Thursday, March 30, 2017

Way Of The Dragon (a.k.a. Return Of The Dragon) : A 45th Anniversary Look Back At The True Gem Of Bruce Lee's Film Library

Sournce: Miramax Films
For most average film fans Bruce Lee is best known for his seminal masterpiece ,1973's Enter The Dragon, and rightfully so. However the year prior to the release of that major Hollywood co-production, he was given the opportunity to take full reign on one of his film projects with Golden Harvest Productions out of Hong Kong. He would be the writer, director, producer, and star of the film. This allowed fans to truly see the full scope and range of not only his masterful choreography with action and martial arts, but also his humane, comedic, and fun side that was not as often expressed in his other films.

 His first two feature films made in Hong Kong both broke box office records, 1971's The Big Boss (a.k.a. Fists of Fury), and 1972's  Fist of Fury (a.k.a. The Chinese Connection). Following those successes Golden Harvest Productions gave "carte blanche" to Bruce Lee to make his next feature film. He made the best of this opportunity by asking for full creative control which they did not oppose. Much like everything else he did in life, Bruce wanted this to be the ultimate spectacle in martial arts movies. He did not want to limit himself to the usual period piece, stylized version of martial arts films that had been made to that point in time. He wanted his film to have style, panache, hard-hitting action, and great locations. He also wanted to make sure that his film would present a formidable foe instead of a bunch of hapless soldiers and wannabe warriors that would be easily dispatched in the action scenes. With all of the dedication, precision, and determination he had within himself Bruce was able to bring his vision to reality and create a martial arts masterpiece.

 The plot of Way Of The Dragon is standard fare for the genre- Bruce plays Tang Lung, who is sent to Rome to help his friends' niece Chang Ching-Hua (played by Nora Maio) who owns a restaurant there. The restaurant is under siege by a local mob boss (played by Jon T. Benn).  The boss wants to buy the place but Chang refuses to sell so they begin terrorizing the customers and forcing all the business away so there is no money to be made. Once the mob enforcers run into Tang Lung, the mob's reign of terror quickly comes to an end. Not wanting to accept defeat, the mob boss hires two of the best martial artists he can find, one being a Karate Champion named Colt, played by future action star Chuck Norris. A full on assault is thrust at Tang Lung who must save the day and face Colt in a duel to the death at the mighty Roman Colosseum. 

 There are many elements that make this entry in Bruce Lee's films stand out. The first is the use of locations outside of China, in this case Rome, Italy. It was not commonplace for films to be shot outside of China in those days so this was a big deal. The other element that stands out is the use of diversity in the cast. You can see that in his own way Bruce wanted very much for his fans, and the Chinese culture, to see themselves as being equals with other cultures and other countries. This was not presented as a direct "us against them" attitude as much as it was a "if they can do it, so can we" philosophy. Typically the martial arts action movies made at that time had the heroes fighting Japanese or Chinese villains, but Bruce would not let himself be limited to these basic formulas. In Way Of The Dragon we see him taking on the Italian Mob (which cleverly included a Chinese Consigliere to bridge the culture gap) and a American karate warrior. It was this kind of diversification that Bruce had been exposed to in his own life having lived in the United States prior to returning to Hong Kong to make movies. So it was important to him that he share this diversity with the Chinese audiences. These differences from the films that came before it are what make this entry so unique in Bruce's library. When Enter The Dragon was being made the following year Bruce lobbied for themes and settings that were similar to Way Of The Dragon however there was more of a challenge to properly depict the Chinese heritage and philosophies that Bruce wanted to convey due to the expectations and concerns brought forth by Warner Bros, the American studio that was financing that picture. In my opinion this adds a greater value to Way Of The Dragon simply because Bruce was not constrained by anyone. What we see in the final product is purely his vision for how the picture was intended to be seen and when you consider it was his first (and sadly the only) turn as the director of the film you cannot help but be impressed.

In the grand scheme of films Way Of The Dragon is still what it was always meant to be- a fun, hard hitting, stylized martial arts action film. If you watch the English version it has plenty of that quirky dubbing that was a constant in all martial arts film made overseas. It also has elements of editing and camera angles that make this very much a movie of the early 70's. Bruce's success with his films in China and around the world would increase interest in the genre and ultimately give birth to the "chop socky" films that would be released en mass throughout the 1970's, especially following the popularity of Enter The Dragon in 1973. But none of those films could match the polish that Bruce's films generated which was largely due to his unswerving dedication to be the best at everything he did. For this reviewer, Way Of The Dragon was truly the best of the best. If you have never taken the time to watch any of Bruce Lee's films, or if you have only seen Enter The Dragon, take the time to see Way Of The Dragon and be treated to the truest essence of Bruce Lee that was ever put on film.

Reel Rating (Out Of A Possible Four)



Way Of The Dragon at IMDB

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