Bruce Lee - A Retrospective Part 3: Way Of The Dragon
Dateline - December 2013
The usual pre-amble
When the subject of doing these retrospectives came up, I immediately began mentally sketching out each film and picturing what I would want to say about each one, or what approach I would take. It quickly became apparent that even though I had my favourites among my favourites; I was going to find the actual writing of them a challenging, and even weirdly illuminating experience. I would hesitate to use the old ‘voyage of discovery’ chestnut, because I still have some self respect, but you take my inference.
Sometimes a movie that you love dearly, and know inside out, and back to front, is the hardest one to find your groove with in terms of writing about it. Happens all the time. So when It came to drafting out this particular retrospective; I was fully expecting the phenomenon to be invoked. That is because today we are talking about film number three in the Bruce Lee canon, and one of my personal favourites. Way of the Dragon (Return of the Dragon for some of our North American friends), marked the completion of Bruce Lee’s transition from Hong Kong superstar under contract, to autonomous filmmaker superstar extraordinaire. On this film he would be writer, director, producer, fight choreographer, and of course star. It would be the first (and only) time, he would truly be in the driving seat, and master of his own destiny on a completed film project.
As is my won’t, some background, and apologies in advance to those who may find the following to be partially retreading points raised in either The Big Boss, or Fist of Fury retrospectives. Naturally, each retrospective has to be able to stand alone, and explain itself without having to ever wholly rely on reference to any of the others in the series, hence some reiteration of key points may be inevitable. Having said that, I will try not to repeat myself exactly.
OK, so back in the 90s, I owned all of the Bruce Lee movies in a VHS box set (excluding Enter the Dragon, which, no doubt due to some licensing/ownership blockade; never seemed to be included in these types of collections). This set did however, feature the truly objectionable Game of Death II (which, thankfully we are not bothering to cover in these retros, save for a quick mention in the actual Game of Death piece later on). This box set also sported a bonus tape featuring two or three of the best old documentaries, which is really where I first began to learn more about Bruce Lee. It was actually the second such set I had owned, and on the whole, was a serviceable enough package. I kept it in regular use until giving up on VHS completely around 2001. Luckily, right around this time; Hong Kong Legends began re-releasing all the movies in nice, clean, expanded, restored, widescreen DVD editions, and so a slow process of replacement began to occur over the next few years.
As mentioned in my Fist of Fury retrospective; both of my original VHS box set editions, featured the James Ferman (then head of the BBFC) era, heavily censored cuts of the movies. These BBFC butchered versions enforced the wholesale removal of every single scene featuring Bruce wielding his trademark nunchaku weapon (literally, every frame was exorcised, except the odd shot of him either tucking them in to his waistband or pulling them out). Incidentally, for those of you old enough to have experienced this; these were the same weird UK censorship forces that created the infamous and confusingly titled ‘Teenage Mutant [Hero] Turtles‘ – removing the terribly dangerous, child corrupting word ‘Ninja’, as well as all images of young Michelangelo wielding his humble rice beaters in a half-shell), crazy times eh?! Younger eagle eyed readers who don’t remember that, may have felt some of Ferman’s weird influence in this matter anyway, as the Bruce Lee bio/drama Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story was also subject to certain idiotic cuts in the UK. However, I guess even that movie is getting quite long in the tooth now.
Not to want to allow ourselves to be sidetracked too much, but I feel that poor James Ferman has got a bad rap from me of late (deservedly so in these cases). However, that being said; I quite liked the fellow, and in terms of the frequency and intensity of their interference; the BBFC certainly improved their reputation under his tenure. Put it this way; Houseproud town mouse Mary Whitehouse had no love for him, which kind of endears him to me straight away (sorry about the Pink Floyd reference there).
Anyway, despite Ferman's frankly ridiculous persecution of the humble nunchaku (not to mention the resulting horrendous continuity and scene flow issues, horrid pan & scan TV format, and grainy prints), I loved Bruce’s movies dearly, and practically wore those tapes down to the sprockets.
Ben gets to the point...sort of:
Of all of the included movies; it was certainly today’s subject movie, that stood out as the strongest contender for favourite at the time, and it vied for supremacy with the more obvious Enter the Dragon, (owned of course on a separate tape). I will talk about this again in more detail when we get to it, but like most kids my age, Enter the Dragon was the first, most accessible, and most indelible Bruce Lee movie you saw growing up, and it’s Hollywood production values gave it a natural advantage in that sense; making objective comparison trickier but not impossible.
For me, Way of the Dragon was usually the instant ‘go to’ Bruce Lee movie to watch as a sort of ‘tonic’, after sitting through the unfathomable strangeness of Game of Death. I did this so often in fact, that when watching ‘Way’ even now, I’m always genuinely delighted, and almost surprised at how much actual, real, honest to goodness Bruce Lee there is in it. If that sounds crazy to you, then all will be explained in the Game of Death retrospective (as well as an attempt to explain why I even watched it that much to begin with).
For now, let me freely admit that the notion of being delighted that your leading man is actually in the movie does sound odd indeed. But go watch Game of Death and check out the scene where they use a life-size cardboard cutout of Bruce’s face stuck to a mirror acting as a 'reflection' of the quite obviously not Bruce Lee dude sitting with his back to us, and then we’ll talk.
Moving on swiftly.
As usual, for those that maybe haven’t seen all of Bruce Lee’s movies, or are maybe unfamiliar with the specifics of each of them individually (suffering the blend and bleed phenomenon described in The Big Boss retrospective, where key scenes, images or concepts blend the movies together in an indistinct way); here’s a quick recap of what to expect from Way of the Dragon.
Ben finally talks about the actual movie this retrospective is about:
It’s a pretty simple premise really. Bruce plays Tang, a young man who travels from Hong Kong to Rome on a mission to help protect his friend’s young niece’s restaurant. It turns out that the local mafia boss wants to ‘acquire’ said establishment, and Chen (the nice, and pleasingly progressive, defiant niece in question), and her uncle Wang, simply won’t sign it over to him.
Cue escalating intimidation techniques, threats, disruption of patronage, and plenty of reasonably low threat fighting…at first.
The character of Tang is what we could call the first perfected Bruce Lee archetype*. He is tough, honourable, proud, unflappable, strong of mind and body, and as honest as the day is long. He cannot be bought or intimidated, and is quick to show any bad guy the back of his hand, or the sole of his Kung Fu slippers. He is also supremely skilled, and more than a match for any number of tuppenny mob thugs ranged against him. He attempts to teach Chen’s loyal restaurant bus boys his ‘Chinese Boxing’ techniques (they all favour karate at first), and after a shaky start, ingratiates himself with them and quickly becomes their leader, at least in terms of their resistance to the mob attacks.
Chen begins the movie full of doubt regarding Tang, both in terms of his character, and a broader resentment of the need for him to even be there. However, she is also eventually won over by his commitment to the task at hand, his determination, and of course, his impressive physical prowess. In typical Bruce fashion; this obvious ‘love interest’ potential is not explored at all. I find it interesting that he could just have easily made Chen and Tang related, thereby nullifying the romance angle entirely. Instead, he chose to make Tang almost amoeba-like in his disinterest in Chen that way, and despite some scenes clearly showing that she may well be developing amorous feelings for him; their relationship remains totally platonic. Some folks I’ve talked to, and even various online sources incorrectly believe the characters in fact are related (cousins usually). If you listen closely to the dialogue, it’s clear they are not. If any more proof of Bruce’s attitude towards the ladies is required, watch the scene just after Tang meets Chen at the airport. Tang is invited up to a very lovely lady’s apartment (it’s not clear if she’s a prostitute or just really horny for some Tang action), but when unexpectedly presented with her rather lovely breasts; Tang freaks out and gets the hell out of Dodge at top speed.