before Jackie Chan ever became the Jackie Chan we know today. A lot of this reappears in Chan's Wheels on Meals. The other thing that becomes very obvious very quickly is that unlike The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, this is very rooted in the time it was made: the 1970s. These Roman thugs look scarily dated in every way, not least the overtly gay Chinese thug and interpreter played by Ping-Ao Wei. These costumes are just outrageous.

Nora Miao is back from the two previous movies as Chen Ching Hua, who runs the restaurant after her father's death, and the rest of the restaurant staff look very familiar too. They all know karate, or at least they think they do, but Tang introduces them to Chinese boxing and beats up all the thugs. They start fighting back pretty well themselves but when they think it's all over naturally it's just about to get plenty worse. The local crime boss doesn't just have local idiot thugs to call from, they have the power to call in Chuck Norris, at this point in time nobody as far as the movies go but riding high off a whole slew of karate world championship wins.

Way of the Dragon is a strange one because of its comedy. While Bruce Lee proves perfectly fine as a comedian, somehow this all feels wrong. This is definitely what would become Jackie Chan territory. That said, it seems that this film has been pretty solidly dismissed but there's much to admire here. The fights get better with every film and the choreography improves along with them. There's also a lot of technique on show here, especially in the scene with double nunchucks and the final battle at the Colisseum with Chuck Norris. What's telling here though is that bad jokes aside Norris is a seriously talented martial artist at the peak of his game and the slow motion scene looks like slow motion for Norris but normal speed for Bruce Lee. It's like he's a hummingbird and we're the rest of the world.

I'm guessing that this was far more successful in the east than the west. The previous two films were very exportable as they were rooted in universal concepts that had universal appeal. This one runs with a very Chinese humour and the west probably hasn't quite caught on to that yet, though it understands it a lot more now than it did in 1972.

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