So this is what a Playboy-produced film used to look like. You know, back before they modeled themselves after their brainless FHM style spawns and were still at the very least attempting to inject some cutting edge material in between the shots of naked women with badly feathered 1970s hair. I know the joke is old and tired, but you know there used to even be something worth reading in that magazine. Not so much these days, from what I can tell. I have many vices, but Playboy ceased to be one of them round about the time it forsook that dapper jet-set lifestyle and became just another frat boy publication. And Playboy films? Don’t even get me started. Yeah, I’ve seen one or two. They’re awful erotic thrillers, which I know seems like a silly criticism to level at Playboy films until you consider for a moment that there, for a brief spell in the 1970s, Hugh Hefner decided to throw the Playboy name and money at Roman Polanski’s stylish, intelligent, and grim adaptation of one of Shakespeare bloodiest plays.
Chor Yuen’s mind-blowing Magic Blade is a prime example of something I’ve always appreciated about kungfu films. You see, there are certain things that, while deemed horrible in real life, are perfectly acceptable and even admirable activities for the hero of a kungfu film. I’m not talking about the obvious will-nilly killing of anyone who offends you in some way. No, I’m talking about, first foremost, the stamp of approval kungfu films put on beating up senior citizens. Outside of an Adam Sandler film, no one is going to cheer for a hero who beats grannies and tries to skewer them with elaborate bladed weapons. Even street thugs who don’t give a damn about anything won’t stoop so low as to mess up someone’s grandma. That’s why grandmas can get in between two jackasses waving guns at each other and send them home with tail between legs using nothing but harsh words and an umbrella or oversized pocketbook or maybe an oversized copy of The Bible.
But in kungfu films, old people get beat up all the time, and not just by the villains. Of course, granted the old folks are themselves often the villains of the story, and they’re often imbued with near supernatural fighting powers, but the fact remains that there really aren’t any other genres where taking a swing at your elders is considered the proper thing to do. Even in other genre movies where oldsters are the bad guys, you still rarely see the hero just haul off and slug them in the jaw. Usually the movie serves up some contrived accidental death, and the old ne’r-do-well will be impaled by some trap of their own making. Evil old white guys who run heartless multinational corporations are usually sent off to jail while their underlings get blown up by Steven Segal, but even stops short of kicking 80-year-olds in the groin.
I know you can defend this behavior by pointing out what masters of the martial arts these old people are, but I stick by my claim. Even in other types of movies where the evil old people are competent at something, few and far between are the good guys who try to beat them up.
Kungfu films are also among the only genres where it’s considered heroic to gang up on someone. It’s hardly uncommon to find yourself with a finale where the hero has to team up with several other people to beat the main bad guy. Sometimes it’s because the main bad guy is so good that no one person can beat him. Other times, it seems like they do it just to be dicks. But again, regardless of the power of the villain, you don’t see too many other genres where they approve of the heroes going ten on one against the rakehell. Where’s the honor in that? When you add the fact that the rakehell is often old enough to call Bob Hope “young man,” then you’re really in dubious territory as far as the character of your hero is concerned.
Of course, you can flip it and say these movies teach us a valuable lesson about teamwork, though I’d say that you learn about teamwork by going to an Amish barn-raising, not watching a bunch of kungfu heroes beat up old people.
Not being an expert on social psychology, my theory as to why a kungfu guy can beat up old folks would go thusly: in China, they are famously honorable toward elders. Your grandmother can boss you around long after she dies, and usually you get stuck with three or more generations all living with each other or next door to each other. It stands to reason then, that if you have to devote so much to your elders in real life, you might want to see them get the tar kicked out of them once in a while in the movies. Conversely, in America we don’t give a rat’s ass about our elderly. We move out as soon as we can and ship them off to be confined in a nursing home the first chance we get. And yet, we want to deny our abuse of the elderly by treating them well in the movies. The reason people are afraid of vengeful grannies is because we fear the unknown. We expect old folks to drool and watch Matlock. It scares us when one of them goes off and gives everybody hell. Plus, we never want to directly physically abuse the old people. We prefer to do it through neglect, or by paying professionals to physically abuse them.
I doubt that theory would hold much water if out to the test, but then, what psychological theory does? And none of that changes the fact that kungfu superstar Ti Lung spends a lot of time in Magic Blade trying to beat up someone called Devil Granny. You can’t beat up people named Granny, even if they are evil and cackle a lot and possess amazing kungfu skills. Anyway, on with the show…
Ti Lung plays the poncho-wearing swordsman Fu Hung-hsu, who is challenged one dark night by rival swordsman Yen Nan-fei, played by Lo Lieh in “relatively ugly” mode. The late, great Lo Lieh was one of the true legends of the martial arts movie world, but very few would ever consider calling him handsome. Luckily, this never really mattered in kungfu films, where you could always find a greater proliferation of ugly heroes and leading men than in any other genre. Ugly men beating up old people. Anyway, Lo did have a few stages of ugliness he could employ. In the 1960s when he frequently starred alongside Jimmy Wang Yu in classic swordsman tales, he was “not especially ugly.” His characters were usually cool, and he was at times almost dashing in a weird way. In the 1970s, things really went downhill for him though, and while his fame grew bigger so too did his level of ugliness. Relegated primarily to villainous roles, Lo was usually in “relatively ugly” mode. It was only on special occasions that he’d trot out his “fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down” brand of ugly, which relied heavily on things like an excessively oily face, stomach-churning amounts of greasiness in the hair, and lots of close-ups of his mouth (and his mangy little mustache) when he’s doing stuff like eating chicken. Revenge of the Zombies may be his crowning achievement in the uglies, because it combines all the oiliness of the above-mentioned grades of ugly with a vile, flared 1970′s wardrobe.
Being ugly doesn’t stop him from being a fan-favorite, though. Think of him as the Ron Jeremy of kungfu. The fact that he lacks the dashing good looks of Ti Lung makes him someone more real to most of us. We also understand that almost no guy looks good when he’s shot in lots of sweaty close-ups. All of this, of course, ignores the fact that ugly or not, Lo Lieh was one hell of a performer; a great actor and a dazzling martial artist. He could play anything from the hero to the villain (the Shaw Bros’ most dependable baddie next to Wang Lung-wei) and even the comic relief (a la his role in the terrific Buddha’s Palm). He is one of the great stars of kungfu’s gritty Golden Age.
Both he and Ti Lung are in top form here. When the two rivals find themselves under attack from a legion of mysterious goons, they put aside their friendly attempts to kill one another and join forces to see who is behind the would-be assassination. They soon discover that the evil Lord Yu is trying to kill the both of them off. Why? Well, to rule the Martial World of course. Fu and Yen are the only two swordsman who can challenge the evil lord’s attempts to bully everyone. Key to his plans for domination is a sacred weapon called the Peacock Dart, which isn’t so much a dart as it is a massively powerful collection of grenades in the shape of a peacock’s tail fan. Needless to say, Fu is judged trustworthy enough to possess the dart, but the weapon’s owner also sends his daughter Yu-cheng (Ching Li) on the quest to put an end to Lord Yu’s evil ways – a quest that has always been difficult since no one actually knows who Lord Yu is, though they do know he employs some the most lethal assassins the Martial World has ever beheld.
Tops among Yu’s henchmen is the aforementioned Devil Granny (played by Ha Ping). I guess to be fair, I should point out that if old people want to stop getting beat up by kungfu heroes, they should stop taking jobs where their primary goal is to start fights with kungfu heroes. I’m all for seniors in the workplace, but with some jobs, you have to accept a certain degree of being rammed through with a sword without complaining about it. All the henchmen have supernatural powers, and everyone spends a lot of time indulging in the requisite fantastic feats like disappearing into puffs of smoke and jumping through ceilings. If you were looking to get rich in medieval China and didn’t want to resort to becoming a corrupt official, you could always go into roof repair. It seems not a movie goes by where someone doesn’t go flying up through the roof.
Our trio of heroes manage to overcome most of the obstacles thrown in front of them, and those obstacles are plenty creative. During one scene, our trio of heroes find themselves standing amid a bustling market where no one is moving because they’ve all been killed so efficiently that they remain sitting exactly as they were the second before they died. Another encounter finds our heroes in a battle set atop a giant chessboard, with Devil Granny on the sidelines cooking people and cackling incessantly. I guess if I met an old person who indulged in cannibalism and never stopped cackling, maybe I’d take a swing at her too. So Fu is forgiven for beating up old people. Other opponents include a transgender kungfu master, a saucy monk, a duo of lute-playing female assassins, and several dozen nameless lackeys. One conflict after another leads to the big showdown with the enigmatic Lord Yu in his elegant estate. Once again, Fu gets to beat up some old people!
Devil Granny is a wonderful example of just how over-the-top creative Kung Lu’s original stories were. Not every genre of film can give you an elderly character who drinks human blood, boils people alive, and wheels around a food cart armed with explosive Thunder Bullet weapons and filled with armed henchmen waiting to burst out at a moment’s notice. Her catering cart could give Ogami Ito’s baby cart a run for it’s money, that’s for sure. People tend to attribute the whole “quirky assemblage of characters” thing to a post-Tarantino cinema landscape, but kungfu films were filling themselves with deadly killer hermaphrodites (or whatever those guys become when their kungfu makes them change sexes), naked lesbian assassins, and flesh-gobbling grandmas long before it was cool.
Of course, this being a Chor Yuen film based on a Kung Lu novel, nothing and no one is ever exactly as it seems. Fu must contend with the never-ending legion of killers who possess all sorts of crazy supernatural martial arts ability, and at the same time must unravel the complicated plot and figure out who is on his side, and who is just trying to kill him. Ching Li, of course, we know we can always trust, but what about that Lo Lieh?
As with the other films in the Chor Yuen – Lu Kung collection, which includes Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat, this film strikes a perfect blend of martial arts madness, fantastic supernatural shenanigans, a dash of eroticism, and a mystery plot so convoluted that it takes multiple viewings to comprehend everything and catch all the little nuances. There are several instances where the plot twist is overly obvious, and Yuan seems aware of this. That doesn’t stop them from making the twist, which toys with disappointing you until he subverts the whole thing and twists the twist. He’s the Chubby Checker of martial arts films. Despite some storyline curveballs, Magic Blade is probably the easiest of Chor Yuen’s films to follow. The plot keeps you on your toes, but it’s fairly straight-forward and concentrates less on the mystery and more on Ti Lung chopping people to bits in the name of righteousness. It’s relative accessibility compared to many of the other Chor Yuen/Kung Lu films makes it a perfect place to start if you’re new to the director.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Chor Yuen’s films is his ability to take the same cast, same crew, and come up with something fresh each time. Although they all share certain similarities, each of the director’s films has a unique feel that is generated primarily from the characters. Because Fu is a serious, no-nonsense kind of guy, Magic Blade has a serious, no-nonsense kind of feel despite all the unbelievable things going on. Although he plays essentially the same type of character (the superhuman, can-do-no-wrong swordsman) in Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat, Ti Lung goes for a more relaxed, playful characterization resulting in a lighter-feeling film (once again, despite all the mayhem). The fact that Chor Yuen never lets action steal the movie from his characters means he can tweak each film and make it different, something Chang Cheh was unable to do thanks to his dedication to the character as a symbol rather than as a human being.
And where his character in subsequent Chor Yuen films is regal in appearance, Ti Lung’s Fu is a more rough and tumble sort of guy. His look, especially the scruff and the poncho, seems derived directly from Clint Eastwood’s appearance in Sergio Leone’s Western epics like The Good the Bad and the Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars. Westerns, kungfu films, and Japanese samurai movies all share a common, somewhat tangled bond that keeps them forever linked to one another and allows new fans of each genre to discover the connections without ever growing tired of the game. So Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, inspires Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars, which in turn inspires the look of a character in Magic Blade, which coincidentally stars Lo Lieh who would later star alongside Lee Van Cleef in the Western/kungfu cross-over film Stranger and the Gunfighter. All three genres of film deal with the same basic types of characters and even underwent similar changes in theme and appearance (the transformation of the Western from the heroic, polished old days to the gritty, sweaty Leone era, the move of kungfu films from the classical settings and theatrical structure of the early films to the greasy, grimy grittiness of the 1970s, and samurai films from the lofty Kurosawa classics to the gore and blood-soaked Lone Wolf and Cub films). All that Magic Blade is missing is Walter Matheau running up behind people and shooting them in the back with a double barreled shotgun.
As was his trademark, Chor Yuen drapes his film in eye-popping beauty, and I don’t just mean Betty Tien Ni and Ching Li (or Ti Lung, for the ladies…or Lo Lieh for the crazy people). Relying almost exclusively on sets within the Shaw Bros sprawling compound, Chor Yuen is able to control every last detail of each scene, filling them with lavish decorations and splashes of color and augmenting them with inventive camerawork that shows once again a kinship with the outrageous gothic horrors of Italian director Mario Bava. Only one sequence is filmed outdoors, an encounter in a misty forest and hillside. There is an additional scene set in an open-air courtyard, but even that is strictly controlled. The rest is on sets and allows Chor Yuen to show off the highly stylized look.
Matching the director’s vision pace for pace is the superb cast lead by the always-charismatic Ti Lung. For my money, he was the number one martial arts star in the history of the Shaw Bros studio, and nowhere is his prowess both physical and dramatic. The only problem here is the same one he has in Clans of Intrigue – his character is so bad-ass and so skilled that you never doubt the outcome of a conflict. Fu is always one step ahead of the game, sometimes in the most outrageous ways possible (wait until you see what he can do with his sinus cavity). It’s still fun watching him find a solution to every problem, but sometimes you wish he’d be caught off-guard at least once. Even when he’s getting beaten up, it’s because it’s all part of his plan. Or so he says. At least here he does have to fight a lot. In his Chu Liu-Hsiang role, Ti Lung seems almost along for the ride, just to amuse himself and relieve the boredom of living in a floating boat-palace where his every need is attended to by a trio of beautiful women. Fu at least has to work for a living, and pretty much every fight scene involves his character.
Lo Lieh is also in top form as Yen. Lo Lieh is known for playing villainous roles, and the movie exploits his reputation as the heavy to its advantage. He does a decent heroic turn here, but his past typecasting keeps you wondering whether or not you can trust him. Ching Li has a lot less to do here than in other outings with Ti Lung and Chor Yuen, but she’s always a sight for sore eyes. Speaking of which, Chor Yuen does like to pepper his movies with nudity, and we get here an actress who doffs her duds and orders two nubile nymphs to make out with each other in a bid to bring Fu over to the dark side. Personally, if I was Fu I’d be much happier with sort of attack than with Devil Granny trying to cut my throat. Like Fu, I would valiantly endure the onslaught of beautiful maidens performing wanton acts of carnality. Perhaps someday he and Sir Galahad from Monty Python and the Holy Grail can go a-questing together.
The supporting cast is made up of an endless parade of Shaw Bros. stalwarts and recognizable faces. Their job is primarily to laugh and kill, and next time you’re on a job interview and they ask you what your previous job duties entailed, simply say, “I was there to laugh and kill.” Ku Feng, who also appears alongside Ti Lung in Clans of Intrigue and Legend of the Bat, plays one of the killers, and Fan Mei Sheng, who starred as “the smiling fat guy” in just about every movie ever made, plays the evil yet jolly monk. Devil Granny Ha Ping had a long career playing a surprising variety of characters. Sometimes she’s an aging brothel matron (as in Human Lanterns), and other times she plays a character named auntie, Mrs. someone, or someone’s mother or grandmother. As far as I can tell, she was born playing elderly characters, sort of like Peter Cushing. Very few of her other roles allowed for this much toothless cackling and eating of human flesh, though.
What really makes this film a fan favorite, though, is the amount of swordplay it showcases. While other Chor Yuen films rely heavily on whodunit plotting and feature numerous scenes of people trying to figure stuff out, Magic Blade sports a much faster, blood-soaked pace. The fight scenes come fast and furious but never so endlessly that they become boring. The choreography by Tong Gai is exhilarating and definitely ahead of its time. Most filmmakers and action choreographers wouldn’t learn how to shoot fight scenes this fluid and exciting until well into the 1980s. Although the movie is full of fantastic elements, when the fights get down to the nitty gritty, they’re pretty realistic within the realm of realism that includes the ability for a single guy to ward of dozens of armed attackers. But he doesn’t fly or shoot lasers out of his eyes. If your top demand from a martial arts film is breathtaking action, then Magic Blade has you covered.
Magic Blade was the second pairing of Chor Yuen with the literary source material of Kung Lu (the first was Killer Clans, released the same year). It was the beginning of a long and impressive series of films in which the director relied on the author’s martial arts novels, usually with Ti Lung cast in the lead and Ching Li as the supporting female heroine. Ti Lung would even reprise the role of Fu Hung-hsu in a cameo for Chor Yuen’s Death Duel starring David Chiang’s younger brother, Derek Yee. Chiang and Lung were, of course, practically inseparable as the dynamic duo of director Chang Cheh’s output throughout the 1970s. Chiang himself (along with many of the Shaw Bros. stars) has a particularly insane cameo in the same film.
Although lost for many years as a result of never being released on video, the recently released DVDs from Celestial offer fans of martial arts films a look at the work of the man who was arguably the best martial arts director working at the studio, and one of the best martial arts directors of all time. He took the classical wuxia tradition of directors like King Hu and Chang Cheh in the 1960s and revolutionized it with his eye for artistry, beauty, and frenetically paced action sequences. Without Chor Yuen, there might very well have never been a Hong Kong new wave, and the no-holds-barred swordsman pieces of the 1980s would have looked very different had it not been for Chor Yuen’s pioneering work. As an example of the director and author’s love of complicated plots and nonstop storyline twists, Magic Blade is a fine specimen. As an example of the director’s mastery of staging fast-paced, action-packed swordplay drama, Magic Blade simply cannot be beat.
Where to start with this one? First off, it’s a mess. Not necessarily an unenjoyable mess, but a mess never the less. Comparisons to Barbarella are, at least for me, inevitable since this is once again director Roger Vadim constructing a film around pop art, outrageous fashion, and his sex kitten obsession of the week. This time around it’s French bombshell Brigitte Bardot. Granted, constructing your movie around Brigitte Bardot wearing outrageous outfits (or nothing at all) and parading around a series of equally outrageously designed space-age pop sets is certainly not a bad thing, but where Barbarella was freewheeling fun and campy enough to make the darker moments seem palatable, If Don Juan Were a Woman is possessed of a grubbier, perhaps even sleazier feel that makes the cynicism and nastiness of the characters difficult to bear. It certainly lacks the sexy-yet-innocent perverse glee of Jane Fonda’s space opera.
Bardot stars as Jeanne, a self-proclaimed man-destroyer who recounts her deeds to a young priest. Her goal in life, after deciding that men are contemptible creatures is to seduce them, then drive them to ruin and, from time to time, suicide. She does this all while living on a partially submerged boat that looks to be the end result of a fight between interior designing mods and those weird 1970s people who dressed in flowing, shiny “future wear.” Mod meets Freddie Mercury, I reckon. The script has a tendency to be so bland that this orgy of campy fashion and décor becomes the main reason to keep watching. Well that and the fact that, even a few years past her sex kitten prime, Brigitte Bardot is still a wonder to behold. She need only look at the camera to make you understand why men are willing to destroy themselves for her. Heck, I like her more for being “a bit past her prime” and showing that yep, older women can indeed still be one hell of a sight. Still, if you’r elooking for a movie to discover Brigitte Bardot and discover why so many of us old farts are, even today, prone to wobbly knees and dreamy eyes at the mention of her name, this film is a pretty bad place to start.
As I said, the movie has a real nasty streak. The woman who is abused by men to the point that she seeks to extract revenge on as many of them as possible should be a sympathetic character, but the script never really gives Bardot’s Jeanne a chance to do much that is likeable. She fancies herself, as the title suggests, something of a reincarnation of the famed 16th century lover, Don Juan. In the end, as befits a broadly drawn morality tale, she gets her comeuppance, but not before the film has indulged in numerous saucy moments that are, in reality, fairly tepid even by standards of the day. BB shines in a few erotic moments, but most the film lacks any real sexual charge. It all feels a bit…I don’t know. Tired, I suppose. I think the movie would have been better played as a farce with more drive and spirit. Instead, it takes a more serious approach and sinks under it’s own attempts to be important. Vadim was never a good director, but he had a great eye for the absurd, both in art design and storytelling. He should have indulged that predilection more in this film. Instead, it wallows not so much in its own mean-spiritedness as it does in its own tedium. It was meant to be sort of a autobiographical stab at the audiences from BB, the fading arthouse sex symbol who saw her life ravaged by tabloid attention. I guess the main problem isn’t so much the darkness as it is the fact that everything unfolds in such dull fashion.
Actually, I guess the fashion is the one thing that isn’t dull about this film.
Chalk it up to this being a French production. Where Vadim under the guidance of the Italians was wild and free, here as part of the French New Wave he is morose and dreary, a hipster whose hippest moments are behind him in the same way Bardot’s best days were behind her. He goes about making this movie devoid of joy, passion, or insight. It is clinically dry, even when Bardot is reclining naked in her big furry bed with another woman. Vadim was a stylist, and this movie relies too much on storytelling from a man who can’t really tell a story. We are left with a train wreck of a film, too listless to be pleasurable, too silly and broadly drawn to be intellectual.
But it’s not all drudgery here. There’s enough eye candy on display to keep a viewer like me marveling at the tacky beauty of it all. And while they call her over the hill or past her prime, the way I see it Bardot, then age 39 or 40 is still plenty in her prime. This was, however, her last film, but I guess my taste for older women biases my views. Give me a woman in her thirties any day over those babbling young things, especially if that woman in her thirties looks like, say, Brigitte Bardot or Nicole Kidman. Even with her icy, detached performance here, Bardot still can’t help but smolder. Too bad for this film that nothing every actually ignites. There’s plenty to dicuss when it comes to Brigitte Bardot, and God knows we love her even in a bad film, but I think I’ll hold off on that discussion until we get to one of her better films (we have both Contempt and And God Created Woman coming up soon).
Of course when it comes to eye-popping art design, Vadim was an ace, and this movie, despite its failings elsewhere, is still quite beautiful to behold. Nice cinematography helps highlight the truly cracked vision of this world that exists somewhere between the swingin’ sixties and the self-destructively indulgent seventies. The look of the film is enough to merit slogging all the way through to the end, but just barely. And when you get there, the end is pretty goofy anyway.
Still, I can’t help but defer to the quirkiness of it all. As big a mess as it is, as haggard and confused and tired as it may seem in some parts, there is still something curiously alluring about the film. It’s like probing a cold sore with your tongue. You know it just hurts, but you can’t stop doing it. Of course, I’d much rather probe Brigitte Bardot with my tongue but then, well, I’ve crossed the line, haven’t I?
You can’t overstate the impact Bruce has had on modern pop culture. Stars have come and gone, names like Jackie Chan, Clint Eastwood, and Jet Li are all familiar marquee names, but Bruce exists above all of them. Take a walk down any street in New York and you will see half a dozen shops with some sort of Bruce Lee merchandise. T-shirts, posters, scrolls, black velvet paintings, statues, action figures, movies — pretty much anything. I even saw one of those blacklight posters featuring the “holy trinity” of Bruce Lee, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley.
And these aren’t just kungfu film specialty stores or Chinatown curiosity shops. Blacks, Puerto Ricans, whites, Dominicans, Chinese, Vietnamese, you name it and their culture has embraced The Dragon. No other action film star occupies the spot Bruce has obtained in our society. He is a modern day Greek hero, a Jason or Perseus, a man whose legend has grown to epic proportions. So, the obvious question from many people is “Why Bruce Lee?” What was it about this brash, good-looking young guy that made him such a phenomenon? Why Lee and not Ti Lung? Why Lee and not anyone else in the world? The answer is equal parts timing, skill, charm, and mystery.
Bruce hit the scene at a time when a lot of people in both Hong Kong and the United States were desperate for an underdog hero, especially one who wasn’t white. The world was gorged on James Bond rip-offs and sanitized Westerns full of chiseled white guy good looks. The Vietnam War, Civil Rights movement, the Native American awareness movements that became things like the Wounded Knee siege — all these cultural elements were combining in an explosive wave of disillusionment with the way things used to be. The urban communities in America, who were hit especially hard by both the Vietnam War (since so many soldiers were minorities) and the frustration faced by the Civil Rights movement. With real-life heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. being gunned down, people were looking for heroes somewhere. Up until then Hollywood hadn’t been providing them with anything.
Then came Bruce Lee. It’s no coincidence that Lee hit the scene around the same time that black action stars like Fred Williamson, Richard Roundtree, and Pam Grier were starting to make a big impact on the scene. People were fed up with Bond and John Wayne. They wanted someone more modern, more bad-ass, and most importantly, they wanted someone to whom they could relate. Bruce wasn’t white. He wasn’t big. His characters were not rich or influential or successful. He was an everyman for all other men who could not see themselves in the previous set of American heroes. He was different, and he was the underdog.
In each of Lee’s characters, there was plenty for the disillusioned to identify with. The condescension and racism hurled at him in Fist of Fury, having to take shit from a corrupt boss in Big Boss — there were things people recognized, and things people loved seeing Lee overcome. His biggest film in the United States, Enter the Dragon was a wild James Bond type action-adventure film where the Asian was the hero rather than a silly sidekick or devious villain. It was also a movie where the black character (Jim Kelly) is a noble and heroic man of principle, while the white guy (John Saxon) is a sleaze. A lovable sleaze, but a sleaze never the less.
Bruce Lee gave people hope, goofy as that might sound, that they too could overcome the odds facing them in everyday life. They could rise above the poverty and hopelessness of their situation. When Lee died under mysterious circumstances, it cemented his place not just as a star, but as a legend. His mark on society, from his face on a t-shirt to the popularity of martial arts training as a way to cope with growing up in the inner city, will remain in place long after the names of hundreds of other stars have been forgotten.
So which of these films should be the first Bruce Lee film we review? His biggest, Enter the Dragon? How about his first, Big Boss? Or the one most everybody considers his best, Fist of Fury (aka Chinese Connection). I think we’ve explained the whole Big Boss, Fist of Fury, Chinese Connection thing, but just in case you forgot, here’s the deal: when Bruce Lee’s Hong Kong films were brought over to the US to capitalize on the success of Enter the Dragon, someone screwed up and got the titles confused. Big Boss, Lee’s first film, was mislabeled Fist of Fury. Realizing the blunder too late to fix it, distributors took the actual Fist of Fury (Lee’s second, and many say best) and retitled it Chinese Connection, probably to capitalize on the success of French Connection as well as Lee.
Since they were on a roll, they decided to also retitle Way of the Dragon, calling it Return of the Dragon and marketing it as a sequel to Enter the Dragon despite the fact that it was made before that film.
But that brings us to where we want to be, which is the movie we’ve chosen to be the first Bruce Lee film we review. We chose it because it seems to slip through the cracks a lot, and because it’s the only complete film that was written, directed, and choreographed by Lee himself. It’s an excellent movie that allows Lee to showcase not just his incredible martial arts skill, but also his ability as an actor. Most people like to write Lee off as a one-trick pony, perhaps the best martial artist to ever live but a pretty rigid actor. Those people obviously go along with hearsay rather than actually investigating the matter themselves. People who claim Lee could only act enraged and couldn’t handle comedy should pay closer attention to this film, in which Lee gets to shine as a comedian as well as an all-around kungfu bad-ass. Bruce even gets to do stuff that results in that “wah wah waaaahhhh” comedy music!
We begin at an airport in beautiful Roma — that’s Rome to you non-cosmopolitan types out there. Bruce, playing Tang Long, is something of a country bumpkin from the rural land outside Hong Kong. Right away, Lee is great at invoking a sense of sympathy for his character. I mean, we all know Lee is the baddest man to ever walk the planet, but he plays his scenes here so realistically awkward and embarrassed that you feel bad yet amused for his fish-out-of-water character. He goes to an airport lounge and, not being able to read the menu, end sup ordering about six bowls of soup. Of course, he is still Bruce Lee, so he saves face by finishing them all, which allows him to launch a series of “must go to the toilet” jokes that will be a sure-fire comedy hit with the kids for years to come.
Lee also mines comedy gold in the “goofy effeminate guy with bad toupee” department. Bruce was, in fact, a huge fan of the Dean Martin – Jerry Lewis comedy team and the many films they did together. While Bruce’s sense of humor is not quite as slapstick (and far less annoying) than Jerry Lewis, you can still see the influence it had on him. The main difference here is that Bruce is both the goofy, out-of-place Jerry Lewis and the suave, competent Dean Martin, depending on what the situation called for. Bruce definitely had a lot more depth than people gave him credit for.
After the soup skit, Bruce meets up with his cousin, played by the lovely Nora Mao (Fist of Fury, Big Boss), his frequent co-star. Nora had written her uncle back in Hong Kong to explain that they were having a lot of trouble with thugs at the restaurant in Rome. She expected him to send a lawyer, and instead he sent Tang Long, which Nora isn’t exactly happy about as Tang is ignorant of big city culture, especially in the West. Tang Long explains that, while he may be a bit dim, he can help out in other ways.
He gets to show everyone his “other ways” when the thugs show up at the restaurant to smash things up and convince the Chinese to sell their land. It’s always something like that, isn’t it? The Man and The Mob are always trying to build malls on land owned by kungfu schools, community centers, and restaurants. It’s a tried and true film formula, but it’s also a comment on gentrification. In my old neighborhood, you could make a movie about The Gap trying to buy up land belonging to community gardens and outreach centers. Same shit, different era. I think The Gap stuck mostly to financial strong-arming, though, rather than sending thugs to beat up a guy named Pops.
Realizing that the thugs, one of whom I swear is Oliver Platt, won’t listen to words, Bruce decides to speak with kungfu. He thrashes them soundly in a great sequence. Great not just because Lee is so fast and crisp with his art, but also because Lee’s character undergoes a wonderful transformation. When dealing with the restaurant and the city of Rome, Tang Long is lost and vulnerable. But when he steps into the back alley to beat the shit out of the no-goodniks, he immediately becomes confident and in control. Ass kicking is a universal language, after all.
In between visits by the thugs, who keep arming themselves heavier and heavier only to still get the shit kicked out of them by Bruce, the film takes full advantage of its Rome locations. Hong Kong movies that filmed outside of Hong Kong were still very rare in the 1970s, so Lee takes in as much of Rome as can be crammed into a few “travelin’ all around” montages. Then it’s back to the alley behind the restaurant to kick ass on some more thugs. This is a pretty weak-ass mafia, I must say. But I guess they’re not the big-time guys we see in films like The Godfather. After all, those guys are controlling international drug trafficking, arms smuggling, and resort casinos. These guys are trying to muscle out a restaurant. It’s sort of like how most leprechauns get to guard gold and countless treasures, but Lucky the Leprechaun has to guard a bowl of Lucky Charms cereal.
In a theme that is present in all of Lee’s Hong Kong films, he teaches other Chinese — other minorities — not to be ashamed of themselves or their heritage. When he arrives in Rome, the staff at the restaurant is practicing Japanese karate because they feel Chinese martial arts are weak and embarrassing. Once they see Lee in action, however, it fills them with pride and reinvigorates their interest in their own culture. This was an important theme for a film in 1972, and it’s a large part of why Bruce Lee became so popular. He fights for the right not to be ashamed of the color of your skin, and he shows that minorities can survive the pressures put on them by the established white majority. They can rise above racism by learning, relying upon, and believing in themselves.
Once the boss finally catches on that his thugs are a bunch of fat-ass losers, he hires some karateka bad-asses in the form of Bob Wall and Ing Sik-wang (Stoner, When Tae Kwan Do Strikes, Young Master). Wall is best known for his role as the right evil O’Hara in Enter the Dragon. After a while, Bruce gets sick of beating up the thugs, who just never seem to learn their lesson. So he goes to their headquarters, beats them up there, then does a very impressive kick in which he leaps up into the air and smashes an overhead lamp, completely without the use of tricks or wires. To accomplish the same simple but impressive kick these days would require Yeun Wo-ping to use ten miles of wires, pulleys, and CGI effects.
Pissed off about their light, the thugs hire their own kungfu bad-ass in the form of Chuck Norris. I know, I know. You guys here Chuck’s name and it makes you grimace and roll your eyes. Great. Now we gotta watch Lone Wolf McQuade. But take heart, li’l buckaroos. There is a vast difference between Chuck Norris the Bruce Lee opponent and Chuck Norris the Texas Ranger. For one, bash him all you want, but Chuck Norris was an amazing martial artist at his peak (which is when this movie was made, and why Bruce chose Norris). Legit martial artists and kungfu fighters all recognized Norris as possessing one of the fastest, deadliest spinning back kicks in the world. Judging Chuck’s abilities based on his American films is like, well, judging Cynthia Rothrock by her American films or Sammo Hung by his work on Martial Law.
The finale sees Lee face off against Norris in the maze-like arches of the Roman Coliseum, invoking the not-so-subtle image of modern-day gladiators. The ensuing battle is one of the best kungfu one-on-ones ever filmed, with the Benny Urquidez – Jackie Chan fight in Wheels On Meals being a distant second. Part of why the fight between Norris and Lee is so great is because it hurts. In 1972, kungfu film choreography was still pretty basic outside of Lee’s films, and a lot of the over-choreographed fights, while looking spectacular, lacked any sense of injury or power, especially when the guys would hit each other over and over with no real sign of damage.
When Lee and Norris hit each other, you can feel it. Their blows carry weight, and the weight shows. It’s obviously a result of two legitimate martial arts bad-asses being involved rather than two guys trained in Peking Opera, dance, or stage fighting. Of course, despite all the flesh-pounding-flesh action, the most painful scene comes when Lee uses Norris’ thick, Piltdown Man-esque coating of body hair (it’s possible he was one of the cavemen laughing at farts I talked about earlier) as a weapon, ripping out a big chunk of chest hair (he could have used a little off the back as well). Of course, ripping out a man’s chest hair makes you bad, but then proceeding to blow it into the man’s face makes you bad-ass. It’s the little things, you see.
There’s some end-of-the film shenanigans after the fight before Lee wraps everything up and heads back to Hong Kong. The film is absolutely superb. Lee shines as both an actor and a fighter, and his skill and charm should be more than enough to win over pretty much anyone. Watching this movie, you’ll have little question left in your mind why Lee has become to celebrated by so many different types of people. One could even take the Civil rights slogan “We Shall Overcome,” and apply it to the work of Bruce Lee.
Bruce’s direction is good. Nothing overly inventive or unique, but more than competent for a first-time director. It’s a bit raw at times, though he really shines at filming the fight scenes, which probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Sammo Hung, in many ways a student and master of Bruce Lee’s, would be the one director more than any of the others who would realize Lee’s ambitions in filming and directing kungfu films. What Lee began in Way of the Dragon and never finished in Game of Death, Sammo would carry to fruition in films like Knockabouts, Prodigal Son, and Project A. Makes you wonder what the “Three Brothers” of Sammo, Yuen Biao, and Jackie Chan would have been like if it had been four brothers, and one of them was Bruce Lee.
Way of the Dragon, aside from being some of Lee’s finest stuff, is notable for launching the film career of Chick Norris as well. I don’t actually know if this is a good thing, but I guess it was good for Chuck. He went on after this film to play a bigger role in another Hong Kong actioner, Slaughter in San Francisco, aka Yellow-Faced Tiger. That movie gave him ample opportunity to throw back his head and laugh in an evil fashion while he stood with arms akimbo. He also got to kick people. From there, it was the big-time, as he went on to play heroes in one crappy film after another, thus endearing him to the American public. If you have to watch any Chuck Norris film besides Way of the Dragon, make sure it’s The Octagon, because that at least has some ninjas in it.
Chuck Norris and Bob Wall would reunite many years later to make the film Hero and the Terror, and even later to appear as themselves in Sidekicks, a film best left undiscussed. Bruce, of course, went on to make Enter the Dragon, the film that would become his ladder to the realm of modern-day legend and launch the kungfu craze in America. Lee’s contributions to the genre are sundry. He gave it it’s banner star. He gave it the refinement of fight choreography, which up until Lee had been stiff and stage-like. He gave it comedy and heart. He gave it international appeal. He gave it Bruce Lee. A man full of anxieties, flaws, genius, ambition, fear, and fearlessness. A man whose name and face would become ubiquitous.