Wednesday 28 January 2015

The Dragon Lives Again (1977)

Director: Lo Ke
Stars: Bruce Leong, Shin Ii Lung, Tong Ching, Alexander Grand and Jenny

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

Having changed the face of action movies forever by introducing the western world to Hong Kong martial arts pictures, Bruce Lee died in 1973, at the height of his fame. Needless to say, the kung fu industry was rather distraught and promptly cast everyone and his dog as 'the new Bruce Lee'. Some of the actors who were tasked with this role, like Bruce Le and Bruce Li, did pretty well and became stars themselves. Some became famous once they stopped pretending to be Bruce Lee, like Jackie Chan, the embarrassing star of New Fists of Fury. Others just earned their wages in a neverending barrage of Brucesploitation movies, a few of which are fun, most of which are awful and some of which are outright bizarre. This is emphatically one of the latter, an apparent comedy from 1977 known both as The Dragon Lives Again (though it isn't a sequel to the previous year's The Dragon Lives) and Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. The principal reason that it's bizarre is that Lee is far from the only icon in the movie; in fact, it's packed full of them!

It's also bizarre because of how these icons are treated, starting with Bruce Lee himself. Even though it's been four years since his death, he shows up unconscious on a set of trestles with a sheet hiding what is apparently a giant boner, one that the King of the Underworld's two wives are rather keen on (spoiler: it's really his nunchucks). Yes, we're in the underworld, which looks so much like the regular world of kung fu movies that we might be excused if we think it's the same one. The impersonator this time out is Leung Siu-Lung, credited as Bruce Leong, a decent martial artist but one who looks a lot less like Bruce Lee than Shen Ie Lung, playing the Godfather without any of Marlon Brando's mumbling but with a physique that resembles Lee's, at least once he strips off his outfit for the boss battle in the inevitable rock quarry that, contrary to the laws of physics, apparently sits right in the middle of town so that folk can merely look sideways whenever they want a fight and let it take over their environment.
So, this is Bruce Lee versus the Godfather, with the King of the Underworld somewhere in between them as a bad guy rather than a boss, to use a videogame term that originated in a Bruce Lee movie. He does have a pillar that he can shake to create earthquakes, which makes him pretty wicked, but they all seem to have an epicenter right there in his evil underground lair, which makes him pretty dumb instead. This whole set up is odd to begin with, but it's only the beginning, as there are many more icons waiting here for their fifteen minutes of Underworld fame. We're quickly introduced to three in a Chinese restaurant, starting with future star Eric Tsang as Popeye the Sailor Man, complete with requisite tiny hat and pipe (oh yes, the spinach shows up later). He's sharing a table with Kwai Chang Caine, the character David Carradine played in the series, Kung Fu, and over there is Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman, the Japanese wandering masseur Shintaro Katsu played in no less than 26 movies and 100 television episodes.

I don't remember Zatoichi ever being a bad guy, but here he's working for the Godfather, who apparently collects icons, because his other minions all fit in that category. There's the Man with No Name, complete with poncho, though the English dub refers to him as Clint Eastwood throughout; there's Exorcist (without a 'the') who is inexplicably French; and there's Dracula and his army of zombies, who look rather like men in black bodysuits with white skeletons painted on them; they don't even attempt to stay in front of black backgrounds which might have made them look cool. Two more are played by non-Chinese actors. James Bond appears in the form of 'Champion-boxer of Europe, Alexander Grand', who had kicked off his career with a couple of Bruce Lee titles, Fist of Fury and The Way of the Dragon. The other, the Godfather's sexy assassin, Emmanuelle, is played by Jenny, who has neither a last name nor another film credit. Now, who could stand against such a line up? No, don't answer that question. This is Brucesploitation, baby!
What the writers were smoking to come up with this, I have no idea, but they didn't stop there. Soon the One-Armed Swordsman shows up too, as a weaker character than in the Shaw Brothers movies, and I'm unsure if any of the other people we meet aren't half inched from other Asian pictures too. I'm especially suspicious of the red cloaked chamberlain character who shows up to battle Bruce Lee and the forces of good in the name of the King of the Underworld. Maybe I haven't watched enough Asian movies to know who he's supposed to be, but maybe he's just a rare original in this one. There are two credited writers: Shek Ke, who never earned another credit, and Wei Liang, who worked much more as an art director but also wrote The Reincarnation, an early Chow Yun-Fat movie, with its director Cheung Sum. Maybe that's just a warm up for this one, which simply couldn't be followed. What script could you write after this one to try to top it? Bruce Lee taught us the art of fighting without fighting; maybe that's what it means.

Clearly this isn't a movie for everyone, but it has so much happening that nobody watching is likely to be bored, even if they can't get into the weirdness of it. It also can't be accused of false advertising (except for that title) because it even showcases all those various icons during the action packed opening credits sequence; how can anyone fail to thrill to the sight of the Man with no Name shooting himself in the foot and setting his poncho on fire? It's a special kind of movie genius to be sure, but it's genius nonetheless. What's problematic is that there's so much going on here that it's hard to pick what stands out the most. Strangely, as perhaps befits this movie, it isn't the fight scenes, because they're mostly underwhelming until the boss battles at the end, which are much more like what we should have had all along. The Clint Eastwood and James Bond fights might prompt us to ask for our money back. They're more like what the wrestling industry call squash matches, there just to briefly showcase the hero.
I got a kick out of the King of the Underworld's wives, not just because they frolic around naked in a huge bathtub with their equally naked servant girls, but because they bicker so well. After they play a round of rock/paper/scissors to see which one will get the opportunity to transform into another character and so be able to seduce Bruce Lee, the winner screws it up with more bickering and the other promptly joins in. With them trying to cheat on the King, perhaps because he freely admits to not feeling up to doing them himself, Emmanuelle persuades him back into the sack after the Godfather sends her to take him down by screwing him to death. This leads to amazing lines, another guilty pleasure in this movie. 'Her pussy's in this plot too,' he soliloquises. 'She's using it to murder me!' I got a kick out of the King's chamberlain counting his vibrations while he's doing Emmanuelle (or rather while she's doing him); all out of beads on his abacus, he pulls out a conveniently placed but highly anachronistic calculator instead.

Given that this movie was originally released in Cantonese and I watched an English dub, I can't trust all the dialogue to be even close to accurate; I learned that lesson watching midget superstar Weng Weng's For Y'ur Height Only. However, during the Bruce Lee vs Zatoichi fight, the fighters' astounding repertoire of moves is mirrored in subtitles as well, just in case we missed the dialogue. Lee's are all named for his films, but Zatoichi's are as imaginative as Blind Chicken Beaks, Blind Guy Kills Mosquito and, best of all, Blind Dog Pisses, which looks roughly like you might expect. This imagination extends to the astounding lack of continuity. Bruce Leong plays Bruce Lee throughout the film except for his battle with Dracula, as he inexplicably shows up as Kato instead. Similarly Dracula's zombies are silent throughout, except at a point where dialogue is needed and one demonstrates how fluent he is in English. The chamberlain's set of teleporting mummies merely mumble of course, because, you know, credulity.
Make no mistake, this is a stunningly awful movie, but I for one am happy to live in a world where Bruce Lee wakes up in the underworld and promptly stamps out gambling and opens a gymnasium. You know, the usual bucket list items to check off the moment you're dead. I can't hide my appreciation for Popeye going into snake stance to battle a corrupt cop and Kwai Chang Caine mule kicking his partner offscreen. Random moments of coolness made my day, like the scantily clad dancer who entertains the Godfather and his minions or the walking, talking skeleton belonging to the long haired, long bearded master that Lee inevitably encounters on day one. The many unanswered questions deserve panels of their own at conventions. Why is Exorcist French? Why does Lee only haul out his repertoire of animal noises for just one fight? Why is he floored at one point by electronica? Who stole all the water out of the king's wives' bathtub? Why do mummies teleport to Pink Floyd? Answers on the back of an envelope, please.

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