Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
A Bruce Lee fanatic as a child, and long before being old enough to see the movie, I
knew much of the background history of the meeting of Bruce Lee and American karate
champion Chuck Norris at an international karate championship, how they hit it off
and stayed up all night at Lee's hotel room 'trying out some moves'. Norris is quoted
as saying that night was the single best session of martial arts he ever had.
The duellists' gritty realism was flawlessly carried through to the final bout of Way Of The Dragon (aka: Return Of The Dragon) between Lee and Norris in the Coliseum in Rome - there was never a more fitting a venue for these two sweat-shining gladiators of pugilism.
Written, directed and starring Bruce Lee in a movie made by his own production company at the time, Concorde. What could be better? But, hey, wait a minute, how long is the movie... 90 minutes? And how long is that final Lee/Norris bout... ten minutes? That leaves...
The movie opens with the embarrassingly drawn out and ham-fisted direction of Lee's arrival from China. What should have been a charming situation comedy is battered to death by overacting and rubbish script. Lee is a fight arranger, not a director and this opening scene, which may have set the tone for the rest of the movie was just sloppy in the extreme.
We trespass into corny narrative territory, for our sins. An army of Italian gangsters and American karate killers terrorise a local Chinese restaurant. Bruce single-handedly scatters a gang of henchmen, escapes death by hired assassins and leads the Chinese waiters against the gang's stronghold. There is a love interest and a totally unexpected bit of double-crossing from the restaurant manager in the dying throes of the movie. But, more or less, that's it.
This may have been the most successful martial arts movie in Asia of its time but to western audiences it was a stunning culture shock especially in the scenes involving the ultra camp behaviour of the Chinese boss of the Italian gangsters. Maybe this was how Lee saw his elders from the mainland, as nothing more than tarted up weaklings in positions of power. Maybe there lies a political reading of the whole of the story but this is for another thesis.
As with all Bruce Lee movies (especially Game Of Death in which an entire pagoda floor of action was axed), Way Of The Dragon suffered badly at the hand of the censor and the movie stops and starts like a modern rap piece on Radio One, edited to protect the innocents. It was an 18-rated movie, so why the prudishness about nunchakus (a basic grain pummelling tool in rural areas of China) maybe it was censorship against Lee's haunting artistry. An artless cropping of his mastery so as not to make us all feel inferior. Who knows?
When all is said and done, anything with Bruce Lee in it is a Bruce Lee classic worthy of your full attention every frame he is gliding and scything through the opposition, just remember, every silver lining has its cloud and this movie's direction is dire.
Score ten for Lee's marital arts, three for his directorial inelegance.
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