It’s no secret that since the tail-end of the 1990s the Hong Kong film industry has had a rough time. After being gutted by gangsters for decades and plagued by the most rampant video piracy in the world resulting in films being available on bootleg VCD before they even opened in theaters, Hong Kong’s once illustrious cinematic juggernaut found itself on thin financial ice. Big stars were either getting to old to perform as they once had or were simply packing up and heading for the greener pastures of America. The new generation of stars, culled primarily from the ranks of teen models and pop idols, did little to spark interest in the new generation of films.
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.