World, you spoil us. No matter how much we’ve seen — and we have seen a lot — you always have something else waiting in the wings to delight and make jaws hang slack. Martial arts films are especially fecund soil for stories that operate in the far margins of loony concepts, made all the stranger by the fact that the most surreal and outrageous scenarios are usually handled with the utmost banality of attitude, as if Chinese skinheads kidnapping Abraham Lincoln during World War II is the sort of mundane shit that happens every day. What’s more, there’s something so astoundingly crackpot in the sorts of weirdness with which these films confront the viewer that it’s difficult to fully grasp the sort of thinking that led to such ideas in the first place. This is an honest, sincere wierdness, not the same as, say, the sort of predictable, labored, and juvenile weirdness of a Troma film or one of the endless stream of Japanese splatter-comedies that plague the exploitation film market of that once proud industry. The sort of mind that dreams up, “how about she’s a naked schoolgirl, and then a chainsaw shoots out her butt?” I know people rank that high on the “what the hell?” meter, but to me it’s a very rote sort of goofiness, the kind of thing that any decently perverse or stoned teenager would dream up.
Whether it appeals to you is neither here nor there, but for me at least, it’s a very comprehensible and almost even crassly market-researched sort of insanity. I get where it comes from, and I get at whom such gags are aimed. But something like Dragon Lives Again? Or Fantasy Mission Force? Or any number of supremely surreal Taiwanese action films? The scenarios they dream up seem so far beyond the pale of any recognizable target market or human way of thinking. If Troma and Japanese splatter films come across as the product of smoking a lot of pot, then something like Dragon Lives Again is more along the lines of what comes out of a particularly freaky acid trip. Keep in mind, however, that even the strangest and most inspiring of acid trips for the person tripping can come across as shockingly tedious for the person to whom the story is being told, and sadly, as much gloriously weird stuff is contained by Dragon Lives Again is offset considerably by interminable scenes of flat comedy and shenanigans.
As one can perhaps guess from the title, this is yet another entry in the long line of Bruce Lee exploitation films that sought to cash in on his legend in the years after his death. “Bruceploitation,” as we lovingly refer to it, comes in a few basic flavors: the “biopic,” the “further adventures of,” and the “in name only.” The biopics are just that — films that proffer to tell the story of some aspect of Bruce Lee’s life. They run the gamut in terms of both quality and reliability, sometimes sticking to facts or, if not facts, at least well-known rumors about the life and death of Bruce Lee; and other times just making crazy nonsense up and claiming it happened. In particular, these films are fascinated with his time in Hong Kong (being Hong Kong films, after all) and, more particularly, his supposed affair with Hong Kong B-movie bombshell Betty Ting Pei. Bruce Li was a master of such films, and some of the more notable titles include Bruce Lee: A Dragon Story (starring Bruce Li) and one of my personal favorites, the sleazy Shaw Brothers biopic I Love You, Bruce Lee, aka His Last Days, His Last Nights or Bruce Lee and I, and starring young Danny Lee (The Killer, Inframan) as Bruce and Bruce’s alleged real-life mistress Betty Ting Pei as herself. It’s worth seeing not just because of the novelty factor of Betty playing herself, but also because even when making a sleazy Brucesploitation film, the Shaws still make sure the movie looks like an A-list picture.
The second type are the “further adventures of” movies. These are the films that try to pass themselves off as actual Bruce Lee movies starring the actual Bruce Lee. Given the legendary status Bruce attained, many people find it hard to believe he only starred in four films. That makes it pretty easy to convince people that any number of cash-in quickies were legitimate Bruce Lee films. This was accomplished either by casting a Bruce Lee look-alike or by inserting stock footage of the real Bruce Lee (usually unused clips and outtakes). Usually both. The most infamous of these films was Game of Death, and it’s the most infamous because it’s the one closest to being a real Bruce Lee movie. Lee was in the process of making it when he died. Some of the footage he shot — most notably his battle up the pagoda of death that culminates with his fight against Kareem Abdul-Jabar — was taken and padded out with new footage shot by director Robert Clouse (Enter the Dragon). The new footage centered mostly around Gig Young and his thugs puttering around, and the role of Bruce Lee was filled by stock footage, look-alike Kim Tai Jong, and at the lowest point, still photos of Bruce Lee’s face pasted over another actor’s face.
Finally, there are the “in name only” exploitation films. These were movies released under normal circumstances in Hong Kong or Taiwain that were later retitled so as to trick people into thinking they were Bruce Lee movies. If a shady producer was at least a little motivated, he might tack on a newly shot prologue with some stock footage of Bruce Lee in and narration saying something to the effect of, “Bruce Lee had a lot of students, and this is the story of one of their adventures.” And then we would drop any pretense of it being a Bruce Lee movie and just move on to whatever the original film had been. Thus She nu yu chao, also known as Snake Island, suddenly becomes Bruce Li in New Guinea, or Nan yang tang ren jie becomes Bruce Lee the Invincible.
As befits the weirdness of its story, Dragon Lives Again falls somewhere between the second and third type of of Bruceploitation. It stars part-time Bruce Lee imitator Bruce Leung Siu-Lung (Kungfu Hustle, Gallants), but the movie isn’t trying to make you think he actually is the actor Bruce Lee… despite the fact that in the plot he is stated as being Bruce Lee. So he is a Bruce Lee imitator playing a fictionalized version of the actor he is known for imitating, though in this instance you are not meant to think he is the actual Bruce Lee. Got it? The movie even explains away the difference in appearance by stating that people’s body and face change after they die and go to hell. Oh yeah — I should mention this movie is set after Bruce Lee’s death and begins with the actor’s arrival in Hell. The King of Hell (Tong Ching, The Jade Raksha, Inter-Pol, Angel Strikes Again) is upset at Bruce’s corpse, mostly because the gigantic erection it is sporting (!) is getting the king’s wives all hot and bothered. It turns out that the erection is just Bruce’s signature nunchuka, but rest assured this will not be the films final foray into an obsession with Bruce’s little dragon.
When Bruce wakes up, he and the King get off on the wrong foot. Once he realizes he is in hell, Bruce has a ten-second crisis of conscience — he even remarks that should have treated his wife Linda better (no idea if this was original dialogue or just added for the dub, as many Bruceploitation films seem to discount Linda as a gwailo dalliance Bruce would have eventually dropped in favor of a nice Chinese girl) — before retrieving his numchucks and heading off to explore Hell. Hell, incidentally looks exactly like the backlot sets used to film every kungfu film. It even has that rock quarry people loved to fight in. While enjoying a peaceful meal, Bruce is interrupted by famed blind Japanese swordsman Zatoichi and his goons, James Bond (Alexander Grand, Mighty Peking Man, Tattoo Connection) and Clint Eastwood (Bobby Canavarro, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, Tattoo Connection). The three of them are the local thugs who like to hassle Hell’s peasants, and it’s up to Bruce and his new pals, Popeye (Eric Tsang!), Kwai Chang Caine, and the One-Armed Swordsman (Chang Li, Return of the Kung Fu Dragon, Return of the Bastard Swordsman) to put them in their place.
Yeah, I should probably mention that while Bruce Lee is in hell as famous actor Bruce Lee, the rest of hell seems occupied mostly by fictional characters. Clint Eastwood is the one exception, even though Clint Eastwood wasn’t dead at the time and the movie can’t decide if the character is Clint Eastwood or Clint Eastwood’s character The Man With No Name. Whatever the case, and disregarding the nudity and dick jokes, it makes this movie sort of like one of those stories where a kid falls asleep in a library and has an adventure with Tom Sawyer, King Arthur, and let’s say Lady Chatterley. I half expected the end of this movie to be Linda Lee rousing Bruce from his slumber next to a book called Favorite Bedtimes Stories, and Bruce thinking it was all just a dream until he finds Popeye’s corn cob pipe lying on the floor!
Anyway, Bruce goes about his business while Zatoichi, Bond, and The Man With No Name return to the lair of The Godfather (Shin Il Lung) and Emmanuelle (someone credited only as Jenny). They are all part of a cabal, it turns out, dedicated to overthrowing the King of Hell and taking over. Frankly, this isn’t a particularly villainous plot, because the King of Hell seems like he’s pretty terrible at his job. But what can he do? The King is impotent and his wives are horny, and he has to endure them writhing around in their communal bubble bath gossiping about Bruce Lee’s sexual prowess and the size of the movie star’s penis. Oddly, the banter between the King’s wives provides Bruceploitation with its most accurate information regarding the real-life Bruce Lee, as they mention his film roles and life as stunt coordinator and martial arts teacher to guys like James Coburn and Steve McQueen. Sadly, neither Flint nor Bullit show up to assist Bruce in his afterlife adventure. The group hatches a plan to use Emmanuelle’s legendary sexuality to seduce Bruce and either recruit him to their cause or soften him up for the kill, which will be done by their legion of skeleton suit-clad minions. Before too long, Bruce is having to juggle the amorous advances of both Emmanuelle and the wives of the Hell King.
Eventually, the villains just go after the King himself, and for some reason, Bruce leaps to the inept and cruel tyrant’s defense. He also dresses like Kato from The Green Hornet for no reason other than why the hell not? It all culminates in a big throw down in the usual rock quarry, with Bruce taking on skeleton goons, the assortment of fictional character villains, a Chinese guy with a French accent and a beret, and of course Count Dracula. When the King of Hell decides Bruce is too big a threat to the power of the throne, he betrays the actor and sends his right hand man and an army of mummies to do away with the martial arts star. By that time, pretty much nothing the movie throws against Bruce could surprise the viewer, so you just shrug and think, “Well obviously he’s going to get attacked by a gang of mummies.”
Dragon Lives Again is a deceptive movie. Taken in screencap form and judged only by its roster of characters, it does indeed seem supremely weird. Storywise, however, it’s actually pretty straight-forward, and the afterlife setting isn’t nearly as surreal as it could be since this movie was too cheap to shoot anywhere other than the standard issue kungfu movie restaurant sets and that rock quarry. I mean, I don’t want to undersell the silliness of a movie in which Bruce Lee teams up with Popeye to fight James Bond while banging Emmanuelle, but don’t let still photos trick you into thinking this movie is a loony as you expect it to be. Even on a shoestring budget, they could have put a little more effort into things. Mario Bava made a phantasmagoric masterpiece of art design with no money when he directed Hercules in the Haunted World, but that’s because he actually cared about the movie he was making. Dragon Lives Again is not so lofty in its aspirations, and so what could have been something really amazingly odd is instead a bit quirky but otherwise more lazy than anything else.
The copious forays into comedy don’t help move things along either. Even a cheap and lazy movie can get by if it has good fight scenes, and despite being saddled with the Bruce Lee clone curse, Bruce Leung could definitely deliver an awesome fight scene. And he does get to heat things up at the end, but until then we get a couple short gimmicky fights and a lot of sitting around, walking around, or talking about Bruce Lee’s dick. They throw in some nudity to keep you interested, but even the nudity is lazy and uninteresting — and believe me, nudity has to really be uninteresting for me to call it such. Dragon Lives Again lacks the manic energy of the finest insane kungfu movies have to offer, and instead of inspiring the head-clutching “I can’t believe this crazy shit is happening” reaction generated by something like Fantasy Mission Force or any of the many Pearl Cheung Ling films of which we are such big fans, it really just hands over a sort of “well, Popeye was in it, so that was sort of amusing” shrug.
It’s not all bad. I mean, the novelty of seeing Bruce Lee team up with Popeye and the Kwai Chang Caine to fight James Bond and Dracula is worth the price of a viewing, even if only once. And when he’s allowed to cut loose and actually engage in some straight-forward kungfu, Bruce Leung shows why he was able to rise above the Brucesploitation stigma and earn a name for himself as a legitimate martial arts movie bad-ass. Director Law Kei was not a director of particular consequence, and most of the movies I’ve seen with him as director have been passable without being especially interesting despite occasional forays into awkwardly sleazy territory (who can forget young Sammo Hung leering and licking his lips an inch away from some poor woman’s pubic hair in End of the Wicked Tigers?). Eventually, Law ended up making softcore films like Seven Sexual Maniacs, Emperor in Lust, and Love & Sex in Sung Dynasty. The only martial arts films he made that are really worth checking out are mostly worth checking out only for some novel quirk: Amsterdam Connection benefits from having Bolo and Jason Pai Piao in it; Bruce Lee the Invincible features star Bruce Li fighting a gorilla (the requisite man in a ratty costume shop gorilla suit); and of course there’s Dragon Lives Again.
I know I sound a little harsh on a movie that gave me Popeye, James Bond, Emmanuelle, and Bruce Leung fighting off an army of mummies. So let me reiterate that it’s well worth watching, but probably only the one time. If you go in expected the same level of batshit insanity you get from the loopiest offerings of, say, Taiwanese cinema, then you are going to be disappointed. You have to adjust your expectations and know that beyond the absurd cast of characters, this is really a pretty straight-forward movie. Bruce Leung looks good in action, as he always does, but you have to wade through a lot of dumb comedy and boring sets to earn the occasional zany cave lair or scene of Bruce Lee kicking Dracula in the face. As long as you go in prepared for a movie that isn’t nearly as lunatic as you might have been led to believe by screencaps and other reviews, I think there’s plenty to entertain in Dragon Lives Again.